*** I was invited to give a commencement address for a middle school graduation. I was asked to focus on “overcoming adversity.” A couple of parents tracked me down through social media looking for the transcript. I’ve taken the identifying details out. Here it is. ***
When you started school, Toy Story 3 was a big hit at movie theaters, Angry Birds was first released and the world saw the very first iPad. The FIRST iPad. Imagine that. Before then, we watched movies on televisions.
A lot has happened since then. You’ve learned to read. You’ve moved from Good Night Moon to Lord of the Flies. You’ve gone from learning to recognize letters to solving for N. Your heads are full of science and math and literature and you’re ready for what comes next.
For all of the growth and new experiences you’ve had so far in your lives, it’s going to come even faster now. High school, learning to drive, making decisions about college and careers and when to leave home.
Some of you already have the next four to eight years mapped out. Some of you haven’t really even given it a thought. Either way, it’s ok.
It is said that life is what happens while you’re making plans. It’s true. For all of your planning and preparing, you will only truly control how you react to what’s presented to you. By all means, plan and practice and prepare for the future you hope for. Education gives you options.
You’re going to have surprises and I wish you many, many surprises from chance encounters where you make a new lifelong friend, or find $20 stashed in a shirt pocket, and sudden gifts and sudden moments that you will treasure for always and always.
And for all of those, there are going to be broken things too. Broken promises, broken friendships, broken hearts… Wrecked cars, missed deadlines and missed opportunities. Some of you will face the loss of the people you love when they move across country, divorce or die.
There will be moments when you’ll wish you were back in the care-free days of eighth grade.
In the year that many of you were born, I had great plans. I had a 12-year-old son, I traveled around the world for my work. I drove a nice car and lived in a nice house. I had great plans.
One night, I was shot in a random shooting and paralyzed. I was certain that my life was over. That nothing good would ever — could ever happen for me again.
I woke up in a hospital bed, unable to move or feel below my chest, hooked up to cords and tubes and watched a stranger’s blood drip into my veins. I was terrified. I faded in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of the multiple surgeries and very grim state of my future.
For weeks, I lay there, staring at a grey ceiling for hours on end. One day, a social worker came to visit me to talk about MY future. I laughed. I could not foresee a future in a present as broken as mine appeared in that moment.
“Surely, Jennifer,” she said, “Surely there is something to be grateful for. Even on a day like this. You have to look for it and you have to remember it.”
“So, Jennifer, I want you to keep a journal. At the end of every day, I want you to write down something you’re grateful for.”
She handed me a little spiral bound notebook and pen and explained that I would start every entry with “Today” and end with “For this I am grateful.”
So, as that day came to a close, I lay in my hospital bed and thought back over the day. There had to be something for which I was grateful. As I reflected I finally wrote:
Day 1. Today… Today I did not have to eat worms. And for this I am grateful.
Day 2 came a little easier. Today I was not chased by wolves. And for this I am grateful.
By Day 9 I was a pro at this. Today I was NOT abducted by aliens. And for this I am grateful.
Every day I would discuss these entries with the social worker. Every day she’d leave shaking her head. This gratitude journal was the most ridiculous exercise ever. I was doing it simply to avoid problems over not doing my homework.
Day 21. Today my social worker quit asking ridiculous questions. And for this I am grateful.
Day 32 Today I met Sadie, she put her head in my lap and let me pet her ears. Then we played fetch. She has the most soulful eyes. She’s coming back again next week. And for this I am grateful.
Day 41 Today I did not scream in pain when the doctor changed my bandages. I’m clearly healing. And for this I’m grateful.— I think.
Day 58 Today I hugged my son. He smells like sunshine. And for this I am tremendously, abundantly, unabashedly grateful.
Day 73 Today I realized that I AM getting stronger. Made it all the way around the floor twice without stopping. And for this, I am grateful.
Day 108 Today we began to talk about my discharge. I’m finally going back out into the world. And for this I am terrified. And grateful. For this I am grateful.
But life is about as linear as a bowl of spaghetti.
Day 124 Today I did not have to eat worms. And for this I am grateful.
By now I’d learned that difficult times meant holding on, not looking too, too far ahead. I learned to anchor onto the good and know that as bad as any one moment could be, joy IS going to return. Even if sometimes I have to look for it. I learned to prepare, to plan because every new skill, every bit of new learning made me better able to deal with whatever unforeseen circumstances presented themselves. I learned there’s no shame in improvising and readjusting.
When the notebook was full, I bought another.
Day 200 Today was amazing! I danced the night away at Vivianna’s quinceañera. I can dance in a wheelchair. What fun! And for this I am grateful.
As the days piled up into years, my own son has graduated eighth grade, and high school then college. I relearned how to drive and live on my own again. I’ve hugged the President of the United States. I changed careers and now I write for a magazine that sends me to play with puppies training to be service dogs, and write about “exotic” places like Burton Barr Library and Tempe Town Lake.
Life is good. Hope is the human default position. And no matter how dark any moment may be, there is joy still waiting on the other side of it.
So, all commencement speeches are supposed to have great advice. Here’s mine.
- When facing a wait in line, the left line is usually shorter.
- Wear your seatbelt.
- There’s no such thing as being “over-prepared.”
- You don’t lose that much time when you let someone merge in front of you in traffic. You might make their day.
- Sometimes the best reward is unexpectedly making someone else’s day.
- Indulge your parents when they give you that sappy, teary look and reminisce on when you were little.
- No matter how mature and accomplished you become, someone will always think of you as “their baby.” It’s ok. And one day, you’ll even miss it.
- The best gauge of another person is how they treat wait staff. If they’re nasty to waiters, they’re not very nice people.
- Always say I love you. You never know when you’ll get the chance again.
- Do stop and look back once in a while. It’s amazing to see where you’ve been.
In the words of the immortal philosopher, Winnie the Pooh, always, always, always remember: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
I think tonight’s gratitude journal entry will read like this:
Day 4,867 Today I met the future. They are bright and eager and ready to do amazing things in this phase of life. The world is being left in very capable hands.
And for this, I am grateful.