In 7th grade, my English teacher asked us to learn a poem by Edgar Guest called “Myself’ followed by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”. We, typical middle schoolers, rolled our eyes as we read the verses we were to recite – in class – without notes or prompts, never really understanding why we needed commit any of these thoughts to memory. Why does it matter?
Years later, when newscasters and politicians read from teleprompters and most people spout out their beliefs at random, the value of words get lost. We have words all around us on screens, billboards, books, television, magazines. Students get lists every week to define, use in a sentence and commit to memory long enough for the weekly quiz and then there is always a new list. The old words are rarely seen again; words like harangue and admonish. Words that just get digested into the next big batch to float out into the air. Words are everywhere. Words are a dime a dozen.
Until now, at 42, I look at my nephew graduating from high school and approaching college. I glance at my oldest daughter, who this graduate held, with his chunky baby hands, and giggled at his, “new baby cousin.” Wasn’t that just a year ago? No, more like 14 years ago. That young man has strong, sinewy hands now. Hands that play guitar like one of the greats; hands that will accept a diploma in about three days from today. And that “new baby cousin” will be in a cap and gown before I know it, walking across a stage and out of our house on her way into the wide world.
Times like this make you question every word you’ve ever uttered.
Did they hear me when I told them to be careful of strangers? Not to leave her glass unattended? Not to go along with the crowd?
Did they hear me when I told them I loved them, that they were smart, that they had divine purpose from God himself that they must decipher and carry out?
Or did the words fade into the universe only to be drawn back again years later if and when something big happens? Those vibrations never go away but sometimes are only felt when we pay attention to them again…
What words would I say today to my graduate? What would I want him to remember? Do I have to speak them or will a hug do just fine; render the same message: I love you. You’re a great kid. You are growing into something fine and wonderful, someone who will change the world as long as you don’t let the world change you…
And, from the deep darkness of 7th grade that I forgot so long ago, comes the following –
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Yes, words matter. Memorization helped me remember helpful thoughts when life gets too tough and my own words fail me. Graduates, if you can survive, keep the faith, persevere, not put yourself on a pedestal and not waste your life, then you will have done more than most men on this Earth. What you do from here is just the beginning. What you do from here is a new start.
If you like where you’re headed: KEEP GOING!! If you don’t: CHANGE! The whole wide world is ahead of you. And, as many of you were reminded every day at Blossomwood Elementary School: “Go out and make it a great day – or not. The choice is yours…”