Something unique attaches to rural America, high school, and graduations – especially to a rural high school graduation. Mine was 45 years ago. My Maine high school, Maranacook – or “deep lake” in Abenaki – just graduated 77 students. As America pauses for graduations, we all should.
Some parts of America’s culture change fast. Some do not. This rite of passage, capping years of learning with gowns, hugs, and a ritual “send-off” message remains the same. Thank goodness.
I can hear the cogs turning in some readers, doubting whether students learn today what they once did, if they are ready to tackle the world, college, civilian job, or military service. Do they leave high school educated, inspired, fortified, and enlivened – appreciate what lies ahead?
I can hear questions about whether they learned enough history, how to view history in its own time, or put themselves in others’ shoes. Did they learn how to read, write, and do math, biology, physics, critical thinking, the facts not worth fighting over and the values worth fighting for.
I acknowledge we live in a tumultuous time, fraught with contradictions, less focused on what holds us together than what pulls us apart. The world is aswirl with hodge-podge thinking.
We could debate the state of education, whether we need more parent involvement, more appreciation for teachers, higher standards, the whole equation. We could list what has changed, the proper freedom-curiosity-rigor mix, or just how to shed all the politics.
Those are conversations worth having. But indulge me today in a reflection on what works, what transcends politics, what tops the debate over history, biology, math and art. The word is heart.
What has not changed is that Americans – across the nation on graduation – still care about each other, care to celebrate setting and realizing big goals, and helping each achieve them.
Sometimes we forget the obvious. What emerges on graduation day, as it did 45 years ago, is gratitude and the power of caring – parents for kids, teachers for parents and kids, kids for kids.
It is “thank you” and “well done,” ending and start – but it centers on heart. Nowhere is that more obvious than in a rural American high school graduation, like the one experienced by students, parents, teachers, and leaders at that small Maine high school I once called home.
The speaker at their commencement was the school’s custodian. Imagine that – not a Hollywood celebrity, not a politician, teacher, or past graduate. They chose someone they saw every day and appreciated, his work ethic and ubiquitous smile. He did not disappoint.
This high school custodian spoke like a pro, about things they should know, and he spoke with heart. Among his observations, delivered with poise in a red ballcap with feather, were these.
As you tackle the world, remember that kindness counts, good things come back to you, learning is caring, and you alone decide who you are. This was the first class he watched start to finish.
“When you first arrived, getting two or three good mornings out of you guys was like pulling hen’s teeth,” he said. “Now the halls are all abuzz with these cheerful greetings every day. What a thing to look forward to when I come to work.”
Imagine – making people your purpose, agendas a second thought, coming to work prepared to lift and be lifted by the people around you, those you see, making them your priority.
He continued, noting that older students teach the younger by example. “You influence in the most positive ways. You are passing on politeness and kindness like it’s the most natural thing.” Is it not? If reading, writing and arithmetic matter, do they more than kindness?
He recited from Peter Dale Wimbrow’s “The Man in the Glass” (1934). Verses still resonate.
“When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass.
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.” This custodian, grateful for the day, closed this way. “I have tried to live my life as simple as possible, similar to one of my favorite characters growing up, Winnie the Pooh …If he were here tonight, I am sure he would close with something like this, I am so very lucky to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. I love you all. Thank you.”
Sometimes amid the hurly-burly, words are spoken that celebrate something bigger are true. They may sound like whimsy but require concentration, put you in mind of a graduation.
The message was not about pomp and circumstance but the delicate dance. It was not about confronting strife but celebrating life. On a higher plane, where big things start, it was all heart.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.