Column: Advice to graduates

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 4, 2007

It’s about the time of year when we celebrate graduations.

Whether it’s from kindergarten, high school and college, graduations are exciting for those who are being honored.

When I graduated from college, the speaker was Ed Meese, counselor to President Ronald Reagan.

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I couldn’t tell you what he said. I think I was too preoccupied with everything else that was going on.

But, over the years, some other commencement addresses have been memorable.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Howard University graduates, historically a college for people of color. He showed a foresight in this excerpt from the speech: “But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

“Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

In 1997, Oprah Winfrey told graduates at Wellesley College to “create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life because you become what you believe.

“When I was little girl, Mississippi, growing up on the farm, only Buckwheat as a role model, watching my grandmother boil clothes in a big, iron pot through the screen door, because we didn’t have a washing machine and made everything we had. I watched her and realized somehow inside myself, in the spirit of myself, that although this was segregated Mississippi and I was ‘colored’ and female, that my life could be bigger, greater than what I saw.”

While most commencement addresses focus on an optimistic future, Jon Stewart used humor to deliver a serious message when he spoke to the College of William and Mary in 2004.

“Let’s talk about the real world for a moment. We had been discussing it earlier, and I … I wanted to bring this up to you earlier about the real world, and this is I guess as good a time as any. I don’t really know to put this, so I’ll be blunt. We broke it.

“Please don’t be mad. I know we were supposed to bequeath to the next generation a world better than the one we were handed. So, sorry.”

Then there’s Mary Schmich’s famous column “Sunscreen,” which became a song.

Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote the column in 1997. She encourages graduates to wear sunscreen, of course. But, she also gives some other, basic advice.

“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum …

“Do one thing every day that scares you …

“Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

Whenever I feel compelled to give advice to graduates, I remind myself that any advice I have has probably already been said, and said better than I could say it. So there it is …

Tammy Leytham is editor of The Selma Times-Journal.