For reasons not entirely clear, the good people at BASIS Oro Valley asked me—a relatively unaccomplished 62-year-old man—to address the class of 2019 and guests at commencement in late May.
What I said matters little; more on that later. What I learned matters greatly.
It’s been 45 years since my high school passed me along to the real world, a much different place in 1974 (the year of Oro Valley’s incorporation, incidentally) than it is in 2019. What does today’s graduating senior think? Not knowing, I asked.
On a Friday afternoon before commencement, I had the privilege of sitting with five BASIS Oro Valley graduates—valedictorian Jonah Harwood, a gifted math student bound for Fordham in New York City; salutatorian Julia Wieland, who’ll attend the University of Arizona as a pre-med student; Maryam Ahmed, who’ll cross the continent to study pre-med at Goucher College in Baltimore; Joe Henson, who gave a great speech May 23, on his way to study theater arts at Whitworth in Spokane; and Aasim Ahmad, UA bound to pursue a degree in medicine.
They inspired me, at a time I needed a lift.
I loved their spirits, their zest, their enthusiasm, their maturity, their perseverance. With its rigor and demand for self-discipline, BASIS is not for every student. More than two-thirds of their original classmates in the fifth grade are gone. Yet these five thrived.
I loved the way they engaged with me, and with one another, playful yet respectful. They don’t interrupt. Maryam and Aasim are practicing Muslims, and were fasting for Ramadan when we spoke. Joe, Jonah and Julia gave high regard to their friends’ dedication to faith, showing all of us how to be. BASIS OV is too small to be “cliquey,” one said. “There’s not enough space on campus to really hate someone.”
Let’s describe them as refreshingly “post-digital.” Like everyone else, seemingly, they use their phones and communicate through social media. But technology is a tool, not an obsession, nor a distraction. They use it, then immerse in the task at hand – the unfolding of their lives, their continuing educations, their pursuit of dreams, their intent to give back. Older Americans tend to be dismissive of this younger generation. I am not. These are spectacular young people, in every way.
They’re excited, and a little nervous. Aasim wants to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“It’s like a mystery novel,” he said of the future.
“I haven’t had a real first day in a while,” Julia said.
“I’m leaving … the safety net of school and church,” Jonah said.
I asked them what they wanted to know from me. Their questions were thoughtful, and at commencement I tried to answer.
Are there reasons to be optimistic and excited? Yes! The world is a wonder, and this life a precious, fleeting sip of it.
How can they stay rooted in family, friends, home? I don’t know, based on my own life, but faith, its traditions and values can be an anchor as they leave.
Is change good? It can be. But we must embrace its inevitability. Our resistance to it can only harm our spirits and delay our growth.
Can adversity make you better? It can. You will face it. You’ll be knocked down. The trick is to get up, dust off and move ahead.
I urged them to commit, deeply, to wherever their passion and interest leads them. I urged them to love, deeply, at the risk of being hurt. I urged them to do their best, always, in all things, big and small. I urged them to pursue excellence, but eschew perfection, for it does not exist. I told them how quickly this life passes. I urged them to appreciate life’s simple gifts.
I closed my speech with the wisdom of my Mom, 80 now, who has had plenty of difficulty in her life. On Mother’s Day, I asked Mom what I should tell these students. “Tell them life is fabulous,” Mom said. “Tell them life is fabulous.”
My Mom has ample reason to be pessimistic and depressed. But she’s not. She has maintained a great outlook, a strength of spirit, a belief that every day is a gift, and there is nothing more precious than … time.
Life is fabulous, graduates. Go live it, all of you.
Dave Perry is the President and CEO of the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce.