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Commencement: A Message From the Class of 2012

05/09/2013 10:45 am ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013

I don't remember anything the speaker said except that he was a Quaker, but I imagine that might be how a Quaker would like to be remembered. I do remember that he said it well. He said it slowly, steadily, and clearly enunciated -- the way you speak when you have enough consideration for yourself and your audience to actually deliberate about what you should say beforehand. It's the kind of speaking that bores some people because it isn't flashy or emotional. It's the kind of speaking that college taught me to appreciate, and that was the occasion: commencing me from college. So the dull reflections of an aging, educating contemplative were precisely what stirred me to celebration and introspection at my graduation in May 2012.

The ceremony itself was an abrupt ending to four years of discovery, work, and dedication. Less than four years before, on August 23, 2008 (these are the kinds of dates you should remember), I arrived on the campus of small liberal arts college with my parents, my little sister, and a station wagon packed with Pop Tarts, clothes, posters, and my carefully selected mobile library of books that got me into college in the first place and that have been my companions to this day through every dorm after dorm after apartment after storage unit since.

My family left, the books stayed, and the Pop Tarts were quickly eaten as the first communion of hodgepodges of new friendships from around the world. I was one of the few from my hometown to go to college at all and one of the small handful to leave the state to do so. Failed schools and blue collar expectations eliminated college options for many, but for a fiercely determined teenager like I was, I wasn't about to stay put. I was, however, head-over-heels lost at finding and/or creating myself, and while my ambitions had already carried me further than I knew I was going, my social life was still firmly rooted in my teenage dreams with friends back home. So, when my cell phone mysteriously died a week later (not rush-back-home-to-charge-it died, either. It walk-to-an-antique-payphone-to-call-home-to-cry-to-mom-for-a-new-one died), I couldn't have predicted how lost I would be, disconnected from the world created for and by me in the shelter of home, high school, and church back home, or how badly I needed to be lost. The college already forbade first year students from having cars on campus, and being suddenly without my phone too cut me even further from home and married me to my new life in what was at the time traumatic but is in retrospect a cosmically symbolic gesture. I didn't forget, or even neglect, the life of too few responsibilities and too much gossip that high school became for me and so many. But it did die to me, and let me be born into the engaged person that all colleges want and that my alma mater spawns so many of.

From days spent work-studying an office job to nights spent reading all that I could, writing all that I couldn't, and talking with new friends about everything the world over, I was engrossed in my community of likeminded people learning about, challenging, and trying to change the world. Confined to the half mile radius of the out-of-place New England style brick academic towers, the quaint white store fronts right out of a senior citizen tour bus catalog, and the walking distance trip to the "dry" county Wal-Mart and fast food restaurants, we didn't know any better than to think that we were bored with each other and spent our non-philosophizing hours planning Gatsby-style bootlegging trips to the "moist" town 10 miles north. So I took that enthusiasm for humanity and thirst for adventure on the road, or the air, rather, and spent six months, on scholarship, living in Peru. In the Andean sierra of Cusco, I went to school, lived with a Spanish-speaking host family, and volunteered. I equal parts hiked, spoke Spanish, danced with Chilean soccer players, and got covered in both the mud from hiking during a highland rainy season and the adobe cement-mud concoction we used to build the clean-burning stoves with my service project. The beautiful Quechua-speaking descendants of the Inka there taught me the word "ayni." The closest translation into English is "reciprocity." It means that everyone has something to give, and everyone has a need. It is the role of society to give, take, and share accordingly. Aside from some Marxist implications, ayni is the most valuable lesson I have learned. In me, somewhere, are seven billion, and counting, benefits I have to share with the world. And in the seven billion of you around the world (overestimating my readership much?), is something for you each to share with me, and each other.

I needed a lot of your help during the summer I returned from Peru. My grandfather, who had shared his kindness and legacy with me for all my life as a giant of a hero and a friend, died. It was the first time I witnessed death. And I saw it so closely and so peacefully, lying on his hospice bed, my hand on his strong, dark arm. The somber nurse slipped in at 4:30 in the morning, while the sounds and sights of the 4th of July blasting colors still slightly beat in our heads from the restless night before. She closed her eyes and listened for his pulse. She shook her head. The beating had stopped.

Less than a year after that loss, I walked across the same stage as that inspiring, expiring graduation speaker, shook hands with the president and dean, picked up my diploma, and marched back to my seat before the beaming smiles of family, friends, faculty, and staff who made that pompous and circumstantial walk possible in the first place. It was shocking that the life altering events between move-in day and commencement had all happened so quickly and had to end -- it was more shocking the next day to realize that it were never supposed to last. The year since then has been spent angstily trying to figure out how to live outside of school for the first time since I was 4-years-old. Reading enough, writing well, and discussing both fervently are no longer the standards that measure my responsibilities or success. Similarly interested, aged, and experienced classmates have been replaced by colleagues and neighbors that share little more than space and time with me. Finding friends and fulfillment have proven to be open-ended questions instead of the clearly demarcated boundaries of residence life, syllabi, and classroom participation.

I have made due, however, continuing what I know to do, and learning to do more. I've read incessantly. With the self-imposed goal to read at least one book per month, I've lost count of how many more than twelve I've read. I finally read Harry Potter. I didn't start reading them when I was 9 because too many 21st century Pharisees preached that their dealings with magic were demonic. It turns out that they are the most inspirational tales of hope after death and resurrection than any other book I know, perhaps even more than the Gospels, so maybe the televangelists should be afraid of them after all. I'm not.

I quit a job and started a new one, which has turned out to be one of the best life lessons one could learn. Unsure how to support my mental health or physical needs in my first job after college, I determined to quit it -- and for the overachieving person whose parents never let him quit anything, not even kindergarten T-ball, this was all too traumatic. But I didn't quit it without the option of a better job in place -- my blue collar, labor activist family trained me to do no less. I learned to say no and to seize opportunity. I've since learned to manage a desk job. I take tea at 10 o'clock, a walk at 2:40, and a B12 vitamin at 3:10. Being chained to an 8-5 schedule might be what my generation has stigmatized the most -- but it's in my blood to know that centuries of factory children workers died on the job to hallow this 40 hour workweek plus weekend benefits, and 500+ Bangladeshi slaves whose product relics you might very well be wearing right now died needing such a schedule just last week. Until the graduating classes of '12 and before, '13 and beyond, and their representative politicians recognize the dignity of labor anywhere -- at a desk, a coal mine, or a fast food chain -- then their world changing ambitions will be sacrificed for their selfish "success."

And I've traveled more, too. Money saved through college sent me off to Ireland for a week after graduation with a fellow wanderlusting friend. Not only respect for the world, but also seeing the world remains my drug of choice. With my head hanging off the cliffs of Inishmore Island, I looked into the roaring Atlantic a hundred feet below and marveled to look straight across the Atlantic where thousands of miles away Canadian mountains rise out of the water, the same mountains that flow south and rise above and tuck around my home and school in Appalachia. And I drove with my parents up to Canada, their first trip out of the U.S., to see the magnificent pouring of water from Lake Eerie into Lake Ontario, before it will one day gush beneath some other awestruck visitor holding on tight to tall Irish cliffs. And rooted back at home, I planted my first garden and watched as summer squash miraculously gushed, too, from the earth day-by-day into sustenance.

The reading, working, planting, and traveling have all been an experiment in living in the present. Waiting, and pushing, for graduation was the all consuming goal of college, at least in theory, and, from Advent calendars waiting for Christmas, New Year's Eve countdown clocks, and agonizing days counted to Spring Break, summer, and birthdays, we have been conditioned to always be waiting for something else. I've spent much of this past year, as I should have always spent each year, being content with this moment, page, task, seed, and step. But all the same, time slips effortlessly into the future, and if we don't plan or prepare, we'll be caught unsuspecting. My next year will pull me further into this life of an alumnus, and my barely opened GRE prep book is going to get worn during it. I've already spent too much money preparing for my nephew's debut into the world next month and imagining myself being an uncle, both for all the baby things I want to buy him and for the work I must do to make the world a better place for him. I've got many more miles to run, but my sights are set on running a marathon within the next year, too, disciplining my mind and body into the fitness and dedication I expect of myself. And for all I've learned of the world, it's high time I'm as open to it too, expressing myself and proving my commitment to writing and being published.

If you count these experiences I've named from college, the past year, and my plans for the next, you'll see that there are four from each, 12 altogether -- a perfectly predictable number for a commencement address from the Class of 2012, but it's one short for '13. You have an exciting and rough year ahead, Class of 2013. It's taken some mental acrobatics for me to weave a narrative around the ups and downs, beginnings and endings of my college career, and I don't have to challenge you to do the same. If you don't define where you're coming from, then you'll fail to determine where you end up. Take the next year intentionally and experimentally to forget what I've written here and what your commencement speakers said, and just know that what you say a year from now and where your sails are then set will make all the difference. So for commencement today, just rest easy in the moment of each page, task, seed, and your step across that stage.