I had the distinct honor to speak at my high school commencement ceremony last weekend for the 2018 graduates of Gregory High School, South Dakota. The class consisted of the teenage children of my former classmates and five international exchange students.
Special in their own right, over the last four years, this senior class won three state football championships, earned numerous wrestling and track championships, and produced many successful artists and musicians. I was really stoked about doing this gig and not the least bit nervous because I have spoken to countless audiences over the course of my 30 years in the Air Force.
Growing up in a small high school in South Dakota, I knew every student from kindergarten to the senior class. I knew what their parents did for a living, and I knew who was doing what to whom. But, I had been virtually a non-existent entity since entering the military. My relatives would see me every couple of years and often for the smallest snippets of time.
I missed out on the birth of my younger cousins and sent my regrets to the funerals of my distant aunts and uncles. I did not take advantage of the Air Force’s Public Affairs hometown news releases because I didn’t want to appear as a “bragger” to those who had raised me to be humble and modest.
So, I was truly thrown by the tidal wave of emotion I felt when I entered the auditorium. The memories of music contests flooded me when I saw the band set. I could see myself cheerleading beside the fans for our wrestling matches and basketball games.
I remembered walking down the aisle built between the hundreds of folding chairs for the homecoming king and queen selection ceremony and, of course, my own graduation. I remembered my mom and dad, both now deceased, with their booth of farm implements and trailers set up in the best corner of the transformed basketball court during the annual farm and home show.
If you don’t know me, you might not know that I am really a softie when it comes to the gratitude I feel for those who mean the most to me. As I walked to the front of the room to meet my handler for the day, I was stopped by my high school English teacher, Peg Glover, who is finishing up her 45th year of teaching and has no plans to retire. She was truly excited to see me and thanked me profusely for volunteering to speak.
Then, I turned and saw one of my most treasured aunts, Bettylou Wortman, slowly making her way to me. She was the aunt that I always looked up to, having navigated some of the toughest relationships with eight children, losing two to cancer. She was someone I always made a point of visiting when I went home and absolutely soaked up her compliments and advice as I grew to the woman I am today.
I teared up immediately when she told me she had only come so she could see me speak in uniform. I fumbled some incoherent thoughts but thanked her the best way I could. I asked her to sit out of my sight-line so I would be able to get through my speech without choking up. She laughed and promised to do so.
Many more greetings later and it was time. I followed the official party up on the stage and took my place in the chair of honor next to the notable school faculty and pastor. The normal commencement steps followed and it was now my turn to inspire those seated before me.
My heart was beating out of my chest because I now had picked out of the crowd dozens of my dad’s colleagues, my family’s friends, fellow schoolmates and other people who had shaped my path during the first 18 years of my life. Because they had invested so much in me, all I could think was “you can’t screw this up.”
I have always thought podiums place a barrier between speakers and audiences, an unneeded obstacle that places your message at risk. So, I walked to the middle of the stage, grabbed the microphone out of its cradle and began by talking about the power of knowledge and the criticality of continuous learning throughout one’s life. I talked about how it is vital to plug one’s knowledge into the many teams that are formed over the course of one’s life and how that teamwork produces the best outcomes.
I stressed how fulfillment and lifelong passions result when that teamwork is transformed into service for their communities, states and nations. To illustrate my point, I shared a very personal story about an Air Force mission in Haiti in 2016 relating how my Airmen had leaned on their knowledge to build a just-in-time team to put food into the hands of the host nation countrymen at their darkest hour, transforming their service into life-saving care.
I left the stage offering my congratulations to the students and my heartfelt thanks to the community that raised me. I faltered on those words, overcome with gratitude.
There was a bit of respectful silence as I returned to my chair. When I turned back to face the audience, they were on their feet and clapping. I didn’t know it then but it was the first standing ovation of mutual respect that had been witnessed at this town’s ceremony in many years.
I don’t share this story to highlight myself or to demonstrate my speaking prowess. I share it to urge you to seek opportunities to tell your own story. I have heard time and time again that our civilian counterparts thirst for advice, experience and positive role models for leadership. Our youth are not closed off nor insensitive to positive growth. They actively seek it.
Secondly, as you participate in community events, share your respect and appreciation for the community that has built you. Thank your most influential teacher, your most treasured relative, the community leader who inspired you to service, or the fellow student who forced you to raise your own personal bar of excellence. You are better because of these people who shaped you; share your gratitude with them.
Finally, pass it on. Pay it forward. Shape the next generation with your own lessons learned. Show them the path to teamwork that transforms that work into service.
You are successful. Don’t hoard that success. Share it and use it to inspire others. My dad, my teachers, my fellow students, my Airmen have done that for me. Do it for someone else.
I am proud to be a part of a community that pursues lives full of knowledge-gathering quests. I am thrilled to plug my talents into the larger whole through the various teams to which I belong.
I am most passionate about the service that is produced from this knowledge and teamwork. What drives you?