And then I wrote... This month is when schools traditionally gather for commencement, and it's been my honor to have been asked to give a number of commencement addresses; so I figured I would share them here. But this one is a bit different, since it was actually an address to the students of St. Aloysius, the Jesuit High School in Glasgow, Scotland, for their annual Prize Giving Day (which, I believe, was in September not May. The year was 2010, in any event.)
As an American, my only experience with the peculiar tradition of giving prizes to high school students was what I had read in P. G. Wodehouse, and it usually involved much quantities of gin before the award. I skipped that part, though as you will see intoxication did play a significant role in what I told them...
I am honored to be among you this afternoon, to add my congratulations to those of your faculty. I confess, when I attended the Jesuit high school in Detroit, I used to sneer at academic awards; that is, until I actually won one. My sophomore year I was named to the National Honor Society, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me. I had not distinguished myself academically; in fact the most common comment I had heard from my teachers was that I was “working below my capabilities.” But I thought I was getting by, just fine; I had a firm belief that hard work was just a sign you hadn’t figured out the system. I suspect, in retrospect, that the powers who handed me that honor knew me better than I knew myself, however. I was so embarrassed at getting the award, that I wound up actually working hard – or, at least, harder than I had been – to try to see if I couldn’t make myself a little more worthy of it.
Hard work is one of those virtues that is often misunderstood. One of the awful clichés that we used to hear at my high school from speakers (like me today) was, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be, you can reach your dreams!” Now, that always sounded like utter nonsense to me. What if I drempt of being the star center for the Detroit Pistons, our local basketball team? Would hard work make me sixteen inches taller or stretch my arm span by an extra foot? Not likely.
The trick, of course – and it is a trick – is that you can be anything you want, only by controlling what it is you want. If you want to follow your dreams, you have to put some hard work into choosing your dreams. What is it that you really want?
Let’s say you think you want to be a basketball star. Ask yourself, why? Is if for the fame? There are plenty of ways to be famous besides playing basketball. A classmate of mine got his name in the papers just last year; he was working with the US military space program and was caught... [In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]