I Was Only 18, What Could I Know About Life?
Life is more unpredictable than an 18-year-old valedictorian could have foreseen. Though the world looks different now; the message remains relevant.
One hundred and five pounds of trembling flesh and blood. That was me, 37 years ago. I could feel the eyes locked on me. Hundreds of them, watching and waiting to hear what I had to say. The red tassel officially moved to the right side of my graduation cap marked the apex of my youth.
Adorned in the traditional cap and gown, that red tassel swayed with each cautious step taken toward the podium. I had wisely chosen a kitten heel. The odds of a humiliating fall in front of the sea of people filling the gymnasium was tilted slightly in my favor.
My legs had somehow transformed into spaghetti noodles, shaking with an intensity that distracted me from the racing heartbeat pounding in my chest. The gymnasium was at capacity. The bleachers were full and the chairs blanketing the basketball court were all taken.
I’m standing on the stage, at the head of the table. The space at the opposite end of the basketball court, behind the far basketball goal, is packed with latecomers unable to find an empty chair. As I unfolded the paper I had been holding nervously in my hand throughout the ceremony, I’m wondering why people aren’t pointing and laughing at my quivering appendages.
You wanted this. You’ve been working toward this goal for four years and now you are at the peak. You’ve reached the summit, victorious in your quest. Valedictorian of the Class of 1982. The eyes and ears focused on you are waiting patiently, oblivious to the fear coursing through your veins.
It’s just a thing. It will happen and then it will be done. The eyes and ears will move on, quickly filing your moment deep down in their brains, a forgotten memory of heartfelt words. A memory gracefully retreating behind unceasing stimuli. Nothing to worry about. You’ve got this.
A voice left my mouth and traveled through the microphone. The voice wasn’t as shaky as I thought it would be. I gave a traditional nod of gratitude to family, friends, teachers and my fellow graduates. A lighthearted comment regarding a few select teachers and a confession to parents that advice is appreciated even if rarely heeded. Light laughter arrived in the right places. So far so good.
“I have met some of the most wonderful people in the world in this little town and I have made friendships that will last a lifetime … Friends are the people who understand us better than even our parents at times. A friend is a very special person who loves you even when you are obnoxious … It’s sad to have to say goodbye to our friends and leave our high school days behind, but it is also exciting to think of what lies ahead.”
There was much I didn’t know. The world would change in ways none of us could have predicted. Eighteen years of life is such a small segment of a lifetime.
Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and texting were nonexistent back then. High school friendships faded with remarkable ease, replaced with new connections made as life branched out from that seedling planted in 1982.
The definition of friend looks different today. The critical eye of political correctness leaves little forgiveness for mistakes. Obnoxious has been replaced with cruel; loyalty is no longer the expectation. Honor has become an old fashioned notion. Electronic friendships are more prevalent than face to face relationships.
“When we began school we were at the bottom with a long climb ahead of us to reach graduating from the 8th grade when we would be at the top … we dropped back down to the bottom as freshmen in high school … after 4 years of homework and studying, we’ve made it to the top again … Tomorrow we will probably be right back at the bottom one more time, whether it be starting college or becoming one of the working class. You will have to work hard to reach the goals that you set for yourself, and when these goals are accomplished, you can be proud that you reached the top once again.”
An 18-year-old giving advice to peers; the blind leading the blind. I had no idea what the world outside my home town was truly like. Turns out my sensible, pragmatic view of the achievement of success was more fitting for the reality of adulthood than I realized.
Goal attainment is not the end. Success is the beginning of the next challenge. Sometimes disguised as failure, success is the continuation of reaching for life. The fate of humanity depends on those who never stop moving and trying.
“Tonight marks the end of one segment of our life, and tomorrow we begin another. I know that a lot of our graduates are sad and apprehensive about leaving high school and it is to them that I read this poem that I hope will reassure them of what the future holds.”
As wonderful as school days are, so full of fun and laughter
The best and richest times you’ll know, will come a few years after …
So close the door behind you now, and as you turn away
Review the dreams and plans you’ve made, and hold them fast today …
Walk proudly as you move along, feel young and strong and free
And let your heart repeat these words, the best is yet to be.
By D. J. Faulhaber
Many chapters of life have been written since those trembling legs walked across the stage to the wooden podium, taking their deserved position at the head of the table. My life has been blessed with many new friends along the way. Technology has renewed old connections, giving us the opportunity to see each other again through a different lens.
Old friends have been lost too soon; dreams have been relished as often as relinquished. Triumph and tragedy have taken turns at the wheel. Life is more unpredictable than youthful minds could have understood.
Today, the 55-year-old me would walk with confident assertiveness across the stage in 2 1/2-inch heels. I would stand strong and steady at the podium, the wisdom of experience coursing through my veins. I would encourage my classmates to never stop dreaming, learning and growing.
The moment you give up and stop trying is when it’s over. There is still much we don’t know. There is still much to experience. Never stop embracing the opening of new chapters. The best is yet to be.
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