The Graduation Speech They Didn’t Let Me Give (again)

Roni Aubrey John Grad 18 Better

This year, like all other years in the history of planet Earth, no one asked me to do a college or university commencement speech. I thought I had a shot at the University of Montana, but they settled on a Nike executive instead.

I puzzled over my lack of commencement speech invites, but only briefly. After all, at my most recent keynote (the Montana School Counseling Association), I spontaneously told my “Just Shut Up” story. It just so happens that my “Just Shut Up” story references a body part that typically isn’t mentioned in keynote speeches.

In my own defense, the “Just Shut Up” story is about adolescent development, and, because the entire experience of adolescent development is inappropriate, it’s impossible to say anything inappropriate when talking about adolescent development. This is so obvious that if you saw a Jeopardy answer saying, “A topic about which it’s impossible to say anything inappropriate” the correct question would, of course, be, “What is adolescent development?” I think I’m on solid ground here.

My point is that I’ve come to accept not getting asked to do commencement speeches. After all, they’re rigorous speaking gigs where you have to be ready to offer sage and complex advice like, “Be yourself” and “Don’t forget to give back.” That sort of sage advice might be somewhat outside my wheelhouse.

But then, the week before last Saturday’s University of Montana commencement, I found out that our graduating M.A. students in Counselor Education had requested a microphone for their post-commencement reception. I didn’t realize it immediately, but upon embarking on my one-mile walk to line up for the commencement ceremony, it hit me. My students were sending me a special indirect message. The microphone was for me. Knowing my penchant for speech-giving, they leaked the microphone intel, so I’d have time to prepare a fancy commencement speech, just for them.

When it comes to graduation speeches, preparation is key, so I spent the 15 minutes of my walk in a state of profound inspiration. I prepared a formal opening and closing, and then wrote two special graduation songs, practicing them along the way. The passerby seemed appreciative, even though they probably couldn’t understand why I was singing “Move your eyes” to the tune of “Shake it Off” or what inspired me to include the main refrain of “A date with Sigmund Freud” instead of “A partridge in a pear tree” when singing “The Twelve Weeks of Theories.”

Being uncertain as to whether I should focus exclusively on songs, I outlined an additional speech. This extra speech was all about the Gestalt of be-here-now and self-awareness, as I integrated the rising (and flooding) spring waters of the Clark Fork River as a metaphor for how over-activity contributes to the opaqueness of the self. To be sure that my commencement message would get through, I also included warnings about Narcissus and his fatal projection of the self. That’s the sort of mythical anecdote that can bring down the house.

Sadly, that afternoon, I discovered that the leaking of the microphone rental was nothing more than the flirtation of a ruse. During the WHOLE Counselor Education reception, the students completely hogged the microphone. All they did was go On and On and On and On (like Jack Johnson) saying nice things about each other and the faculty and the doc students, not leaving me a minute with the mic to get up there with my Poker Face (like Lady Gaga) to perform my freshly written songs.

Grad 18 Awards

In the end, truth be told, the Nike guy was pretty darn good, and likely a better choice than me. But, more importantly, our students were like they usually are . . . AWESOME. These graduates will be heading out to schools, mental health agencies, and intercultural destinations, where they’ll connect with and counsel youth and adults and make the world a healthier place.

Other than my amazing vocal performance, there’s one thing I wish I’d had a chance to say. It might have been something like this:

Take a moment to look around the room. See your classmates, your supportive families, and your faculty. Don’t just see them, SEE them as the multi-layered and profound beings that they are. In this irretrievable sparkling moment of the now, let’s remember a few things together. Remember your decision. You walked in this building to become a counselor. You dedicated yourself to learning how to help others. How cool is that? Feel the power of that memory. Remember our first times together. Remember when your professors kept having you awkwardly introduce yourselves to your new classmates. Feel that awkwardness and anxiety. Let it be with you, remembering that you OWN your future awkwardness and anxiety, because you worked through it, conquering it for now and later. Remember the painful viewing of video recordings of yourself doing counseling. Remember the painful feedback. Remember the tears and joys you experienced together. Remember getting to know the people in this room in ways you never could have imagined, until it happened. Remember growing in respect for yourself, growing your counseling skills, and deepening your respect for your classmates. Remember the late nights, the early mornings, the six straight hours of class, and that assignment (or two) that you pretty much hated. And most of all, remember this moment, right now, surrounded by friends and family. Remember the joy of right now. Remember why you chose this path and why you’re here today. Remember it all, and put it in your heart. Then, in the future, which might be now and might be later, commit yourself to combine your counseling skills, your empathic heart, and your thirst for continued learning. Let the joy of now flow back to the memories of then and the future of what will be. Recognize your new power; it’s like the Force; it’s in your hands, it’s in your heart, it’s in your brain. You take it from here, remembering also, that we are honored to have had time with you and to send you out to shape a healthier and happier society.

Oh. Yeah. I almost forgot. Remember this too, and be grateful: Never again will you have to date Sigmund Freud.

6 thoughts on “The Graduation Speech They Didn’t Let Me Give (again)”

  1. Good Morning from Michigan John! Sad to hear that you were not pressed into service (even at a late date) to do your planned commencement address. Know that I will share your poignant musings with colleagues I know and those with whom I mentor. Your thoughts provided me a gentle nudge to step back, remember why I entered this profession, and that while I hope I have contributed to change in the world, my world has certainly created beautiful change in me. Thanks for being present. I appreciate you. Make it a good day!

    1. Thanks Terri, for the awesome and encouraging note. It can be hard to notice our positive contributions to the world. So consider this note back to you as a message from the world saying, “Thanks Terri, for all your daily, and often unrecognized, contributions to the lives of others.” Have a great Thursday!

  2. Mr. John,
    Wow. This speech is very empowering and moving. It has given me added inspiration to press through my final year as a Grad student in counseling, no matter the struggle.
    I am also very surprised you have not been able to give a commencement speech. Had you not revealed this, no one could have convinced me otherwise.
    I believe there is due time for everything…. and I am confident that it will happen. As powerful as this one is, the next one you write will be even more powerful and you will carry it out in front of thousands of graduates, professors, & professionals.
    In the meantime, so many of us will continue to embrace your knowledge & learn from your experiences as you cultivate us through your wisdom to become effective counselors. You, sir, are truly noticeable in every aspect that you are positioned in.
    Whether you’ve touched one or millions, you have done and continue to do great service.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Cheers to the preperation for your future next commencement speech.


    1. Hi Michell. Thanks for your wonderful and thoughtful comment. And thank you for your positive prediction. Although I partly write blogs for my own expressive entertainment, it’s always spectactular to get some positive feedback. Also . . . I wish you well in your current studies and I hope you have visualizations for yourself that are as positive as the ones you’ve provided me. All my best, John SF

  3. Your sentiments echo the always present feeling that school counselors are the invisible hand, holding up their students for often little recognition. The ones who are always there, but absent from every acknowledgement. Our district frequently thanks the multitude of employees who work to support a smooth school year – from the teachers and principals down to the hall monitors and lunch workers. But never the counselors.
    But that is of course not why we do this work, why we show up early and stay late with crying students or why we complete last minute college applications that were sent to us the day they are due.
    Thank you for sharing this and while our high school does not have a keynote speaker, your words will echo with me.

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