Commencement Speech for the OWL Class of 2022

Congratulations, class of 2022. I am so honored by your invitation to speak on this special day. I’m sure it’s not a surprise that I’m going to seize this opportunity to give you advice. Let’s begin with a poem.

Mary Oliver
The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?

I chose this poem for tonight because you’ve come of age in a time when the indigos of darkness are deep. For the first time in generations, all young folks in the United States have had to navigate injustice, disease, war, gun violence, and personal loss on a scale that sometimes makes it hard to see or feel anything but darkness.

Perhaps this is why your lights, the invitations to happiness that you extend just by being, have become so clear to me. Returning from the long months of distance learning, there have been so many days when I have felt suffused with gratitude just to be in the same classroom as you. My advice stems from my gratitude for your presence in my life. Each of you is a light, and light is an invitation to happiness.

Now, OWL’s mission statement (in other words, the whole point of our school) is: A community of joyful curious learners engaged in the world.

What a challenge this has been! We are all challenged, I think, by the duality of living ready to answer invitations to happiness while staying engaged in the world, the heartbreaking, complicated, sorrowful, hopeful world.

But don’t worry, because I have some advice that will help you continue to live the OWL mission as you move into your post-secondary lives. Are you ready?

When someone compliments your work or thanks you, accept their thanks with both hands. Be proud of your accomplishments. Feel the difference you have made.

When someone takes care of you, whether they take time to listen to you, text to make sure you get home safe, or make you soup, accept their love with both hands. Allow yourself to be held in the arms of kindness.

When light finds you, accept the invitation to happiness with both hands. You deserve to be happy, the kind of happy that comes from good choices – the kind of happy that sustains you, lifts you up, makes you whole, and lifts the veils of darkness so that your light can shine out into the world.

Congratulations, class of 2022. You did it! Remember, once an Open Schooler, always an Open Schooler. Come back and see us again and again.


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