In May my beautiful daughter graduated from high school. She is smart, talented, witty, and clever. She is a hard worker who always got good grades and did as she was told. Just yesterday she was a tiny baby cuddled in my arms. Today she walked across the stage an impressive young woman. In the Fall she begins a new adventure at St. Olaf College. I could not resist, in such a moment, expressing to her how proud I was and to offer some small piece of advice for what it is worth. What I wrote is a tribute to her. It is also a tribute to my own parents who made me what I am today. I am fortunate to have such a family.
There are plenty of times in our lives when we have to do what we are supposed to do. As an adult you will be obliged to tow the line, to meet your obligations, to smile when you don’t feel like smiling, to laugh at jokes you don’t find funny. You will be asked to demonstrate your acumen, your diligence, your gumption, and your stick-to-it-iveness. You will be required to do the sensible thing, the rational thing, the thing calculated to achieve the maximum return on investment. In the words of Roger Hodgson:
They sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.
There will be ample time for all that. For four years and more you have done that. You have learned how to do that. You have done what you ought. You have done what you were told. You have gotten the straight A’s.
I believe life must amount to more than that. I think there is more to be gotten out of it. I think that stuff is a foundation for building a more impressive structure. Even the animals work day-to-day to make a living. The nobility that is within us, if it exists, is not simply an extension of the economy of animals – getting and consuming. Nor is it the natural extension of that economy – the accumulation of wealth and dross. The truly noble things that people have accomplished, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Salk’s Polio vaccine, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Armstrong’s footprint on the moon, were not done for the money. They were not achieved by people obsessed with security or the accumulation of wealth.
Thoreau described what I’m talking about in Walden. He said about the average man:
He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?
At Cape Canaveral, in Florida, there is a place called complex 39A. Most days it is a quiet place. You can feel the salty breeze off the Atlantic here as it rustles the marsh grass. You can hear the squawk of the gulls and see the pelicans wheeling overhead. It is a place of beauty and silence. The manmade obtrusion into this place of nature is an industrial looking platform rising many stories into the air. Standing by it is a water tower. Beyond that are several smaller towers topped out with lightning rods. This complex stands on an earthen berm built up for the purpose many years ago. These skeleton-like structures, stark as they appear, have a purpose more noble and awe-inspiring than the pyramids. They are merely a foundation, sure, but a foundation assembled lovingly and with meticulous attention to detail. This is the place where thousands of individuals, dedicated to a dream, realized the aspirations of thousands of generations of humans who looked up at the night sky and thought “what if we could…” The summer your mommy was born this quiet place was the center of the world’s attention and imagination. The hard work of building the foundation was complete and from this little berm rose a rocket on a pillar of flame which carried with it the aspirations of those thousand generations.
On your graduation day this example may seem like hyperbole. It may seem a grandiose metaphor – the Saturn V launchpad and you, going off to St. Olaf. But I assure you it is an apt metaphor. All those visionaries I mention above, Thoreau, King, Twain, Salk, Armstrong, started from a firm foundation built up by their parents, and their parents, and their parents.
Mommy and I love you very much. Our aspiration is to be your foundation. We want to be your launchpad. We have worked every day and socked away money and planned and worried so that you can have this opportunity to be the rocket, to find your dream, to imagine a better world and do what you can to make it a reality. This is your chance to think big thoughts and explore the amazing worlds a place like St. Olaf can show you.
I know that everyone you meet today will ask you “so, what are you going to study in college?” This comes with the implication that you had better choose a major that “pays off.” I say “to hell with that!” Going to college is about building yourself as a human being starting with the foundation your parents laid for you. What if Martin Luther King had majored in accounting because there was a “good living” to be made? What if Mark Twain had become a plumber because there was a “lot of call” for that in Hannibal, MO?
You are smart. You are capable. You are a hard worker. You have good social skills. It would be a horrible waste for you to take on a mundane, work-a-day, “practical” profession that did not draw out and call upon your natural gifts. You may not know, right now, what will inspire you. You may not know, for awhile, what the world calls on you to do and to be. That is what education is for. That is what St. Olaf is for. That is what youth is for.
We are your launchpad but, more importantly, we are your safety net. Whatever I have accomplished, whatever chances I have been able to take to achieve my dreams, were made possible by the foundation laid down by my Mom and Dad and by the safety net they provided me while I was struggling to “figure things out.” My Mom and Dad lived in a mobile home when I was born. My Dad worked third shift in a machine shop to buy me toys to inspire my imagination. My Mom clipped coupons and made us beany-burger and skimped and saved. All of these things laid a foundation for me so that I could go to college, so that I could explore the world, so that I could find my place. They did not expect or ask me to pay it all back. They worked and saved and “did without” as a pure gift to me. It is an awesome responsibility.
The only way I have found to pay my parents back is to live by their example. Mommy and I have worked and saved and “done without” because we believe in the sacred obligation of building a foundation – a launchpad. I want you and your siblings to have the opportunity, the freedom, to be all that you can imagine. As my parents did for me we now do for you. Your only obligation is to do the same for your kids someday.