Monday, April 17, 2017

My College Graduation Speech and Obituary for All Students

To My Students, the "Class of 2017" - If I am your commencement speaker, here's what I will say...
Good morning Chancellor, President, Deans, Faculty Members, Staff, Students, Friends, and Family Members.  Welcome.
Before we can shower accolades on the superstars before me, I’d love to recognize the super heroes that got them here.  So if you’re a mom or dad of a graduate, please stand up for some applause.  Keep standing!  If you are a grandma/pa of a graduate, please stand up as well for applause.  Keeeeeeeeeeeep standing grandma!  If you are a graduate, and YOU are a mom or dad as well, please rise for applause.  Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in recognizing these miracle workers, for without their encouragement and sacrifice, we would not be here today honoring the bright future of our graduates.

(Now moving away from the podium, standing at the edge of the stage and speaking to the grads):
Every one of you is special.
Every one of you is a productive member of society.
Every one of you is what inspires ME.
Because every one of you has a story to tell.
I just wish I had the time to hear every one of them, and to be there as your career paths unfold.

You have already accomplished a huge milestone on that journey.  The biggest step though was just showing up.  That’s it.  The secret most people don’t get until it’s too late.  Just showing up as young Freshmen was a threshold event.  Trying something for the first time which may be hard.  Experiencing new things, even if it’s unknown whether the objective is attainable.
To me, the greatest barriers to success, however you define that, are:  a lack of curiosity, a fear of change, and a fear of failure.  But you need a game plan, and hopefully you can lean a little on what you learned in school to figure out that route.  No matter what you do in life, you always will have your education.

I hope you made some lifelong friends here.  Frankly, I learned more about life from my college peers than from my professors.  And hopefully you got more than knowledge from your profs.  Because you can get that from a book.  I’m hoping you gained insight on whatever subject, and then stamped your own original perspective on how to resolve issues and solve problems.

Many times the things you do won’t work.  And you will fail at some things you try.  That’s just a fact of life.
Abraham Lincoln once said:  “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”
And you will make mistakes.  A lot of them!  Both in your careers and your lives.  That’s just another fact of life.
But that’s okay.  The trick is figuring out how to deal with setbacks.  Your family and friends will always be there for you.  And your education will continually serve as a foundation to get you back on track.

(Jumping off stage and standing among the graduates):
Raise your hand if you’ve done dumb things in life. 
Come on; raise your hands!
Your mama already knows anyway!
I see a lot of hands up.
Hey, I’ve made some big mistakes too.

I feel very lucky to be here today.
Physically, I mean.
You see, at an early age, I was left for dead in a ravine off some highway in upstate New York.  I was the same age as most of you around me. 

Let me read you my obituary:
Perry Binder of Queens, New York, was found dead off Interstate 90 near Buffalo.   A trucker discovered his body, dripping with blood and draped with a state trooper’s ticket for reckless driving.  The apparent cause of death was stupidity.  Perry just completed his first year of law school, after graduating with a B.A. in Political Science.  He enjoyed watching baseball games with his grandfather, and dreamed of becoming a sports lawyer.  He is survived by his mother, father, brother, grandfather, a basketball, and ratty sneakers.  Perry was 21 years of age.

            Now, as a college educated group, I’m guessing you figured out that this obit was a bit premature?  But that’s what should have happened to me during a summer job, after pulling a 16-hour graveyard shift loading and unloading passenger baggage in a downtown bus depot, then jumping in my car and driving the second leg of my 140-mile roundtrip commute. 
Just five minutes from home, I fell asleep at the wheel.
I blasted the car stereo, rolled down the windows, and sucked down a gallon of coffee.  The warning signs were all there, but I just kept going and going.
Eventually, my eyes closed as my hands slipped off the steering wheel.  The car veered to the right, right off the road, smashing into the side of a parked flatbed.  That truck miraculously prevented the car from flying into a grassy ravine.  It was off on the road’s shoulder, so the trucker could catch up on some sleep.  Luckily, he was okay, but I think I woke him up at the same moment I opened my eyes.
In shock, losing blood and coherent thought, I wandered aimlessly down into the ravine.  I wanted more than anything to lay down in a fetal position, close my eyes and pray for some help.  But I knew that I needed to stay conscious.
In the days before cell phones, it was fortunate that the trucker had a CB radio.  He called for paramedics, who arrived quickly, and gave me fluids and oxygen.  I was weak but remained in this world, as the ambulance raced to the hospital.
Two broken hands and an extremely smashed head.  I had no air bag to cushion the blow.
            To this day, I wonder what forces put a flatbed truck in my path.  During recovery, I thought a lot about my brush with certain death.  All I knew was that I was alive and awakened to the fragility of life.
Invited guests - usually my class is a little more upbeat and a lot less harrowing than this anecdote!  But I relay this experience today to my students for many reasons.
1-      It’s a story of turning a negative into a positive.  This near fatal mistake made me appreciate life just a little more.  To be curious and try things, regardless of what others think.  I encourage you graduates to be adventurous!
2-     The experience taught me about limits.  That hand-in-hand with taking risks, I better assess the dangers and consequences associated with the risks.
3-     It allowed me to write another chapter in my personal and professional life.  It clarified and focused my attention on going after things that made me happy.  It was education which afforded me this opportunity to become a college professor.
4-     It allowed me time to meet my wife, witness the birth of a child, and then another.
5-     I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that my day-in and day-out work is with students whose age mirror my own at the time of the car accident.  I do know that I stand here today proud of what you’ve achieved in my class and at this university.  I am excited about your very bright futures!
6-     I wanted to tell you something about me that you didn’t get in class, because no matter how well you think you know people, they have stories within them that can surprise you.

Finally, I want all of you gathered in front of me to please lose the title of “former” student, because you will be my students for many years to come.  And I expect in return that I can become your student, as I learn about your professional successes, trials, and tribulations.

Every one of you is special.
Every one of you is a productive member of society.
Every one of you is what inspires me.
Because every one of you has a story to tell.
            My life's chapter now reads:   Make your own fate and don't leave it to fate.

"Class of 2017" - What does yours say?

c 2009-2017 Perry Binder

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