This I Believe

Bob - Nantucket, Massachusetts
Entered on September 30, 2006

I was thinking of graduation speeches the other day.  My six year old was sitting at the dinner table, staring at his carrots.  In the other room, the LEGOs called to him.  They pleaded with him to come and play and make massive helicopters and boats and rescue buildings.  Yet, first he had to eat All. His. Carrots.


Graduations are the last moments when we can make our children eat all of their carrots.  We put them in their robes, sit them up on a stage, stare at them, and make them wait before they get the receipt on their childhood and walk out the door for the grown up LEGOs. They sit, fidget, gawk, and wait while their elders prattle on about life affirming, hopeful piffle.


I always wanted to give a graduation speech.  I was never popular enough, smart enough, disciplined enough or accomplished enough to get the honor.  Since my character hasn’t changed all that much over the years, I don’t suppose I will get to give one in their near future. Or ever.  But, I do fantasize about what I would say.  I would walk up to the podium, thank the hosts and the parents who paid for all of this with blood and treasure, then look into the fresh faces of the new graduates and I would tell them…


“You are not special. “


“You will not be bitten by a radioactive spider.  You will not win the lottery.  You will not be drafted to play professional sports.  You will not record a hit single.  Oprah will not interview you.  ESPN will not film you.  Itunes will not feature you.”


“And that’s okay.  You no longer have to sit at the dock, watching the horizon, waiting for the ships that sail out on the horizon to come in for you.  Take it from me, your ship is not going to come in.  It may not even be a ship at all.”


“People who wait for ships to come to them are disappointed, more often than not.”


“The houses on Nantucket are plagued with roofwalks.  The common misconception is that these structures are “Widow’s Walks” where the wives of the sailors and the captains would pace and scan the horizon for the flap of a skysail or glimpse of a familiar pennant.  Truthfully, our whaling forebears didn’t wait for much.  The widows and wives didn’t have time for the roofwalk.  They were too busy working.  The roofwalks only helped when there was a chimney fire.  A bad day gets worse when the volunteers cut a hole in your roof to put out the blaze.”


“Nantucket’s history has a delicious story of a whaling captain who returns home after a successful three year voyage in the South Seas.  He walks up to his gate on Orange Street, rattles the gate and announces “The Captain is ashore”.  From the kitchen, his wife shouts “Would the Captain bring in a bucket of water?”


“Since a bolt from the blue won’t turn you into Spiderman or Fifty Cent, you best get started carryingwater.  Carrying water is a beautiful, mundane, necessary task that makes everyone’s life a little easier.  You can bathe a baby, cook dinner, clean a floor, and make coffee with a bucket of water.  The people you love will appreciate it.  You can make a difference that way.”


“We carry water in all sorts of ways.  We bring in paychecks to keep the heat going and the lights on.  We change diapers and make dinners.  We read aloud and sing to others.  We fix the windows and clean the floors and wash the clothes and scrub the toilets.  We carry buckets of water every day. Since you have to carry water, you might as well find an interesting way to do it.”


“Captain James Archer found his own way to carry water.  In 1853, his ship, the Afton, left Nantucket to go whaling in the Atlantic.  He spent three very dull years criss-crossing the Atlantic in search of whales.  When he returned, he brought only 336 barrels of oil with him.  But, while he was out there, he managed to create a dressing case for his wife that has over 1900 distinct pieces of ebony, ivory, rosewood, and whalebone.  It became a treasure for those who loved him.  We miss possible treasures every day because they look a lot like work.”


“Finally, you are not alone; noone is special. Noone is better than you and noone is worse than you.  Thousands of valedictorians have been selected today amid the thousands of National Honor Society inductees, the thousands of yearbook editors and the thousands of graduates who just barely made it to the stage.  The valedictorian is no better than you are.  You are no better than the folks who barely made it here.”


“We are all on a whaling ship and noone was special on the whaling ship.  Whaling ships were tight quarters for too few men.  At the outset, they carried only 21 men.  Everyone had to be a jack of all trades.  You had to cook, clean, boil whale fat, perform surgery,  create fine art, row like hell after a whale, and then hang on once you had him.  One round of the try works would remove that special scent from you permanently.”


“On a whaleship, your profit and your life depend on the skill and wisdom of your shipmates.  In turn, their lives depended on you.  The most expensive item on any ship was any member of the crew.  For long periods, they had to perform a symphony of work, whether it was to save the ship in the midst of a storm or to boil down a whale before the sharks picked it clean.  You had no time for self doubt or self-congratulations. Special people got caught in the whale line or fell from the mast.”


“As it once was on the whaleship, so it is now.  The surgeon needs the nurses who need the orderlies who need their paychecks to keep coming regularly.  The businessman needs his managers who need the line workers who need the salesmen.  Each of them has a talent that they are hoping to use well.  Each of them has a fault that they need their colleagues help with.  “


“Graduates, you’re not special.  But you can be a part of something special.  Instead of waiting for you ship to come in, you should ship out. You will learn, you will work, you will love and be loved, you will get frustrated and smelly and angry.  You will carry a lot of water. “


“But, if you can become a part of something special, you can make this world a little more fair and a little more just for your kids.  At the end of our lives, when we are finally sailing beyond the bar, we won’t regret the things that didn’t happen to us, but rather things we didn’t do.”