“Graduation,” May 23, 2023

It’s that time of year for all sorts of graduations, from preschool through college. The following column is a speech I was delighted to present at a high school graduation ceremony in 2014.

I am honored to stand before you on this fine and historic occasion. It is really quite something to look out at your beautiful, shining faces and see so much grace and poise and dignity, especially since we all know that not so long, you were still sticking peas up your noses.

Today you graduate from high school and it is my task to tell you as quickly and painlessly as possible something fine and inspiring that will stay with you all your life or at least won’t be so boring your dad will start snoring in the bleachers.

What I want to tell you is simple, but hard to remember. You can learn it 100 times and still forget. First let me say this: You are all achievers. You’ve been working toward this day all your life. You’ve learned how to take care of business, perform under pressure, do a job and do it well. That’s good. Keep it up. Achievers change the world. And Lord knows, the world needs lots of changing.

But while you’re busy changing things, here are some things I hope you’ll remember: Don’t work too hard. Don’t worry too much. Spend time with the people you love. Hold fast to your faith, whatever it may be. And live the life of your dreams.

My late husband was an achiever. For 30 years, he taught chemistry and coached basketball at Monterey High. In 1993, the year before he was diagnosed with cancer, he ran the Big Sur Marathon in just over 4 hours; not great time, but he finished and to him finishing was always more important than winning. And he truly loved to win. Almost as much as he hated to lose.

In class and on the court he stressed two things: Hard work, a term you know (or your parents will gladly explain it) and diligence, an old-fashioned word meaning “a constant and earnest effort to accomplish that which is undertaken.”

If you were in his class or on his team, you knew what those words meant because he taught them by his example. In the four years he battled cancer, there was never a doubt that he would continue, as long as he was able, to teach and coach and live the life of his dreams.

In the end, he told me that he had only one regret: He said if he could live his life over, he wouldn’t change a thing, except he’d spend less time at school and the gym and more time with his family and friends. He was proud of the classes he taught, the games he won, the lives he helped to shape. But what mattered most to him at the end of his life were the people that he loved.

Who are those people for you? Say their names in your mind. Now say them again. You will always have their love, but you won’t have them forever. Make sure that you treat them well.

Today when you marched in here, you were not alone. You carried on your shoulders the hopes and dreams and love of a lot of people: Your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, your teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends.

They’ve all had a hand in helping you reach this point of your life, and they will always be glad to help you, if they can. But one thing will change when you leave here today:

From now on, you alone will be in charge of your life. You alone will decide what to do with it. Officially, you are one of us now. Yes, God help you, you’re a grownup.

You can’t control all the things that will happen to you in the future. And you can’t change the things that happened in the past. But you can choose what you do with those things _ past, present and future _ and how you let them shape you.

Going forward, there will be only one person to credit or blame for your life: You. You have your mother’s smile and your father’s eyes, but your life is all your own.

That is your graduation gift: Your life. I hope you like it. If it doesn’t fit or it’s not the one you wanted, feel free to exchange it. Be the person you want to be _ not the one someone else thinks you ought to be. Live the life of your dreams. Starting now.

I’d like to leave you with some tips from my grandmother. She was a smart woman, self-educated, though she never finished high school. She was wise in ways that can’t be learned in books. You’d have liked her, had you known her. She’d be proud of you. Here are some of her suggestions for “how to get along in the world.”

“Things My Grandmother Always Said, or Would Have Said if She Had Thought of Them”:

1. When you meet people, shake hands and look them in the eye and they’ll probably say nice things about you at your funeral.
If you’re going to tell a lie, tell one that people will believe. That way, you’ll only be known as a liar and not a lying fool.

2. Look after living things: Feed your animals, tend your garden, be kind to children and old people and everybody else.

3. Never pretend to be what you aren’t or to know what you don’t know. People can forgive ignorance, but they never forget a phony.
Be true to your faith and practice what you preach; in the eyes of God, the only thing worse than a heathen is a hypocrite.

4. Don’t dip snuff around people who make you laugh. (It’s a lot like “don’t spit into the wind” but it’s more about the kind of company you keep than the kinds of things that you do.

5. Never be rude. If you slip, apologize at once. Say it like you mean it: “I apologize for my rudeness.” The only thing worse than rude is tacky and God forbid that you ever be tacky.

6. Avoid confrontation in the heat of anger, especially with members of your immediate family; remember that in some states, “the fool needed killing” is not a justifiable defense.

7. If you have to swallow a frog, don’t look at it too long before you put it in your mouth; if you have to swallow two frogs, go for the big one first; and if you have to swallow three frogs, you might want to ask yourself what you’re doing in that pond.

8. Never say anything behind people’s backs that you don’t want to say to their faces. They’re sure to hear about it unless they’re dead and you should never, ever speak ill of the dead, unless they’ve really got it coming.

9. Don’t start doing anything that you don’t plan to do keep doing forever. (This applies mainly to marriage and children, but also to PTA, Rotary and church committees.) And never try to finish what shouldn’t have been started in the first place.

10. Finally, try to lead an interesting life, whatever kind of life that might be for you. To settle for anything less would be way worse than tacky.

It may seem that the world is in such a mess that you and your generation can’t do much to change it. Don’t believe that. Not for a moment. This is your turn to shine, and shine you will.

When you hear people say, “What’s this world coming to?” tell them that it is coming to you.

Thank you for listening. I am proud of you.


  1. Pam Upshaw says

    Good message today as when originally written. Thank You!

  2. CHope Hall says

    Such words of wisdom. I don’t remember a word of our speaker’s address. When I graduated college with honors after being married for 12 years & having 4 little ones, I admit I felt proud of what we as a family had accomplished. Sure, I had the diploma, however, that never would not have happened if we hadn’t worked on it together. Thank you ever so much for sharing this. God bless!!

  3. Dick Daniel says

    Sharon, I should have asked you to write my graduation speeches.

  4. Katie Musgrave says

    Wise words of wisdom
    Funny, too! ❤️

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