Sunday, June 7, 2009

Duluth Denfeld High School Graduation Speech...

Some of you have asked about my graduation speech given to Duluth Denfeld class of 2009. Because of it's length, I've eliminated some of my introductory comments but have included the bulk of the speech below. I thank all of you who gave me ideas to share with the graduates. Some were included in the written speech (below) and the values you suggested (honesty, integrity and others) were highlighted throughout the speech.

Hope and Glory: A Speech given to the graduates of Duluth Denfeld High School on June 4, 2009 by Jim Heffernan

Before we get down to business here, let me point out that there have been reports that perhaps with all of the changes planned for Duluth public schools, they might also seek to change the name of Denfeld to something else – what, I don’t know. Centfeld? Dentral?

Should the school's name be changed? What do you think? (There was a rousing "no" from the audience.) Change the name of Denfeld? I don’t think so.

This western Duluth high school has traditions going back100 years, most of that time in this building called Denfeld, and I believe it’ll be just fine for another 100 years with the proud Denfeld name.

Now to our business. Commencement speakers are notorious for saying things nobody remembers, and I expect that’ll be the case again tonight. But we all try to say something that might make an impression on the graduates, maybe one little gem of a thought that a few students will remember for years to come. Not that I remember anything said at my high school or college commencement exercises.

But still we try. I have a blog, and in preparation for this evening, I asked people who visit my blog for suggestions on what to say to the Denfeld class of 2009 before we send you out into the so-called REAL world.

Here is one of the responses: A woman who graduated 40 years ago from another Duluth high school recalled that her class’ speaker told the grads that “in life there’s no free lunch.” So I pass it on here, not as the main theme of these remarks, but because it’s true, and a good thing to be aware of. One way or another, you can plan on paying for everything you get, and you’ll have to work to get it.

Serious stuff. All of the members of this graduating class together with assembled family members and other well-wishers know that you will walk out of here tonight into a troubled and uncertain world, with some of the issues directly affecting your future. What is now being called the Great Recession greets any job hunting you are planning. Then there are wars on two fronts that would have an impact on young people planning to join the military. Uncertain times.

I was born into a very uncertain time – the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. But some 17 years later, when I sat on this stage in a cap and gown thinking about what fun I was going to have celebrating later that night, the United States had recovered from depression and war, and the peaceful, prosperous world of the late 1950s awaited us.

Practically everything you bought – including cars with huge tail fins – was stamped “Made in the U.S.A.” and we never doubted that we would go out with our diplomas in hand and make all of those things people in America wanted.

It’s different today. Jobs are scarce, and young people who worked hard, or sometimes not so hard, for that high school diploma are finding the real world is real difficult to operate in, and that they’ll need something more. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to stress the importance of your getting further education – whether at a university or a more jobs-oriented institution. I don’t think there’s been a time in recent history that this is more important.

I realized sometime after I stumbled – and I mean stumbled -- into a journalism career after drifting through four years of college without any real plan for what I would do after I got out -- that in order to get along in this world you’ve got to BECOME something -- something specific: The best auto body worker you can be, the best cosmetologist, the best accountant, the best nurse or physician, the best rocket scientist or teacher, the best musician or actor: something specific.

As someone put it colloquially, “If ya wanna eat, ya gotta work.”

And as I’m putting it tonight: You might as well work at something you enjoy and are good at. That doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams. You should.

Recently in traffic I found myself behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read: “I used to have a life, but my job ate it.” You don’t have to accept that fate.

I’m sure these words only echo what your teachers and counselors have been telling you for four years here at Denfeld, but it bears repeating on this, your last day of high school obligations.

Twenty-one years ago this week, I sat in the Duluth Arena as the East class of 1988 went through these exercises, my daughter among them.

(As an aside, you’ll note that none of the other Duluth high schools has an auditorium like this beautiful one that can handle a full commencement. It’s one of the things that makes Denfeld special.)

Anyway, on that long-ago evening, just as we experienced it tonight, the class marched in to what most people simply think of as the graduation song. My daughter is the eldest of my two children, and someday most of you will understand better than you do tonight the thoughts racing through your parents’ minds as they see their children (sorry, they still think of you as children) finish high school.

As a columnist for the Duluth newspaper at the time, I tried to put my thoughts as my daughter graduated with the class of 1988 into words to share with readers – largely inspired by the so-called graduation song.

My daughter’s name is Kate, or Katie, so I wrote a piece I called “One From the Heart For Katie ‘88” that I recently included in a book I put out, and will share with you this evening in hopes that some of the thoughts expressed are universal.

Here’s one from the heart for all of you.

The column begins…

When Sir Edward Elgar’s now familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” march was given its debut performance in London in 1901, it achieved such instant popularity with the audience that the conductor had to repeat the work three times before the crowd would leave the auditorium.

We know the main theme from the work as the tune we march down the aisle to when we graduate from high school. Virtually everyone in America, whether or not they appreciate orchestral music, can hum the “graduation song.”

I was thinking about that first performance of “Pomp and Circumstance” the other night when I attended a high school commencement. The orchestra had to repeat the theme 17 or 18 times before all of the students were in their places.

Back in 1901, after its very first performance, the work became enormously popular with the English people and someone penned words to the familiar march. The title and opening line became “Land of Hope and Glory” and it remains a patriotic anthem in Britain.

So the march that accompanied English soldiers into battle, and stirred the patriotic impulses of Britons, accompanies American youth out to battle the world, as they complete their formal schooling.

The composer probably would have liked the way America uses his march, I sat thinking as the school orchestra repeated the theme over and over while an endless stream of capped-and-gowned graduates marched into the hall. My daughter was among them – the first of my children to graduate.

And the words “Land of hope and glory” kept running through my mind. I always taught my children that they lived in a land of hope and glory, even if I didn’t use those exact words.

You can be anything you want to be, we tell our kids, if you work hard and use your talents. That’s hope. What about the glory? It’s out there, and it’s worth striving for, we tell them.

The dictionary says glory is “great honor and admiration won by doing something important or valuable… What parent hasn’t dreamed that his or her child might achieve that kind of glory in some way? Then we all jog ourselves out of our dream, and hope the child will achieve the greater glory of a happy life, regardless of great honor and widespread admiration.

As our daughter moved through the grades in school, there came the day when we counted the years ahead to when she would graduate, and realized she would be in the class of 1988.

Her nickname is Katie, and we began calling her Katie Eighty-eight. It has a ring to it– Katie Eighty-eight.

All this took place when 1988 seemed as far into the future as the year 2025 seems now. But suddenly there it was, the class of ’88 marching into the hall, Katie Eighty-eight among them as the orchestra played on. “Land of hope and glory…”

And when the program was over, the class of ’88 marched out, with all of us in the audience straining to see “our” graduate file into the real world that lay in the mists somewhere beyond the back of the arena. As she disappeared, I found myself thinking…

Here comes Katie Eighty-eight, world, she’s full of hope.
And here comes the world, Katie-Eighty-eight, it’s full of glory.

((end of column))

It’s the same for all of you tonight. (Here comes the class of '09, world, they're full of hope. And here comes the world, class of '09, it's full of glory.)

Congratulations, and good luck to all of you.

Thank you.

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