My Mount Desert Island High School Commencement Address

On Sunday, June 14th, I had the privilege of giving the commencement address to the graduating seniors of MDI High School.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful ceremony.  You should note that I did a solid job acting out the “corn planting” scene I describe as “story two!”

"May I present to you, the class of 2015!"

“May I present to you, the class of 2015!”

Hi everyone. It’s another beautiful day on the most beautiful island in the world. I won’t soon forget the moment a few weeks back when I heard David Anderson’s message on my office phone asking if I’d be up for giving this talk. I was touched and honored.

It meant so much to me personally and, institutionally, for the College of the Atlantic, because being asked says a lot about the strong and growing relationship between COA, the local schools, and MDI as a whole.

A handful of seconds after those feelings of pride and honor, a wave of panic swept over my body.

I give lots of talks, so it wasn’t about speaking in front of people. But, let’s be honest, commencement speeches most often fail miserably – I’d put the failure rate at 95%. Most fail, not because they’re rude or wrong, but because they’re forgettable. Despite weeks of deep thought by the speaker, by the time graduates toss their caps in the air everyone has completely forgotten the message delivered. Everyone.

Now, I have an eighth-grader — Maggie Collins — who will be coming to MDI High next year and when I told her this – that most speeches fail because they’re simply not memorable – she said, “Dad – please fail. Please be unmemorable. Whatever you do, do not make it so people remember your talk.” Poor Maggie.

In an effort to find my way into that small percentage of memorable, good talks, I took the anthropological approach and went to the MDI prom, you know, to try and get to know students a bit more. Maggie was of course mortified by this and, to be honest, I felt a bit creepy.

At that event I asked a few administrators, “Who gave the best MDI high school commencement address?” and the universal response was “Eddie Monet – Diver Ed.” They recalled how Eddie showed up on stage in his dry suit, which he of course inflated, and I’m guessing proceeded to deflate through the neck gasket and in the process emit the loudest, longest piece of flatulence the island has ever heard. But I’m willing to bet Eddie was also a success because he was insightful without lecturing; he didn’t patronize folks, didn’t wave fingers, didn’t pretend to have the answers to all the problems you’ll run into after high school.

Believe me, if Eddie or I had such answers we’d definitely share them. The fact is, no one knows.

There’s just not a straight line between where you are now and where you ought to be a few years from now. There’s not a clean break between success and failure, between great and mediocre. The world is a complex and confusing place and it’s becoming increasingly complex and confusing every year.

40-50 years ago, people giving commencement addresses had it easy. You graduate. Get a job. Have a family. Retire after 40 years with the same company and with savings. There, that’s success.

Perhaps the only absolute truth I can offer today is that, at 45 years old, I have absolutely no idea what the world’s going to look like 27 years from now when you’re 45. No idea.

In writing this talk I came to think there should be law banning anyone older than 25 from giving commencement speeches. At least at 25 you can say “Hey, my high school experience was X, my experience immediately thereafter was Y, and this, Z, is what I see as the causality.” I thought about ending the talk right there as a public protest: let’s STOP middle-aged and older people from giving commencement addresses. But that wouldn’t be fair.

Instead, I’m going to tell three stories.

Story number one occurs between my junior and senior year of high school, in a remote corner of Idaho. I was sixteen and I had a wicked mullet.

I was part of a group of six student volunteers and two counselors working with a program called the SCA – the Student Conservation Association. It’s a program that puts kids to work in harsh conditions and for no pay out in the national parks or national forests – kind of like a child labor camp.

It was my first experience with the open West, but it was also my first experience with work. Now, I wasn’t some spoiled rich kid, I’d done things to earn money. I worked the counter in the New Jersey Video Vault growing up. But this was different.

We were building two miles of barbed wire fence to keep cows out of a stream and we did it with hand tools. Digging post holes through rocks. Stretching chain with hand-powered come-a-longs, etc.

If the two counselors were softies, we probably could have kicked around in the dirt for a while and called it success – a day of personal, inward journeys. But Harold and Gail Lindebo were not soft. They were hard-core back to the landers from the Boundary Waters and they worked us to death. They were also very smart, very thoughtful and were two of my earliest mentors.

We finished our two miles of fence a week before schedule and were assigned to another fence-building project in a different watershed where they wanted this jackleg fence. I’d generally worked my butt off and the Lindebo’s liked me – I liked to think I was their favorite. But at one point in the jack-leg process I was standing around, just kind of scratching, and Harold came up to me and said with a verbal slap to the back of the head, “Darron – what the hell are you doing standing around – get working.”

And I said, “I don’t know what to do – you never told me what to do.”

In a way that left this deep, psychic scar Harold said to me “Darron, I thought we’d moved past that. Not everyone’s going to lay everything out for you. Sometimes you need to assess what needs to be done and give it a go without being told.”

I’ve never forgotten that ten-second snippet. Never.

Story two occurs twelve years later. I was finishing up my PhD in anthropology and my wife Karen and I were living in northern Guatemala where I was doing my dissertation fieldwork among the Q’eqchi’ Maya, a group of Mayan-speaking farmers.

Corn is the lifeblood of these folks – it’s ubiquitous in the landscape and the language. A family without a stable supply of corn is a desperate family; the yearly cycle is dominated by the preparing of fields, the planting, the weeding, the harvesting. Corn sets the pace and the direction of their lives. Those of you who participated in the Guatemalan experience here likely saw that.

Because I was interested in plants and I’d worked hard to learn the Q’eqchi’ language, and because Karen and I had spent enough time there, I got invited to plant corn.

I’d never planted corn before.

I was given a burlap sack full of seed. I was given a digging stick. I was given instruction: Take a step, drive the digging stick into the loam to open up a nice hole in the ground. Drop four seeds in – not three, not five. Kick over some soil on top, just so. Take another elongated step, repeat.

There were, I’d say, about fifty of us. All guys, because men did the planting. We’d started the day with loads and loads of coffee, tamales, some alcohol and were now perched on this great hillside in the hot April sun. I was in the middle, with planters on the downhill and uphill side of me. The patriarch of the group stood next to me and almost imperceptibly nodded his head and everyone somehow knew to begin.

I went, faltered, staggered, dropped five seeds and only one found the hole; I fell and rolled over, almost down the hill; stood up, erratic; a total disaster. The caffeine, the corn-based beer, the heat, the ineptitude all focused on me with laser-like attention and knocked years worth of chips that had accumulated on my shoulder.

After fifteen minutes of intense attention but complete failure I looked up to get my bearings and there stood fifty guys bent over with laughter – all at the other side of the field – watching as I helplessly stood there. It wasn’t a mean-spirited laughter, for the most part, and with practice and through mentoring by the community, I eventually got pretty good at the task. But that’s not the point.

The point rests in the power of experience, especially experiences where you throw yourself into some very, very uncomfortable and awkward situations, experiences that rip you out of your present body and somehow magically return you to a state of childhood. Such experiences have a tremendous impact on your make-up of as a human being – they also thicken your skin and, wow, with the way we coddle kids today, humanity needs thicker skin.

Story 3 begins in June of 1984, the summer before my freshman year at Parsippany Hills High School in New Jersey, right next to the Video Vault.

My cousin, who was the closest thing I had to a sibling, took me aside one day and, I’ll never forget it, told me explicitly, “Listen, Darron, you are going to public school, and if you want to be the first in your family to go to college, whatever you do, don’t sign up for any of those silly shop classes – they’re a waste of time and are for losers.”

Now this makes my poor cousin sound like a complete jerk; he’s a great guy and I love him to death – what did he know? But I listened to him. I listened to him with the same reverence I had for Harold and Gail Lindebo while out in Idaho.

And, from that point forward, there was this strange, powerful, and completely fictional divide between work done with your hands and work done with your mind, where the former was bad and something to be avoided and the later was the mark of success.

Fast-forward 25 years to when I decide to purchase this unbelievably beautiful truck I name Scarlett – a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-60. She’s parked outside and you’re perfectly welcome to come grab a photo with her after the event. By then that belief in the beauty of mind work over handwork had thankfully eroded away – at least intellectually.

Not more than a month after that purchase, I’m driving through the woods of North Georgia when Scarlett gets T-boned and impaled by this enormous and very, very fast buck – literally T-boned, windows smash, doors implode, fenders crumple.

At that very moment I decided to move from an intellectual understanding of handwork to a very practical one. I embarked on the “let’s fix Scarlett and make her last for ever” project. And, when you all rush to take your graduation photos out there with Scarlett, you’ll see that my skills as a mechanic are infantile, not unlike my early corn planting skills.

But through Scarlett I’ve learned the harsh discipline of a hacksaw and the patience of drying paint and through Scarlett I now live by the tenet: If your hands aren’t dirty with the filth of practice I’m going to guess you’re wrong. Scarlett is my constant reminder that understanding the world’s complexity requires the artist, humanist, and scientist in one being; that true knowledge comes through the use of brain and body together. And because these things also define human ecology and the ethos of College of the Atlantic, Scarlett is an odd but constant reminder of why I’m here, at COA, on MDI.

Now, I could at this point say, “Graduates, the moral of these three stories is a) work hard and don’t always wait to be told what to do (Idaho); b) have experiences that are uncomfortable, push you to failure, and force you to laugh at yourself (Guatemala); and c) work with your minds and your hands (Scarlett the truck).”

I do believe those things and believe them strongly enough to feel that everyone, no matter what their long-term goals, should be required to take shop with Mr. Munger and Mr. Deans – we have two of the most dedicated, smart, thoughtful shop instructors and two of the coolest shops in the state.

But my conclusion revolves around how beliefs are formed. You’ve heard three of my stories. They tell tales of how strong beliefs were formed within me and now dictate how I move through the world. Whether you remember my stories or my beliefs doesn’t really matter.  What matters, I think, is that at this point in your lives it’s worth being aware, thoughtful, and critical of how you come to believe things.

I think if you do that you’ll come to see that your beliefs come to you through mentors (like Harold and Gail Lindebo for me) and through direct, intense, and intimate experience with the world around you (like corn planting in Guatemala).  And I think you’ll also recognize that beliefs change over time (like me with minds and hands) and that such change, not surprisingly, also comes from mentors and experiences.

Belief makes us all who we are as human beings.

The most complete human being is the one who surrounds him or herself with as many and as many diverse a group of mentors as possible, but is skeptical about self-proclaimed experts. The most complete human being is one that learns continuously, develops thick skin, and comes to love life through experience. The most complete human being is one who is aware and values how they’re shaped by their surroundings. Your experience on MDI has, whether you know it or not, baked things into your being that will be a part of you forever. We are all so privileged to have experienced this remarkable place.

If you can remember one thing from today, remember my metaphorical dry suit, remember to embrace the power of mentoring, of experience, and of place.

So, congratulations seniors, congratulations friends and family, congratulations teachers – don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the island.

Thanks for listening.


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