On a warm Friday evening in early June, I had the honor and privilege to give the commencement address to the 2021 class of Carmichaels Area School District Mighty Mikes. I’d consider it an honor and a privilege to be asked to deliver remarks to any graduating class, but this was particularly special for me because I’m a proud graduate of the 2003 class of Mighty Mikes.
What’s a Mike? And what makes a Mike Mighty?
I answer that in-part in the speech, the text of which I’m sharing below.
During the trip to my hometown – a small town tucked away in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania – I had the chance to tour the campus and attend a dedication ceremony for the new Lavins Media Center and Library. There are impressive things happening there today – from collaborative art projects to a finance lab, an e-sports hub, a makerspace, an aviation simulator (around which an aviation summer camp launched the week after graduation with 30[!] attendees) – and so much more.
In short, it’s a small town full of big ideas – which feels right at home here on the Our Towns site. I plan to get into more of my hometown – and in particular my high school alma mater – in a future post.
You can watch the entire graduation here, thanks to high school students shooting and producing it on Mikes Nation, a YouTube channel that blossomed during the pandemic so that folks could remain engaged with the students through sporting events and more.
But for now, Go Mikes! And congratulation to all 2021 graduates!
Carmichaels Area School District; 2021 Commencement Address; Friday, June 11, 2021
Superintendent Morecraft, the Carmichaels Area School Board, Principal Zdravecky, faculty and staff, family and friends of tonight’s graduates, and most all the graduates – the 2021 Carmichaels Mighty Mikes, congratulations on tonight’s achievement!
While we’ll be gathered here for what may seem like merely minutes, it’s taken years to get here – and you all got here, in this moment to celebrate this major milestone of achievement.
So again, congratulations! How about a round of applause for the graduates?
And thank you all for inviting me here to speak tonight. I am truly honored to be entrusted with tonight’s message to you, the graduates.
Regarding such occasions, President Franklin Roosevelt once said: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.” That is what I intend to do.
I’ve been invited here to tell you how my time in Carmichaels has impacted my place in and perspective of the world – and why I carry with me a sense of pride of where I’ve come from. And it’s customary to give some advice, so I’ll do that and will give you a brief list of things I think will be helpful as you embark on the next leg of your life’s journey.
My reflections and advice in the spirit of the moment that brings us all together here – that’s the being sincere part. I’ll work to be brief because I stand here before you in between you and the rest of your life.
You’re here closing a chapter, a volume of your lives – your childhood, your adolescence, your teens, all culminating here with this milestone. And you’re about to embark on next volume, which many think of as from-now-until-retirement – nearly 50 years, maybe more.
That’s a lot. And there’s a lot of work to get to. And here I am holding you up from that, while, at the same time, working to impart some wisdom I’ve gained along my journey, from when I sat where you are now just 18 years ago.
And, you are likely also ready to embark on a night of celebrating with family and friends and are itching to get to that. And here I am holding you up from that, too.
It’s okay; when I was 18, I was also itchy to get to those things – and to be honest, at 36, I still am – so here comes the being brief and sincere before I take my seat.
While you’re sitting in a place many who’ve come before you have sat – like me – you, the 78 graduates of the class of 2021, are here in a time like no other. Yes, it’s taken you years to get here, to where you are now, but your last year – your senior year – has been one like no other that any of the generations of family and friends gathered here to celebrate with you have experienced.
And you may be tired of hearing that – a year like no other, a world like never before.
And it might be weighing heavily on you – what you’ve endured over the past 15 months to get to this moment, and what lies ahead.
To be sincere and truthful with you, that’s weighed upon me ever since I first sat down to write my remarks. And truthfully, this is the ninth draft.
What to say to a graduating high school class of Mighty Mikes who’ve lived through and learned through unprecedented times who are now about to embark into a world irrevocably changed, a world that may seem like a dark and scary place to be right now?
So, let me be honest and sincere here at the beginning: I am so incredibly proud of you all.
Getting here, in general, is not an easy feat – yet you got here through trying times that have tested you – and you passed. And I am so very proud of your achievement.
See, your accomplishments and successes are our accomplishments and successes, because, as you already know and heard already here tonight: Once a Mike, always a Mike – a bond unique to us here and from Carmichaels, no matter where we may be now.
And truth be told, in a world that might seem to be dark, scary, and divisive, there is hope.
I see that hope because it’s sitting here before me tonight in 78 chairs with 78 different futures that will in 78 ways make the world a brighter place. And those 78 chairs are surrounded by your biggest champions, cheerleaders, and fans who’ve worked hard to help get you here.
In a seemingly darkened world, the graduates of the Class of 2021, you are the light, you are our light. And we need you to shine brightly to remind us that because in a world with you all in it, today is brighter than yesterday and tomorrow will be brighter still as we watch what’s to come thanks to you.
I say this, because while it may not yet feel like it right now, the world is now yours. Your job, as workers in the world no matter what wheel you throw your shoulder against, is to make the lift lighter for those around you now and those behind you yet to come, and to bound ever towards achieving a fairer balance for all.
And I happen to think that coming from Carmichaels gives you an advantage and an edge – and it’s one of the key things that has gotten you here today. Of all of the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet so far along my journey, I’m here to tell you that Mighty Mikes are amongst the most persistent and the most perseverant people on this planet.
While those from Carmichaels may number fewer out there in the world, we add more grit to it – which I am here to tell you will be a difference-maker for you, as it has been for me, as you set out into the world.
Being talented and being smart – which you all, no doubt, are – are great attributes. But if I am being honest and sincere with you, there are a lot of talented and smart people out there. Fewer in numbers are those with the persistence and grit – the drive to not only get things done but to make things happen.
No matter the honors and awards you’ve received leading up to this moment, you all are endowed with Carmichaels’ grit. I like to think it’s one of the important things that makes a Mike a Mike – and what makes a Mike Mighty.
Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs your grit. It needs hard workers. It needs those who, when they throw their shoulder to the wheel, push and push and push to drive progress.
I tell people that I’m a proud son of a coalminer who worked so hard that the black could never be scrubbed from his hands no matter how clean he got them. And that I’m the proud son of a healthcare assistant who chose to work night shifts because it paid a few extra dollars that made all the difference for us.
Their grit – my parents’ grit – got to me where I am today, and it’s made me who I am today. So, too, has my time at this school and in this town.
Because the people around you, and this place and your time in it, have shaped you, through the good times and the bad. You are who you are because of who and where you’re from and of.
That makes you, you – and because there are fewer of us from Carmichaels than those from bigger cities out there, that makes us an exception – that makes us exceptional.
Carmichaels is a place that’ll give you a hand up, not a handout. We lift up our own here, and we lift up the world out there.
Yes, you may come from a small town, but you are all mighty – and together, we are mightier.
So ,there’s our grit – and it makes a world of difference here and out there, but what other advice, observations do I have to offer you?
Well, I want to share with you 12 things that I learned from my time here in Carmichaels.
From the many Friday nights spent under the lights with the marching band in the bleachers during the game and on the field during halftime with Mr. Craig and Mrs. Walker (shout out to the low-brass section!). To cramming in as much trivia as we could with Academic League. To learning to debate an issue from multiple sides of an argument through student forums.
From the teachers I had the privilege of learning from who’ve come and gone and some of whom have passed. To the teachers I had the privilege of learning from who are still here today – to Mr. Lane who instilled a love for civics education in me, to Mr. Willis – because in all my time and travels, I’ve found there is no other school in this big nation of ours where students have the distinction advantage and privilege of studying Kevistry, which taught me as much about periodic elements as it did about the elements of life.
So here are 12 things I’d like to share with you that I learned here and practice to this day:
- Whatever you do, do it fully – whether you endeavor to become a master carpenter working on kitchen cabinets or a policy expert working in the presidential cabinet or even the President of the United States, be the best cabinet maker, cabinet secretary, president you are capable of being.
- Seek to do what you love. There will be good days and there’ll be bad days, but when you find something you that love, do it. There are a lot of ways to make a living but consider more the way you want to make your life. And that will take seeking.
- So be open-minded and open to changing your mind – it’s okay to pivot along the way. Take it from a guy who started as a farmhand, worked as a healthcare assistant, taught at college, launched a newspaper, hosted a radio show, is a copy editor, works at a think tank, and serves as the editorial director for a national foundation exploring the contemporary story of American renewal. And those are just the jobs I’ve had – not the ones I turned down or the ones I applied for and didn’t get.
- If you find that you’re the smartest person in the room, find a different room. Never stop learning and growing. And you’ll only do that when you keep company with people who can teach, mentor, and help you grow.
- Don’t fear failure or obstacles. Inevitably, something will not turn out the way you want it to, or something will happen that may threaten to throw you off your path. But you don’t junk your car because you get a flat tire. You fix it and you get back on your way.
- Be curious. It’s a big world out there. Go explore it as much as you can. There’s no reason you should ever find yourself bored or boring.
- Try to say yes more than you say no. Be willing to try new things, to take risks – because if not now, when?
- Whether or not anyone’s watching, do something that will make your family and friends proud of you at least once a week.
- Speaking of family: Call them. Not just on birthdays and holidays or special occasions but on a random Tuesday. They’ll be grateful you did – and so will you.
- Kindness is a currency – and kindness isn’t the kind of currency you stash away in a vault in a bank. It does no good there; you must spend it to see the return on your investment. If you’ve been kind here, carry that into the world. If you think you could’ve been kinder, there’s still a lot of time to make that investment.
And with these final two points, I’ll couple them to say: one, learn from those who’ve come before you – and two, always give credit where credit is due.
So I’d like to borrow two points from last year’s graduation speaker, Damian Ferek, the proud Carmichaels grad of the class of 2001:
11. First, a Mike has an appreciation and respect for everyone – and that includes race, gender, interests, financial circumstances, and occupation, as well as those generations that have come before us to pave the path to make our walk easier.
That is, Mikes are accepting, inclusive, and respectful and we appreciate differences.
12. And second, adopt a rescue dog or cat.
So, there you have it – my list of 12 things I think I worth carrying with you out into the world. And why I think your grit and determination position you to change the world for the better around you and beyond – because this small town is brimming with big potential because of you.
Now, whether history remembers more today’s challenges or its opportunities – and there are a lot of both – is up to you.
Earlier, I said that while it may not yet feel like it right now, the world is now yours. Yes, it may seem to be scarier, it may seem to be darker. But we’ve gone through scary and dark times before, and generations before have risen to meet the occasion.
I think of the 18-year olds that President Franklin Roosevelt governed over through the Great Depression and into the Second War World who rose to meet the challenges of their day.
Or the 18-year olds President Lincoln governed over that fought to reunite the country, knowing that we are more together than we are divided.
Or the 18-year olds that… you get the point, and I want to honor my pledge to be brief.
There’s a lot in life that lies beyond your control. However, you always have control over how you react and act.
The choice is yours – the choice is yours how you rise to meet the challenges in front of you today to make the most of the opportunities present, because the world is yours now – but only so for a while. Soon before long, it’ll be passed to the next generation when you stand here and address them, perhaps to assuage their concerns of the challenges that lie ahead of them, telling them to focus on the opportunities and that they give you hope just as you give it to me.
See, I believe our world is not a dark one but a bright one because you light our way. You – with what you do with your lives – will make the world brighter, the collective lift lighter, and the world even fairer than you found it here today.
The world is yours – for now – for the shaping and illuminating. You carry the light, and we can’t wait to see what you make of your opportunities and how you change the world for the better. And we will be proud of you and always proud to tell people where you came from – here in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania – because once a Mike, always a Mike.