05/12/2015 06:06 pm ET Updated May 12, 2016

The Graduation Speech I'll Never Give

Sonya Spillmann

I'll never be asked to give a graduation speech.

But if I were, I would celebrate accomplishments and praise ambition. I would encourage reaching for dreams and assuage any fears of the future with calm reassurances. You are Brave. You are Strong. You are Full of Purpose and Potential.

I'd do this because graduation, like a wedding or baby shower, is a time for celebration. It is not a time to dampen the mood with the reality that life (like marriage or children) is hard, but beautiful work.

Yet, it doesn't seem right not to say anything about this. To not give any hint that life isn't always fair, we don't always get what we want, and the beautiful work of living can be heartbreaking.

When college brochures start coming to our mailbox, I will share this story with my own children -- not as a speech, but in conversation around the dinner table.

All too soon, I will re-read this for myself to avoid the temptation to join the parental fretting circle, wringing my hands in worry about what lies ahead for my child. I will need a reminder of what I went through -- of where my own story started.

This is not a graduation speech. But this is my story for the graduates -- and their parents, too.

The fall of my senior year, I wrote essays and filled out applications along with all my friends. I chose schools close enough to home to appease my family, but far enough away I'd have to live on campus. I wasn't overly ambitious with my choices, but I was accepted everywhere I applied (even my reach school). I had no idea how to pay for it or if I really wanted to leave home, but I put one foot in front of the other and hoped it would work out.

Finally, I graduated. I was so happy to be done with high school.

I walked across the platform to the podium where I accepted my diploma, shook a hand and smiled for a picture. Polite audience claps were drowned out by the uncontainable family and friend cheering section.

After taking pictures in the cafeteria with every permutable combination of friends, I went home and took off my cap and gown.

This was the same cap and gown my school counselor gave me a few weeks earlier when he called me to his office. He told me to take it home and try it on.


"So your parents, your mom, can see you in it."

"Does everyone else get to do this?"


A 'just in case' that no one was talking about. I went home and twirled in my glossy white robe and cardboard hat for my cachectic mother.

We smiled together, happy for that moment. Both of us proud of this accomplishment. Both of us ignoring the reason why I had it on two weeks early to begin with.

In between sending my college applications and graduation, my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Three days before graduation, she died.

Instead of going to parties on Graduation Sunday, I drove down the road to the funeral home. I would be there for the rest of the day and evening, welcoming many of the same people who were, just hours before, cheering me as I accepted my high school diploma.

I did not graduate and go to the school of my choice. I graduated and went to my mother's calling hours. I traded my square tasseled cap for a little black hat I wore the next day to her funeral.

Going away to school suddenly wasn't an option. Leaving my family, all of us grieving, lost its appeal.

Instead of meeting my roommates that summer, I scrambled to collect information and fill out new applications while in a fog. I decided to live at home and commute to a local university. I didn't even visit the school before I sent in the tuition check.

I was dealt a tough hand of cards at a pivotal time of life, but I put one numb foot in front of the other and prayed it would work out.

I share my story to give you some perspective.

Test scores, finances and acceptance letters have governed your world for the last year. For some graduates, this is an amazing time when you're getting everything you hoped for. A few may be feeling like your world is falling completely apart -- justifiably or not. Many of you are somewhere in the middle, happy but hesitant, unsure what the future holds.

My heart goes out to those graduates who are hurting behind their brave smiles. The rejection letters to wished for schools, the need for overwhelming financial loans, or challenging circumstances making life, let alone going to college, difficult.

Whatever joy you have in graduation is tempered with the heavy knowledge that you aren't getting what you wanted - what you expected - what you think you deserve. You feel like life has dealt you an unfair hand of cards.

I am a sample size of one with a significant message: There is more to your life than what is happening right now.

You are more than your rejections, your fears and your insecurities. You are more than your college, scholarship and test scores. You are more than your ambition and future degree.

This is your life, but this is only part of your story.

By God's grace, my story was just starting even when I thought my world was ending.

I give you my heartfelt congratulations on your upcoming graduation. And no matter how you're feeling, disheartened or elated, please remember to put one foot in front of the other -- and know it will all work out.