The Big, Bad World of What's Next

I'm speaking at my old school, Tynan Elementary, for their graduation ceremony today. It was a great honor to have been asked and I've been all bundled up in my head about how I was going to write this speech and not going over these little kids' heads. On top of that, I've been rather depressed about looking for work. So it's amazingly ironic that I'm giving five minutes of advice to kids about not being scared of the future while I'm petrified (scared, frozen stiff like the citizens of Pompeii, the whole nine yards) of it myself. Still, I think I managed not to be too complex, extremely topical, and wide reaching and multi-layered in my approach. You be the judge.

Oh, I also made an Explosions in the Sky reference. I'm pretty sure no one will catch that, though.

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Thirteen years ago, I was in the same position you’re in right now. I was excited about the summer, thinking about what I would do over the next few months but I was also thinking a lot about what came after that. Facing me, just as it now faces you, is the big, bad world of Middle School. What faces you now, just as it faces everyone in this room, myself included, is the big, bad world of What’s Next.

What’s Next is a scary thing. You don’t know what it involves. You don’t know how you’re going to get through what you can’t even see. You may have heard stories about What’s Next. You could have older brothers and sisters who tell you about what they face everyday in the big, bad world of What’s Next. You may see What’s Next on TV. You may hear stories from your teachers or parents about What’s Next. You listen to these things and can put together a plan. You can try to figure out how to navigate that unknown world but that still doesn’t change the fact that you still don’t really know what you’re facing. The unknown is still the unknown.

You’re standing right now on the edge of something different. It’s new, it may be a little scary, and you’ll face moments just like these all your life. Just as you look to your own big, bad worlds of What’s Next, I am right now doing the same thing. Your parents have their own moments where they must face new futures. Your teachers are facing them. Your principal, your counselor, everyone involved here is looking into a brave new world.

I’m here today to tell you, ironically enough, not to be so afraid of What’s Next. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. It’s Natural to Be Afraid. Pushing through all that fear is what’s important. Pushing through the fear enables you to do great things. It helps you to think clearer about what you need to do. Pushing through the fear makes things happen. It’s a necessary part of life and some learn that lesson sooner than others.

You’re facing an exciting time right now. You’re growing up. You should take a moment to celebrate. You should look around and think about the time you spent here. Remember them, not just for how simple they’ll be in comparison to the tasks you’ll face in the future but also for how they are part of who you are and who you’ll be. I’ve gone through college in Atlanta telling people about how great of a school Tynan was to me. I’ve spoken fondly of my past teachers like Ms. Williams and Ms. Steen. I remember how much they cared about me, which is more than what I can say for some of the teachers I’ve faced later in life.

What’s Next is a faster world, filled with different teachers and different classmates. The cafeteria has more choices. You may get a locker. The math gets more complicated. Some of the books have curse words in them, and for some odd reason, it’s alright to read them aloud in class but only there and nowhere else. What’s Next is a strange new place and a strange new time that will take some getting used to, but you’ll be fine.

It feels weird to say it and everyone around you tells you this and you may not even believe them half the time, but you’ll be fine. What got me through a lot of life so far is eliminating options and knowing what I wanted. In first grade, I remember the academic rallies we had here and all the students who made honor roll and perfect attendance were recognized with ribbons. In first grade (or maybe it was second grade, I can’t really remember), I sat through the ceremony and when my time came, I received my ribbon for the honor roll. But as I sat through the ceremony, I saw these other students who were getting ribbons for high honor roll. I have never heard of such a thing but once I saw there was something better, I wanted it. For the rest of elementary school, I did what I could to get high honor roll.

Eventually, I didn’t accept anything other than my best for most of my schooling. Over time, school became less about accomplishments and more about appreciating what I was learning. I gave my best to my work, not because it looked good on a report card or for ribbons or medals or honor cords but because I really liked learning about things. Being a scholar made me happy and it still does to this day.

Now, I have my own big, bad world of What’s Next to face in which I have to navigate my own personal choices and figure out what I want to do next. It’s scary and I have to not let fear take me over just like I’m telling you how it shouldn’t take over any of you. But I find comfort in knowing that I can’t not face What’s Next. It’s still going to come. I just have to figure out how I’m going to face it.

Come this August, you’re going to be in middle school. That’s not changing. That time is still approaching you at a constant pace. Your days are all 24 hours long, just as they always were. Your weeks are the same seven days as they were before. June is already a week over. Summer will hit you shortly after I step away from this podium. Enjoy it, but also note that you have a new, exciting, different world in front of you just after the summer of 2009 has passed. Think about what you’re going to do to face it.

Everyone here is facing it with you and we all need to reassure one another that we’ll be fine. We need to tell each other, kids and grownups alike, that the big, bad world of What’s Next may not be that scary after all.

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