What I Should Have Said To The Class of 1982

My gut told me not to do it, that speaking at my old high school’s commencement exercises would end up being a bonehead move.

But my wife told me to suck it up (my resolve, not my gut, although now that I think about it she probably meant that, too).

Now, I’m left to deal with the aftermath of what will probably go down as the single most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever done, topping even the time I persuaded Mitt Romney to do a quick interview only to have the batteries in my mini-disc recorder die.

He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Well, maybe next time” and hustled off.

Last September, I received a phone call from my old high school – George Washington High in my hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. The president of this year’s senior class left me a voice mail, offering a prime speaking spot at his graduation ceremony. He wanted me to deliver the keynote address.

I wanted to say no.

I very nearly said no.

When I called him back, no was on my lips – mainly because speaking to an auditorium packed with actual people staring back at me is not my idea of a relaxing way to spend an evening. I may speak to a nationwide audience as a radio newscaster, but I don’t have one in the studio watching my every move while I’m doing it.

But since my wife encouraged me to accept, I threw reticence to the wind and spent the next seven months constantly worried that I would find a way to embarrass myself.

And. I. Did.

As fate would have it, on the day I was to deliver my remarks, I noticed on Facebook that some of my classmates from 1982 were posting about how proud they were of their kids who were in this year’s graduating class.

I thought it would be nice to mention my old friends and praise them for a job well done.

My tribute to them was among the first words to come out of my mouth after I stepped up to the podium.

They were also among the last words to come out of my mouth.

As I was wrapping up my remarks, I could not for the life me, recall what I had done just five minutes before. So I made a spur of the moment decision and repeated, word for word, what I said at the beginning of my speech.

I’m sure there were some in the audience who thought I’d been drinking. But I remained oblivious to my slip-up through the rest of the ceremony. It was only later, when I started replaying my speech in my head that I started to wonder. Then I messaged a friend who had been in the audience and his three word reply was, “Yes, you did.”

I’ve had time to think about what happened and have come up with what I would say if I could all do it all over, again.

I would still wrap things up by addressing my 1982 classmates in the audience.

But instead of offering praise, I would have apologized for spending the years immediately following our graduation running away from them, for trying to put as much distance as I could between me and George Washington High School, for attempting to reject and forget the years we spent together.

I even tried to reject our reunions, dismissing them as a waste of time.

But the truth is, I’ve never missed one and I figured out why after speaking to the Class of 2013.

It’s because I care.

I care about my classmates.

All of them.

They are the kids I got into trouble with so many years ago and they are the kids who are a part of me now.

I’m just bummed it took a bonehead move in front of a hometown audience for me to realize that.

If you’re interested, here’s the text of my remarks to George Washington High School’s Class of 2013.

First off, I’d like to thank Jihad Dixon for his kind introduction and Principal Aulenbacher for bringing me in to speak to you tonight.

I’d also like to offer a shout-out to my friends from my graduating class – the Class of 1982. I understand a few of you are here tonight that you have kids graduating. Congratulations. You got them through it.

I have to admit to some nervousness and it’s not just because I have this irrational fear that I’ve been somehow been found out and that GW has called me back to this stage because it wants its diploma back.

It’s also because I’ve got a lot of eyes staring back at me. You wouldn’t think that would bother me too much considering that I make my living talking to people on the radio. But the thing is, I normally do my job by myself – it’s just me and the microphone. Tonight, it’s me, the microphone on this podium and all of you. I’m simply not used to an audience.

I’m also a little spooked because – well, let’s face it, I keep up with the news. It’s my job. So I’m aware of the issues you’ve been facing over the past few months.

These are issues that strike at the core of who I am as a journalist.

I was asked back in September to be here tonight – mainly, because I am someone who has achieved some small measure of success.

I had planned on delivering a standard speech and still do – one intended to inspire and perhaps amuse as you accept your diplomas on this stage tonight – the same stage where I accepted my high school diploma 31 years ago.

In the time between then and now I became a journalist. That means I have an obligation to report facts. It’s not my job to make judgments about them. I’m a journalist, not an opinion writer.

But I can say this.

I am encouraged that there is a debate going on within the G.W. Community – over issues that form the cornerstone of journalism.

I believe these issues need to be hashed out from to time to time – if only to remind ourselves that we are Americans.

And frankly, the debate that has engulfed our school reminds me of why I became a journalist and the opportunities that my chosen profession has given me.

I’ve talked to movers and shakers — governors and presidential candidates; state lawmakers and congressmen; union members and business leaders.

I’ve experienced the excitement of anchoring newscasts on election night and the anguish of going live on-air in the middle of the night with an NPR reporter who was stationed a world away just after a devastating earthquake struck China.

I’ve covered issues big and small.

I even got to talk to a former Russian cosmonaut once and for someone who is as obsessed by Star Trek as me, let me tell you, that was one of the high water marks of my career so far.

But the most important story I ever told was that of a woman who had just lived through the trauma of a devastating flood in southern West Virginia. I interviewed her while she sat on the front porch of her damaged home. It was probably going to have to be torn down. But the most heartbreaking thing? She had just lost her husband the month before.

It was a privilege to bring her story out and it’s why I got into journalism in the first place – to give a voice to the voiceless and to shed light on the human experience.

I’d like to leave you tonight with something my mother once told me.

She borrowed a line from a man who I would say is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Joseph Campbell. She told me to “follow my bliss.” To be happy in what I do. Mainly because I’m going to be doing it for a really, really long time.

That’s when I started to realize that my mom wasn’t as stupid as I thought she was when I was high school.

My mom told me to pursue what makes me happy at a time when I was struggling and thinking that perhaps journalism was not the right path for me to take. But I took her advice to heart and while I may not be as financially gifted as some others that I graduated with back in 1982, I am incredibly happy with how things turned out. And, I have my mother to thank for keeping me on track.

Now, the thing about pursuing what makes you happy is that you have to know where you came from – and for people like us – people who have a shared history – George Washington High School is a big part of where we came from.

Look around you. The people you are graduating with tonight helped shape who you were yesterday, who you are right now and who you will be in the future.

You all are members of a huge extended family and I would urge you not to forget that.

Besides, when you least expect it – GW has a way of reeling you back in.

Here’s what I mean by that.

After my wife and I moved our family to the Eastern Panhandle and I started commuting to my NPR job in Washington, DC, the last thing I expected was an immediate reminder of where I came from.

My wife came home one day and asked me if I had gone to high school with a fellow – let’s say his name is David Smith. She said she had just met him and that he lived a few doors down from us.

I thought it couldn’t be the same guy. But sure enough, I was out walking our dogs a few days later and there he was.

This particular David is a year older than me – so he was in the class that immediately preceded mine. We didn’t know each other well when we were in high school, if at all, but we do now.

And, after just having moved into our neighborhood and starting a new job in Washington, DC, knowing that a fellow GW graduate was just down the street helped get me over the feeling that I had cut myself off from everything that had gone before.

GW will reel you back in when you least expect it. And, I’m glad of it.

I’m also glad to be here with you tonight. It’s been a pleasure. And from the class of 1982 – I wish the class of 2013 all the luck in the world.


7 thoughts on “What I Should Have Said To The Class of 1982

  1. Hi, Giles! I loved this post. I once learned, in the very embarrassing hard way, that there’s a huge difference between sounding natural while reading a script and storytelling to an audience—without a script (at the Vandalia Gathering, no less!). Now I know for sure: I clam up without a script!

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