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It was a couple of months ago now that I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a graduation that would be taking place inside a correctional facility near here. I didn’t think much of it at the time. One of the programs my college runs is prison college courses. It makes sense. Educating people who are incarcerated makes sense on a ton of different levels.
And so I wrote the speech. I love graduation speeches. They are always a time to talk about hope and change and dreams. Even for people who are currently not in the best situation. And I have to admit, I was pretty proud of the speech that I ended up with. It was sincere but honest. It touched on the realities of their situation but not without hope.
Going to the prison was another experience entirely. I don’t know exactly what I expected. I hadn’t really thought about it to be perfectly honest. I mean, I expected guards and things I guess. Fences. Uniforms. But when I arrived the experience that I had was much more intense. From the moment that we walked into the small receiving room. All I was allowed to take with me was my notes and a photo ID. My cellphone stayed in the car.
Once we were through the small receiving area we were walked across the grounds to another small building. Inside was a tiny gymnasium that had been set up with a small platform and several tables that held around 50 graduates. They proceeded in, in the traditional blue cap and gown, to Pomp and Circumstance. It was clear that many of them were triumphant. In spite of the meager surroundings and the small group, this was definitely a graduation.
The warden spoke briefly. I wondered about my own speech. I wondered a lot about these men, why they were here, how they felt, what this all meant. I wondered how effectively you could talk about hope to people in prison, about the future, about dreams. But I did. And I meant what I said. Because from my perspective, I cannot see the reason they were there in the first place. That is the job of the police and the judge and the rest of our judicial system. I have to see the person who is going to come out. As a teacher, as a leader, that is how I can help make my world better.
The speech went well. Most of them listened with open hearts. Clearly. After the speech I was able to shake each of their hands as they received their diploma. And though graduation was over, my experience was not. As I ate I spoke with some of the people that worked with the inmates in the education program. We talked for a long time about the life they lived in prison. About the effects of being told that you are worthless. About the effects of having something to be proud of. About how the mentality of an inmate on the inside ripples to the family on the outside. About how educated men and women are less likely to end up in prison again. About hope. About value.
Toward the end of the meal that had been prepared by the culinary arts class, one of the graduates came over to the table. He waited until the director I was talking with to turned to him and then he spoke to me. He told me that he really loved my speech. He asked if it might be possible for him to have a copy of it. As he asked his eyes shifted between mine and the director’s. I opened my portfolio and handed him my copy of the speech. He looked at the director before taking it and thanked me again.
But you know, it was me who felt thankful. For a lot of things.
Last year at this time I was honored to be selected as the faculty speaker at graduation. It was a wonderful opportunity and I had a great time doing it. I’ve copied the text of the speech I gave last year. I think the message is still pretty sound. The first person that has to find you valuable is yourself, everything is easy after that. Well, easier. Read it here, or jump to the bottom to watch the video.
Welcome Graduates, Family and Friends, and Colleagues,
Graduation is one of those unique days in a persons life where we are inspired to take a moment and reflect on the events that have led us to where they we now and what might be waiting for us in the months and years ahead. You have all come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Some of you find yourselves right on track, moving toward a larger goal. Some of you find yourselves at a crossroads, with many choices ahead. All of us, have shared this time together and we are proud to see so many of you reaching your goals, working hard, and ready to move on to the next part of your lives.
In 2007 I sat in my first graduation here as a faculty member and one of the speakers that day got up and said, “This College is a part of your journey, it is not a destination.” An important thing to remember as you look toward the future, a sad thing for us here, who have gotten to know you and will miss you when the fall semester rolls around again.
I thought then of what I might say to my own students as they graduated and what I would have said to myself as I sat, like you are today, at the end of one journey and at the beginning of the next. Little did I know that day was just around the corner.
Graduates, what I would like to share with you today is this. There is nothing you cannot do. We have grown up together as spectators, watching people be successful, change the world, and make a difference. I am here today to tell you that you are those people. Do not be persuaded into thinking that success and happiness is something that happens to people. It is something that you make happen.
A mentor of mine once said to me, “Michelle, it is not the brilliant people who make a difference and are successful, it is the ones who are the most doggedly determined.”
I have had the pleasure of having so many of you in my classes and I can safely say that determination is not something that any of you lack.
Many of you harbor dreams that seem so big and fantastic that you might feel they are outside the realm of possibility. They are not. Many of you are, right now, reaping the reward of taking steps toward making that dream a reality for yourself and I cannot congratulate you enough. Some of you may be unsure of what your next steps are. If you are unsure, step forward with gusto. Dream big. Do not sell yourself short. This is your life, and you are the one who will live it.
Steve Jobs, one of the most innovative businessmen of our century insists that, “the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
It is easy enough to sit back and say to yourself. “People like me aren’t poets, aren’t inventors, aren’t CEO’s, aren’t famous, aren’t the type of people who change things, create things, who improve things.” I am here to tell you today, that that is exactly who you are.
Today is a day of celebration, but as you move into tomorrow and the months ahead, don’t let this feeling fade. Keep it. Nurture it. Pass it on to the people in your life. Dreams are one of our greatest natural resources. William Butler Yates said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It is now your job to move out into the world and share what you have learned and what you will learn, with the people you meet and don’t forget to come back here and share it with us as well. Don’t let your education or your dreams end here. Your parents are watching. Your brothers and sisters are watching. Your children are watching. Now is your time to show them the rewards of following your dreams. That hard work is a gift you give yourself. That you can achieve the things you once thought impossible.
I would like to leave you today with one of my favorite quotes. It is one I return to often when I get discouraged on my own path to realizing my own dreams.
“You’re in the midst of a war: a battle between the limits of a crowd seeking the surrender of your dreams, and the power of your true vision to create and contribute. It is a fight between those who will tell you what you cannot do, and that part of you that knows / and has always known / that we are more than our environment; and that a dream, backed by an unrelenting will to attain it, is truly a reality with an imminent arrival.”
Congratulations Graduates. We are all very proud of you!