Speaking to young men in prison graduating from high school


Trask River High School Commencement Address
June 21, 2014
Neal C. Lemery

Distinguished guests, family, respected faculty of Trask River High School, and, honored graduates of the Class of 2014:

Today, we are here to celebrate a great achievement. After a great deal of hard work, you have earned your high school diploma.

This is a remarkable victory, an accomplishment that deserves a celebration. You now have a real asset, a treasure, no one can ever take away from you: your education.

With these skills, you are now life long learners. There is no stopping you now. You can achieve anything you want because you know how to learn. You have proven that you are determined enough to apply yourself and to advance in this world. You have done something really good for yourself.

And, that is success.

Today is Commencement. Commencement means the beginning. Today is not only a celebration of what you have done, but it is also the start of the rest of your lives.

Susan Sontag, a famous writer, feminist, and social critic, shared this thought with another graduating class:

“I have said that this rite of passage—commencement—is one that faces in two directions. Your old status and your new status. The past and the present. The present and the future. But I would urge that it is not just a description of today’s exercises but a model for how you should try to live. As if you were always graduating, ending, and, simultaneously, always beginning. And your sense of the world, and of the large amount of life before you, also should face in two directions.”

Let me turn to your future. At this Commencement, it is time to start on the next step in your education.

This place where we sit today is a place of changing directions in our lives.

It has been said that if you don’t change directions, you are going to end up where you are headed.

Your work here is all about moving ahead with your lives; it is all about changing directions.

Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae musician, said, “If you don’t start somewhere, you’ll go nowhere.”

If you want to change your life, if you want to change the path you were on when you got here, take the next step in your life.

You’ve already proven to yourself that you are smart enough, and energetic enough, to earn a high school diploma. Achieving that puts you ahead of one third of all of the young men in Oregon. That means you are in the top two thirds of your peers.

But, that’s not good enough. That’s not good enough for our society, and it’s not good enough for you.

You deserve more. You’re smart and you’re motivated.

So, take that next step. Be the change you want to see in the world. Find your passion and go after that. Discover what you love to do in life, and become an expert in your profession. Become the best in what you do.

You who create with your hands, the artisans, the tradesmen, the craftsmen among you, you need to take that next step. Your work will build our communities, and change the world. You are a key part of our future. So, find that trade school, or that community college, find the skills you need, and gain that expertise. Don’t settle for being the average Joe in the world, just taking any old job that might come along. Take a couple of big steps and become an expert in what you love to do.

Some of you will keep on your academic path, and will find a college to challenge you.

People who graduate from college have more opportunities. They make more money, and they raise healthier, smarter kids. They are able to solve harder problems, and they are the ones who change and grow our society.

And, you can start college right now. College is right out that door over there, right down that path. Your college is right here where you live. And, your teachers are ready for you.

And, the best thing about your college is that is it free.

Free. What a deal. One of the best gifts you’ll ever get.

All someone needs for a college education is their time, their brains, and that fire of motivation that burns in their soul.

You have the time, you have the brains, and you have that fire.

For each of us, finding what we love to do in life, and becoming really good at it take some real effort, and some real commitment. That commitment comes from you. That can only come from you.

Whatever you go after in life is an investment in yourself. Everything you work for becomes part of you, and makes you a better person. It changes your life.

When you leave here, you will take your education with you. You will take your determination, your stubbornness, and your work ethic. You will take with you the tools you will need to be successful, and to go out in the world and live a meaningful, productive life.

And, most of all, you will take that passion, that fire, to make a difference in you and in the world.

Just ask those who have gone on ahead of you, who have moved out into the world and done something with their lives. They will tell you, again and again, get an education. Find your passion.

So, what does that life ahead of you, that life filled with purpose and passion, look like? What does that fire in your soul look like?

I want to end today with another man’s perspective. He’s a man who overcame many of the obstacles you have faced in your lives, a man who worked hard and moved ahead, and took advantage of the opportunities he had.

This man grew up in the tough part of a big city, his dad left when he was two years old, he was raised by a single mother, he almost dropped out of high school, he got involved in gangs, and some drugs. He was Black, he was poor, and yet he found his fire, and moved ahead in life, doing his part to make the world a better place.

This is what that man,that man we know as President Barack Obama, says about what a purposeful, focused life, a life dedicated to improving yourself, means:

“I’m talking about an approach to life — a quality of mind and quality of heart; a willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame; a willingness to question conventional wisdom, …; a lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige — and a commitment instead to doing what’s meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world.”

Class of 2014. We salute you, and we urge you to move ahead into your amazing and fabulous future.

Thank you.

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