Congratulations, class of 2019.
Twenty years ago, I spoke at my high school graduation. My speech is somewhere in a box at my mom’s house, full of Christian rock lyrics and pretentious platitudes. Yet the anniversary got me thinking about what I would tell my 18-year-old self and classmates today.
In the spirit of relying on community (my biggest life lesson), I asked everyone I could think of for their own words of wisdom: friends, former classmates, coworkers, church folks, extended family, my book club, my mom. Responses ran the gamut, from heartwarming sentiments to deep personal reflection, from Bible verses to quotes from ABBA and Bambi. Kindness was a major theme, as was curiosity, plus forgiveness, and “you do you.”
And yet, I realize 18-year-olds are not prone to listen to advice (or, for that matter, to read the newspaper). My friend Gusti, a Presbyterian minister, responded, “I think my 18-year-old self just had to learn all these lessons the hard way.” I tend to agree. Nonetheless, and perhaps for the rest of us, I will share the wisdom of my community.
Society will tell you certain things are shameful — mental illness, addiction, trauma — but they are not.
Speak up for others.
Stop smoking (or vaping). Avoid illegal substances. Drink less.
Use your physical prowess while it lasts, especially to explore the far corners of the world. Hike, backpack, kayak, bike.
Get to know people different than you (which happens by necessity when you leave the state, and the country).
Don’t rush into commitments that will become obligations, be it marriage, kids, a mortgage or a long-term career path. Take your time.
Get lost and figure things out on your own. Pretend the internet does not exist.
Partner with someone who makes you laugh and is willing to grow with you. And, as a divorced friend told me, realize you will change, and that nothing is bulletproof, and this is OK.
Think hard about whether and where to go to college, because student debt is real. Others said education is critical, always keep learning. Regardless, find a mentor.
From women, I often heard “you are smarter than you think you are.” Curiously, no men said this. Draw your own conclusions.
I recently reconnected with my high school classmate Leslie, who now lives in Utah. We had different friend circles — hers preppy, mine artsy — but we were formidable debate partners, and I am happy to reclaim that friendship. I close with her words for the class of 2019:
“Modern community needs to be reimagined. It will be on them to do that great task of tasks, particularly as we watch religion fizzle and politics implode. I would say to them: choose your leaders wisely, because we live in a time when popularity is confused with heroism. I would end by urging them, along the lines of E.M. Forster, to ‘only connect’ (me-time and mindfulness are overrated).”
In the end, connection with others is how we survive and grow. Surround yourself with smart, kind, funny people. Seek out and hang on to kindred spirits. As Forster said, “Live in fragments no longer.”
Here’s to you, graduates.
Ann Crews Melton is a writer and editor particularly interested in religion, identity and diversity. A Texas native, she is proud to call Bismarck home.