This has been a year of the unexpected – awards, lists, etc. I feel as though I’m in a state of perpetual astonishment. But likely the most unexpected of them all was the request by South High School – the place where I went to high school, along with my sisters, my brother, my cousins, my second-cousins, my cousin’s child and now my own children – to give the commencement address at this year’s graduation. I hesitated, and told them that I had to ask my daughter first – herself a graduate this year – and get her permission. It’s her day, after all.
Frankly, I assumed she’d say no, but she didn’t, and there I was, trying to pull together my thoughts, trying to make something useful, cohesive and true for those beautiful kids. After all, the world is big and beautiful and wonderful . . . and terrifying. And unknown. And the pathway from childhood to adulthood is full of twists and tricks and dangers. And sometimes we wander in the dark. And sometimes we are lost. And that’s okay.
Anyway, here are my remarks in their entirety, for those of you who are interested. And to the beloved class of 2017 – congratulations, my darlings. You are so beautiful and brave and big-hearted. Go make something wonderful.
Hello fellow Tigers. Congratulations. Twenty-five years ago I sat where you’re sitting, and I remember feeling overwhelmed. South High, of course, is a big place. And jangly. Full of contradictions. A place that once seemed chaotic and unknowable to me, but after four years had become familiar, protective, and even comfortable. And it’s only just when you get comfortable that it’s time to leave. So it goes. And the world – the rest of the world, and the rest of my life – felt overwhelming in its bigness and darkness. In its unknowableness. And frankly, I was afraid.
As you know, I write fantasy stories for my job – odd magicks and ill-tempered dragons and treacherous journeys into the Deep Dark Wood. It’s a strange job, I’ll admit, but I’m a strange person, and I came of age, like you, in a school that is wondrous strange, so in the end it all fits. But, really, that journey in to the Deep Dark Wood is not limited to fantasy novels and fairy tales – it’s a fundamental aspect of growing up, changing, leaving your family, and leaving your childhood behind. Welcome, all of you, to the Deep Dark Wood. Prepare to be changed forever. And it’s okay to feel afraid. It’s normal.
As for me, I stayed afraid for a while. Longer than I’d like to admit. But looking back on it, I have realized that there are bits and pieces of my unique South High experience that have led me to this life I live right now – writing books, teaching sometimes, building a career out of luck and hope and hard-work and constant re-invention – and I wanted to share them with you now. These are the tools that helped me navigate my own strange journey since leaving South High.
- Empathy. Being a writer requires empathy. It’s literally the one skill that we absolutely have to have – inhabiting the point of view of another person. South High, in its diversity of experience and culture and faith and family structure and racial identity and thought, has taught you how to be more than yourselves. Empathy forces us to understand the world in a multi-directional way – it is the most important kind of intelligence. And whether you become writers or teachers or bus drivers or doctors or social workers or stay-at-home parents or business owners, the empathy you honed at South will help you build lives that matter.
- Inventiveness. Look. No school is perfect, and South certainly has its fair share of imperfection. But those places where the gears grind and the sparks fly and the world doesn’t seem quite right are actually useful. You had to build your education. All of you. And it hasn’t been easy. And sometimes you had to invent things on your own. Or find work-arounds. Or alternatives. All of you have had to find your own way, force people to help you, and make stuff happen, and this is a useful skill. It’s a skill I’ve used as an author. It’s a skill you’ll use wherever your journey takes you.
- Uncertainty. I’m a writer, which means I live with uncertainty. My career – hell, my whole life – has been built on precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And that’s okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits. Life is uncertain. So you work with it, and make it work.
- Curiosity. South High has some of the best teachers in the state. Always has. Your teachers have taught you to ask questions and demand answers. To look past the easy stuff and embrace complexity. To seek new perspectives. To break down your sources and find the complicated and nuanced truth. Your curiosity will help you navigate, create, connect, and discover. It will help you forge a path that matters to you.
It isn’t easy. This transition. This journey. You will wander and you will fail sometimes and your hearts will break and you will get lost. That’s part of the deal. But I know you can do it. You guys are Tigers. You can literally do anything. The journey matters, so make the most of it.
And now, I have to say one more thing – not as a fellow graduate, but as a parent. Because my kid is out there in her cap and her gown and I’ve been observing the lot of you for the last four years – on sports fields and choir concerts and plays and just hanging out in the Commons with your friends. And some of you for longer than that – I’ve known some of you since Middle School, and some since fourth grade, and some since Kindergarten, and a few of you – and you know who you are – since you were babies in ECFE. And because of that, I’m going to speak on behalf of the moms here. And the dads. And the grandmas and grandpas and the aunties and uncles. And the foster parents. And social workers. And every adult who has stood by you and held your hands and loved you this whole way: Darlings, we are so proud of you. We are so, so proud of you. We knew you could do it. And we love you so much.