News and Tribune

May 6, 2013

CUMMINS: Life begins at commencement

Local columnist

One important milestone in life is the commencement of it. Prior to adorning a cap and gown, you probably lived a somewhat low life, struggling, if you had any sense at all, to qualify for a “high” school diploma, or sheepskin as it was known back in the Age of Enlightenment. The high-school graduation ceremony is the unofficial cutting of the apron strings when you take the proverbial bull of your destiny by the horns. With a diploma in hand, many young men go in debt to buy a car to take girls out at secluded places to discuss the seriousness of their future.  

 Education teaches many things, but, at an early age, love for the opposite sex seems to take precedence over academics. Then, too quickly, a wife and children come into their lives, sealing their destiny. Where many young men go wrong is that they do not take heed to their commencement address, because they are not receptive to absorbing wisdom yet.    

Do you remember what your commencement speaker said? I remember mine — 65 years ago. He said, “sterling silver,” something about living an untarnished life. Inspiring until the next day when I learned one of life’s most valuable lessons. My grandfather said to me, “Clean the manure from the stalls in the barn, and scatter it on the fields.” There must be something better than this, I thought, and there was. However, whatever course your life takes, you will find that manure will build up, and to prevent drowning in it, you must scatter it.  

From that day in the barn, I worked my way up — or down — from nourishing the land to fertilizing infertile, young minds inside schoolhouses throughout our great land. As a high school principal, I helped coax more than 10,000 academically vacant young minds dressed in caps and gowns, wearing who knows what underneath, across the threshold to an uncertain future known only to God, but even He doesn’t know what a teenage mind might do.   

There I am at the end of 12 long years standing before the graduates. It’s commencement practice time, and they’re in a party mood. Congratulations, I’m so proud of you, and know you want a dignified ceremony where your friends and family can be proud of you, too. Tell them to refrain from shouting and jumping up and down when your name is called. To promote civility, we’re going to practice marching, sitting, standing and how to wear your tasseled cap, symbolic of acquired knowledge, that swings to and fro like your life will. I put a cap on to show them how to wear it flat, preventing the tassel from brushing their nose. 

Then we practice when to sit and stand, row by row, making it seem like they’ve learned how to follow directions. Now, the peak moment when your name is called, remember this, left over right. You take the all-important diploma in you left hand from my left hand and underneath it shake my right hand with your right. Let’s have the first row come up and practice this to make sure our hands aren’t confused. I’ve asked our band to come and play “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is not “Celebrate,” to help you march like committed soldiers do. Remember to keep 10, not nine, but 10 feet between you and the graduate in front of you. Think back to your math classes when you learned measuring. We want the focus on you, the individual within the herd. Good luck and God bless you, although I can’t say that at your graduation, because our constitution prevents the state (me) from establishing a religion for you. Let me leave you with this final thought; upon my proclaiming you duly graduated, do not use your cap as a Frisbee and sail it as a dangerous sharp-pointed missile up into the stands, possibly striking your mother in her eye.

These graduating seniors learned this stuff — left from right, sitting and shutting up in kindergarten. Ph. D’s never learn some of the important things about life either, and most politicians can’t get past the basics in nursery school — sharing milk and cookies. 

I gave a commencement address once. Knowing the graduates wanted it to be over before it was over, what did I say? I said two words, “Go party.” They stood, cheered and sailed their caps. One girl ripped her gown off. No, I didn’t, I said, “Other people.” Family, friends and the global community make the difference in all our lives, and you can make a difference, too.

— Contact Terry Cummins at