A Graduation Speech: The Character Highway

By Ed DeRoche

It’s June! Commencement time –caps and gowns – diplomas received—and the inevitable graduation speech. An unofficial survey reveals that almost all high school graduates (college, as well) do not remember who spoke and what was said at their graduation ceremonies.

The key for graduation speakers who want an audience to remember his/ her name and something/anything about his/her speech is to keep it short and make it relevant. Fifteen minutes should do.

Given these parameters, what might a speaker say to the graduates about “character.” The speaker might begin by telling the young audience the truth: “Not only will you forget what was said here but very few of you will remember who said it.”

The speaker would frame the speech by saying:

“In fifteen minutes, I am going to tell you a few things that should be in your backpack when you walk out of the doors of this school. I am going to talk to you about the two most important backpack items –the character traits and a moral compass.”

The speaker continues:

“To do this, I need you to think of your past and future life as a journey along the character-moral highway. The character traits in your bag includes: Respect—Responsibility, Compassion, Citizenship, Trust, Perseverance, Honesty, Gratitude, Self-Discipline and Courage. The moral compass is your conscience; a compass that will help you along the route to a happy, positive, productive, and ethically-based life.”

Now we all know that most of you have left or will leave the character-moral highway at times. That is what human beings do—we take various routes, try new roads, test unmarked byways, take right and wrong turnoffs, and most of us stop to ask for directions and use our ‘moral compass’ to take us back to the character-moral-based highway. That is why the highway has warning signs, danger zones, stoplights, caution markers, and bulletin boards that caution you about the risks you are taking by leaving the character-moral highway.

Life’s highway requires you to make choices because if you don’t know where you are going, how will you get there? Aristotle said that “Choice, not chance, determines your destiny, dreams, and values.”

To help you as you navigate, I remind you that the word Character has two Cs in it; one stands for Choice and the other for Consequences. Paste this on your dashboard: Living a life of good character doesn’t happen by Chance, nor does it happen by Circumstance. It happens by Choice.

Let me underscore this idea of choice and consequences by paraphrasing the wise old headmaster, Dumbledore, when he was advising Harry Potter. Here is what he said:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. What we make of our selves, what we make of our lives, is a matter of choice—our choice, and our responsibility.”

When you are on character-moral highway, you need to be aware of are the Danger signs. Think carefully about the word Danger. What word do you see in Danger? You are right—Anger—and like love, it is a very powerful emotion. A person of good character realizes that anger is only one letter short of danger. Anger, as you know, can lead to many negative choice like bullying, revenge, jealousy, retaliation, and violence. Pay attention to the Danger signs on your life’s highway.

Another road sign you will see reads: WATCH OUT FOR PEDESTRIANS. This signs reminds you that your life is about your relationships with others. Human life, you see, is about relationships, some good and some bad. Nurture the good ones (friendship) and deal with the bad ones.

The writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, reminds us that “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 

If you Watch Out for Pedestrians, you will be demonstrating the character traits of compassion and empathy. You show yourself and others that you can and will step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide your actions. Columnist Abigail Van Buren said it this way: ‘The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.’”

And the speaker concludes:

“My fifteen minutes are up. Let me end my character message to you by quoting the wise Dr. Seuss:

  •  Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting so get on your way!
  • Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.
  • You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
  • You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you’re the one who’ll decide where to go.”

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