Listening to, or even worse–reading, commencement addresses is not a very popular pastime. I have very sweet and loyal friends, however, who have expressed an interest in the one I was privileged to deliver last Saturday. I’m afraid it’s kind of long, so I’m dividing it into three parts. The speech is structured according to the different “hats” I’ve worn over the years at Caldwell, so it fits nicely into three installments: teacher, parent, and grandparent. Several of my former students responded to my request for information to put into the speech. Quotes from their responses will be in the second installment, though I will take their names out for the sake of privacy. (I actually read the names at graduation.) I appreciate so much the time they put into responding to the survey and my request. Reading what they wrote was one of the best parts of doing this speech!
I came to Caldwell in the fall of 1999 primarily as a teacher. With our first child entering college, it seemed like the right time to go back to work, but since we still had four children at home, I also came to Caldwell as a parent. We’ve talked a lot over the years in the Caldwell community about what it means to wear multiple “hats.” Being a teacher AND a parent in the same school has its challenges, but it’s also a tremendous blessing. These days I’m wearing a new hat; I’ve become a Caldwell grandparent! I’d like to use the three hats I’ve worn as a basis for what I’m going to share with you today. Each of these hats allows me to see our community from a little different perspective. My plan is to speak to you first as your proud teacher, to celebrate you, the wonderful Class of 2014. Then, as a parent, I want to go back in time, to use the words and lives of the students who have filled these seats before you, to show you your heritage, to celebrate what it means to be a part of the amazing community of alumni that you are about to join. Lastly, I will attempt to speak to you as a grandparent. There are some things I want to pass on, some things I’d like to challenge you to do and be.
The Caldwell community has been home to me longer than any community in my lifetime. I’ve done a lot of moving. Over the course of my fifty-six years, I’ve had twenty different addresses in seven states, but I’ve been at Caldwell now for fifteen years. That’s a record for me.
The first time I saw the campus it was a barren sea of red clay–no buildings, no playing fields, just a parking lot and mud. I’ve been at Caldwell for a lot of things. I was at Caldwell when “That Thing in the Spring” got its name. I’ve been able to watch our Valentines traditions develop, and I’ve attended every graduation.
I remember the Earth Suit concert, the Boot Scootin’ Barbeque, and “Cuts for Katrina.” I was at Caldwell when the planes flew into the buildings on 9/11. I witnessed the first senior prank and the first time the rock was painted. I remember feeling joy and relief when our first senior was accepted into college and how we celebrated those first of many scholarships.
I was also here,in my classroom at Caldwell, when my life changed forever. It was May of 2007 and I was prepping students for exams. I was asking review game questions and rubbing my neck which was feeling kind of stiff when I found something no one likes to find: a large and painless lump. It turned out to be Hodgkins Lymphoma and it had advanced to stage 4. Those were scary days. I began treatment that summer and taught four classes while receiving chemo throughout the fall semester. January 11, 2008 was the date of my last treatment. For the next five years I lived in the shadow of cancer. I’m not sure it’s possible to explain this, but if you have experienced it, you know. I believed God had healed me and I tried to live life normally, but the regular scans, labs, and doctor visits tried my faith and made me crazy at regular intervals. Finally, January of 2013 arrived. I went for my final scans, waited for the results, and was once again sitting at my desk at Caldwell when the call came a week later. When I saw the cancer center number on my phone, my heart started pounding. I thought I was completely at peace, resting in God’s perfect will, whatever the results might be, but when the nurse on the other end told me that my scans were clear and that there was no sign of lymphoma, I lost it. The relief was overwhelming.
It was seven more days before I had my final oncology appointment. That was a strange week. I was adjusting to a new way of thinking. I was learning to live without a cloud above my head and for some reason the cloudless sky above felt heavy. Life felt strange and unfamiliar. Instead of feeling free and joyful, I found myself strangely burdened.
The first part of my visit with the oncologist was just like always. He gave me a copy of the results of my scans and lab work. We chatted about what I was up to. Then I tried to explain the way I was feeling. I told him about the burden, about the heaviness, about the fact that I kept thinking about all the people who were diagnosed around the same time I was, or after I was, the ones who never got clear scans, the ones who didn’t make it. The longer I talked, the more choked up I became. My doctor leaned toward me and asked quietly, “You are a person of faith, yes?” I nodded, and then he said it, “It’s grace. What you are experiencing is grace. Grace is a gift, but sometimes grace feels heavy; sometimes it’s a burden, but it’s still grace.”
That conversation has made a tremendous impact on my life since then. Grace–for me it was the gift of life for a while longer. As I was considering what I wanted to say to you, I knew that this was part of the message I wanted to share because you, dear Class of 2014, have also been given many gifts. You also are recipients of God’s grace.
Let’s look at grace and gifts in the lives of the members of your class. Yesterday morning we celebrated a lot of those gifts at senior recognition. The faculty members who spoke made it very clear that this is a special class, full of talent, full of love, full of fun, and brimming with faith.
You’ve received 170 college acceptances and 3.5 million dollars in scholarships. Three of you are National Merit Finalists! You’ve worked hard, but other students have worked just as hard without so much recognition. This is grace.
You are talented athletically. Five members of this class plan to play sports on the college level. While you’ve been at Caldwell, you’ve played on 20 Conference Championship Teams, 5 state runner-up teams, and 3 State championship teams.
You are well-rounded students of the Arts. You’ve participated in eight different high school plays, sung in Carnegie Hall, blessed our community with inspiring concerts–both vocal and instrumental, and created art work that shows us your understanding of what is truly beautiful.
You’ve worked hard in your academics. You’ve taken countless tests and quizzes, written and defended both a junior and a senior thesis, debated, taken oral exams and experienced three different versions of our humanities program during which you’ve read and discussed approximately 45 great books. You collected bugs, studied a burning candle for three days straight, struggled with Mr. Feeney’s MLK project, and outwitted Density Detective.
You’ve braved math and excelled, many of you continuing all the way through calculus. You can probably sing the Quadratic Equation Song. You’ve mastered the unit circle, and with Mrs. Roberts you learned the life principle that “God is good/all the time.”
Some of you are becoming fluent in Spanish. You’ll be testing that on a trip to the Dominican Republic in just a few days. Others are true Latin scholars, sticking with it all the way through high school, completing our first ever AP Latin class. Vos saluto.
You have also been involved in our community. You’ve been leaders in your church youth groups and Young Life. You’ve counseled at camps, served us smoothies and Chick-fil-a, and brightened the days of senior citizens. The Class of 2014 has led well, mentoring the younger students, being an example of enthusiastic servant leadership. You are wonderful, your accomplishments are impressive, and all of this is grace.