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class of 2016

Celebrate Me Home, Class of 2016.

By: Chris Warren.

You’ve spent years preparing for this day. The sum of all the hard work, all the achievements, all the failures, every moment, is right now. The class of 2016 will carry the lessons learned here for the rest of their lives. No matter where you go, you will have a connection to this place. Carry that connection with honor.

Many of you are anxious to get out of here and go chase some far away, exciting goal. That’s understandable and I encourage you to do exactly that. The class of 2016 has the potential for greatness and needs to get out and experience new things. There will always be supporters in your hometown praying and hoping for your success. They know you. They know what you are capable of. They do not want you constrained. They want the whole world to see what they see in you.

You may not believe it right now, but when the class of 2016 is far away in time or place, the memories of the years you spent here will be a comfort in difficult times. Even if your life was hard and painful up to this point, it will still be a positive guiding force later and make you strong for when troubled times come again. And they will come again.

Your connection to this place helped make you what you are. For better or worse, it is the foundation for the rest of your life. From this point forward, the class of 2016 is responsible for building something meaningful upon that foundation. You are hereby released from the rules that you felt were holding you back but were really there to help you grow and mature. This is your big chance to use your good judgement and show everyone what you can do with your own wisdom. Whatever happens after today is to your credit, or your fault.

The day will come when it’s your turn to do the guiding and protecting. You will be hoping for the next generation the way your elders hope for you now. You will be the foundation that others will build on. What kind of foundation will it be? Will you try as hard to help them as your parents and teachers and entire community did to help you?

Do not say that helping the younger generation is not your responsibility. It’s important that you help them because, even if they are not your children, they will be taking over someday. Your duty to the next generation is not because of tradition or civil legislation, though these mandates do exist. You should help them out of your own free will  because it’s the decent and right thing to do.

The class of 2016 is wise enough to see that kindness is the only valid reason to do good works. You will be held accountable for how you apply the kindness you learned here to others in the future. By showing compassion to others, the class of 2016 is in effect “going home,” that is, passing on what you learned here. Honor your elders by following them down a path of selflessness.

A path of selflessness always leads to home, and I do not mean a physical place. I mean a state of mind where one knows who they are. Home is being at peace with oneself and feeling affirmed that you contributed something positive to the world and lived a life of benevolence. It means you know in your heart you did as much as you could to make the world better.

Decades from now, when you have accomplished much and can’t count how many people whose lives are better because of you, you’ll be confident that the younger generation will carry on where you leave off because you taught them everything they need to know about love and decency. When they will follow you on that path of selflessness, you, the class of 2016, will ascend to the place of honor that your elders hold now. You can look at your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and tell them, “celebrate me home.”

The Class of 2015: Let Your Love Bind You To All Living Things.

Editor’s note: You may also enjoy last year’s graduation article, Graduation Completes The Circle. 

By: Chris Warren.

More than just recognition for academic achievement, graduation is a celebration, a joy, and a time for release after having completed a difficult years-long task. It’s a time of excitement and dreams. A time to behold the great things that come next and the doors that are opened. Beyond the honors and knowledge, the big hope is that graduates will understand that what really changes the world is a concern for others.

People who are intellectually brilliant but look out only for themselves are dangerous and seldom use their abilities for anything positive. Being smart is only half the equation. One also needs a good heart and a sense of right and wrong. Your education gives your heart something to do; whether that “something” is good or bad depends on what was in your heart in the first place. Love for others binds you to others. That is why those who love only themselves have so little concern for others. They are attached to no one and therefore have no reason to care about anyone. Even when they do good works, it’s with the ulterior motive of elevating themselves.

One does not have to be exceptionally intelligent to make a difference. Yes, society needs smart people to cure diseases, launch rockets, and solve great problems, but the everyday normal people who quietly do small things we’ll never see in headlines count too. The food banks, the elderly, the disabled veterans, single parents, and the unemployed all need the kind of help that does not come from book learning. You don’t need a four year college degree to put your hand on someone’s shoulder and tell them you care. Effective love does not require a grade transcript or a resumé.

As the class of 2015 goes its separate ways, compassion, concern, and love for life should be the common theme that keeps their souls together no matter how far apart they go in time and place. Many things in their lives will change, but hearts stay the same. If they spend the rest of their years looking for ways to use what they know to benefit others, regardless of benefit to self, then their educations have been a huge success.

Diplomas and degrees don’t mean much if your mind is full but your heart is empty.

The teachers of the class of 2015 will likely never know what eventually becomes of the students they gently tended like a garden. It makes them feel good to see their students graduate, but letting students go is hard to do even when it was understood that letting them go was the the point of teaching them to begin with. A teacher knows that commencement is a synonym for beginning. Just as the pain of saying goodbye repeats itself every single year, so too is the joy of being given a fresh class of students to watch over and guide along. A teacher is an artist who never gets to see his own finished masterpiece.

The most important lesson the class of 2015 should leave with is that diplomas and degrees don’t mean much if your mind is full but your heart is empty. You have been watched out for, helped, protected, and loved for your entire educational experience. The hour has arrived for you to go out and multiply unto others the kindness you have received yourselves. At times the job will be difficult, perhaps hopeless, yet the moment will come when you see that your elders were right the whole time. Love has a value much greater than the pain spent achieving it. Show the world that true wisdom is equal parts knowledge and compassion. You have been given all the tools you need. You know right from wrong. You have no excuses. Go proudly forward and let your love bind you to all living things.

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Graduation’s Greatest Hits?

By Chris Warren.

In the next month or two, high school and college seniors will be graduating and moving forward with their lives. The well intended commencement speeches typically include a list of pithy if not outright condescending advice for the graduates. It’s not too late for those who have been asked to give these speeches to carefully edit themselves and avoid patronizing clichés. The list could go on for pages and pages, but here are a few of the “greatest hits” to be avoided for all time:

Do what you love and the money will follow. This is at the top of my list as the biggest heap o’graduation shit that has ever been spoken. Any activity you are passionate about but can’t support yourself with is called a hobby. There is no cosmic law that states anyone can make money doing anything if only they love doing it enough. Since life is not a one way street, those who insist on believing this ridiculous idealism must also accept with it the equally foolish converse argument: One cannot earn a living doing something they hate. I’m going to settle this nonsense with some easily quantifiable earthly reality: There are tens of millions more people toiling away at barely tolerable but reasonably well paying occupations than there are making a decent buck at their dream job. Acceptable alternative advice: If you love something that much, the money (or lack of it) won’t matter.redstone

Be yourself. I don’t get this one. How can you not “be yourself?” Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this lame pop psychology narcissism is just another excuse for every individual to think the world must form around them. But the world is full of uncomfortable circumstances where you might have to be polite when you don’t mean it, be supportive when inside you don’t agree, or be cooperative with people you think are incompetent. Those who are dishonest or fake about who they are are being themselves. Cheerfully going along with something you don’t like for diplomatic reasons or to attain a legitimate goal is not the same as willfully involving oneself in objectionable, immoral, or illegal activities. Acceptable alternative advice: Acting is an important life skill; learn to adapt your outward behavior to any situation even if it means being insincere.

Think outside the box. This tiresome business buzzword has leaked into academia and is the only point on the list that sort-of comes close to being useful wisdom. Unfortunately, it has evolved into a catch all vindication for dumb ideas and dead end personal goals. Thinking outside the box works best for older people who have learned from prior successes and failures and have enough restraint to know how far they can go. Less discerning young people are inclined to be different just for the sake of being different with no clear end game other than to clash with tradition. The “box” existed as long as it has for a reason. Some things just plain work and do not need to be challenged. Acceptable alternative advice: Thinking outside the box is fine, but only if the method used is better than what is already in the box.

By time young people reach graduation, they have spent many years exposed to a wide range of viewpoints from the internet and are far more adept at spotting a recycled idea than us older types were at their age. They are too smart to fall for dusted off hollow maxims that are accurate to a limited degree but have no mass appeal to today’s graduates and do not work for 99% of the people who try them. The opportunity to effect the lives of young people is very fleeting; commencement speakers should not waste the few minutes they have spreading unrelatable one-liners that at best are poorly chosen, and at worst full blown lies.

Lunch With A Teen Lottery Prize.

By: Chris Warren

I recently had the opportunity to meet up with my buddy, James. He happened to be in my area and I don’t get to see him that often, so when the last minute invite came in, I quickly rearranged my day to make it happen. I was excited. He’s one of my most favorite people, ever.

The first thing you’ll notice about James is how outwardly unnoticeable he is. He does not call attention to himself via a ridiculous wardrobe of saggy pants with his underwear and most of his ass hanging out. He is not carpeted with tattoos and piercings, at least none visible (for the record, I don’t have a problem with tats and piercings, except when they are overdone). He does not have a wild haircut. He’s a regular jeans & t-shirt type of guy. He speaks clearly and politely, in complete sentences, without profanity. The sentences sound like they had actual, meaningful consideration put into them. Only occasionally does he slip into wishy-washy teen mumble mode. James is a high school student.smartkid1

We nibbled on the free chips & salsa while waiting for our burritos. James has been taking college and honors-level courses for a while now. He talks of his plans to study science and math when he goes to university next year. He has opinions about politics and the world. It doesn’t matter if I agree with his views or not. What matters is that he is thoughtful and has a clue. James smiled and seemed embarrassed when I complimented him on how focused and together he was. This kid is so sincerely decent, likable, and intelligent that I wonder what alignment of the planets caused him to be here in the first place.

The answer is much closer to earth than cosmic good fortune. Guys like James are carefully nurtured by parents who put heart and soul into their kids. His mom & dad demanded the best from him and would not tolerate any less than full honest effort. They knew when to carry him and when to step back and purposely allow him to struggle on his own. All males, especially the young ones, live in fear of being dressed down by another male they respect. James’ dad sets a high standard and enforces accountability to it. The kid got the hint. He did whatever it took to avoid disappointing his old man.

As much as I may discount luck, I do like to tease James’ dad and remind him that he won the “kid lottery.” Like his son, he takes compliments humbly but inside he knows how hard he worked and how deeply he loved to produce the remarkable chip-munching teen sitting in front of me. The hardest work a parent does is the work no one ever sees. I know there are lots of kids from loving homes who grew up to be bums. And I know lots of kids turn out to be stellar even though their parents, if they have any, are the bums. Some parents have a winning ticket and throw it away.

James’ biggest challenge of his short life will begin this fall when he goes off to college where his parents will not be a daily presence pushing him along. He understands hard work is expected even when no one is watching; his parents’ admonishments buzzing in the in the back of his head will  keep him on task. The little kid who used to play video games with me and randomly hug me for no reason at all is now a mentally, physically, and morally strong young adult whom I am certain will one day find a cure for some horrible disease or come up with a solution to a very big problem. He knows how much he is loved (he’s still not too cool to hug me!) and proves every day that he’s been paying attention for the last eighteen years.

The Tragedy and Comedy of Senior Summer.

By: Chris Warren.

The fun and fireworks of Fourth of July celebrations are long fizzled out and I count myself among the many who are not ready to admit the unofficial end of summer is only a month away. As the ubiquitous back to school advertisements foretell, yes, the calendar always gets its revenge. It’s the cycle of life we grow accustom to even if we don’t necessarily like it.

For last spring’s high school graduates, it’s much more than a perennial change of the season. It’s their dwindling days of having a legitimate claim to childhood, of not having to worry about anything serious, of living under the close protective cloak of parents and teachers. Within the next few weeks, their lives will change abruptly and things will never be the same. They’ve just completed a major life goal; I can’t really blame them for wanting to party, cut loose, and not give a damn about anything for a month or two.

I refer to the summer after high school graduation as “Senior Summer.” It occurs only once in a lifetime and is both a carefree joy and a sad, long goodbye as friends who have known each other for years and together shared many important experiences drift apart and go their separate ways to college, the military, a job, or mom’s basement. Sincere albeit naïve platitudes of keeping in touch will be offered and accepted, but it’s not going to be anything like the halcyon final scene of the classic hit musical Grease, when the kids graduate and begin their Senior Summer by happily singing about how they’ll “always” be together. The places and people that our young lives revolved around for four years quickly become just photos in a yearbook.

Years ago I had an occasion to stop by my old high school during my own Senior Summer to drop off a library book I forgot I still had. Being summer break, the place was empty and kind of creepy. Even though I knew the physical layout of the building in great detail, an odd feeling nonetheless came over me: “I don’t belong here. Naperville North isn’t my house anymore.” The school where I felt welcome and comfortable as a student walking the bustling halls laughing with my friends just a month or so earlier now made me feel like I was wandering around a stark alien spaceship. I just wanted to finish my business and get out of there. It felt terrible having an aversion to a place that was such a big part of my life and held many warm memories, but I knew I had checked out and moved on.

The emotional pain of leaving a familiar sphere of faces and places does have a big upside: As much as it may upset young people to let go of the only world they know, the opportunity for new and exciting experiences is breathtaking. The errand to drop off the library book was my reality check. It unnerved me at the time, but summer is fleeting and that fall I started college. I had a chance to study topics I liked and not what was chosen for me. In what can only be described as an amazing case of being in the right place at the right time, I applied and was hired for a job at a popular radio station. I had zero experience but it turns out I was a natural for yapping on the radio. No one was more shocked than me when my weekend/overnight program pulled in more listeners than some of the prime-time big shots. New friends, new school, and a new job that was a hundred times cooler than whatever my peers were doing to make a buck. All this happened less than a year out from graduation.

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Teens going through their Senior Summer and feeling equal amounts of pain and joy have a difficult time grasping the idea that there is a big, inviting world out there just dying to meet them and give them a chance to make a difference with their fresh ideas. Like nearly all who came before, they will ultimately navigate through the churn of heavy feelings and doubt and learn that leaving the cocoon of high school –even if they don’t think they can handle it– has a higher purpose. It’s an essential part of the self discovery process.

This past weekend I went to visit my adopted niece because she is going off to college in a few weeks and I don’t expect to see her again before Christmas. I’ve known this young lady since she was born and I could sense her worry. “Chris, I’m so nervous about this,” she admitted, nearly in tears as she hugged me tightly. I said the only thing I could think of, unrehearsed from the heart. “You’re going to have a great time and amaze yourself and everyone with all the good you are capable of.” That wasn’t me saying something insincere just to be polite. I really do believe in her, maybe more than she believes in herself at the moment. Next year will be her brother’s turn. He is a highly motivated, dynamic kid and I’m certain he too will do very impressive things once he is freed from the limitations of high school.

It hurts to watch young people stress out over things we older and wiser folks know will pass, but there are some situations we cannot or should not bail kids out of. All we can do is smile and understand and assure them that joy and pain often come as a matched set. In my June 17, 2014 article I mentioned that the greatest trait of strong people is they know they are loved. It’s the most powerful and important feeling we can impart on our kids when we launch them into the world as brand new adults to figure out for themselves that the end of Senior Summer is the beginning of a bright and promising future .

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