I had the privilege of being the commencement speaker at the HEARTS for Jesus Christ class of 2013 graduation. It really was a wonderful ceremony and somehow I managed to not completely crash and burn as their speaker. Herein is the text from my message:
HEARTS Commencement Speech Class of 2013
By Brian Ritchie
Wow! So, I guess I should have asked a few more questions when Aaron asked me to speak at his graduation. Because he’s a homeschooler, I naively accepted without consideration. I accepted based solely on a visual I had of me, Aaron, his parents, maybe a few extended family members and a bag of bagels in the VIP room at Panera Bread Co.
However, I clearly was mistaken and am, admittedly, caught a little unprepared as I stand before what I can only imagine is not just Aaron’s family. So if you’ll just bare with me, I’m going to make a few, on the fly adjustments as I go, and we’ll see how this thing turns out.
Here we go…
I’ve had the privilege of crossing paths with brilliant and sophisticated people in my life. One such person that comes to mind was a wise man from my youth who shared with me this message. “Brian,” he said, “you’re failing my class.”
At the time, I viewed that statement as nothing more than his opinion. Because in my adolescent mind, I had a much more positive view of my academic accomplishments. However, hindsight, as it is, being more acute. I’m ready to accept that my optimistic outlook on life, had little bearing on the rigid world of pass/fail.
Sadly, the wise man had judged me correctly, and he eventually ended up on the pile of frustrated educators in the wake of my passage through public school.
He wasn’t alone either, there were many, many others. For instance there was Mrs. Barry, 7th grade teacher of Language Arts at Burley Middle School, who stated on the back of my third quarter report card, “Brian has made good improvement since he is keeping a record of assignments,” she continued, “and since I have moved him away from the girls.” Believe it or not, my parents were encouraged by those words.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Barry wasn’t done with me, because on the back of the very same report card at the end of the 4th and final 9 weeks, she said, “School lasted a month too long for Brian, because he quit working the last few weeks.” She had the nerve to give me an F with all that beautiful weather going on outside.
Burley Middle school was an interesting place to spend one’s time. We bussed a long way to get to it. On our way we stopped to picked up our bullies. The bullies would evenly disperse themselves among the seats so that everyone was properly terrorized. The teaching staff consisted of a 7 and a half fingered happy-go-lucky shop teacher; an overly fit physical education teacher who wore uncomfortably snug polyester shorts; several librarian-style ladies in long flowery dresses; and a mad man overseeing the science department. I label him as mad because, Mr. Ayers had a particular love for biology. He liked to share biology with his classes whenever and wherever it presented itself. For instance, as we have all seen, biology can often be found in the middle of a busy street, smushed slightly flatter than it’s original packaging. When Mr. Ayers spotted some he would stop and hoisted the mildly to severely deformed biology onto the hood of his 1977 Ford Fairlane. On those days, we all got an in-school field trip. Unfortunately, this practice was finally put to an end when he showed up one morning with a skunk that had had its stink sack ruptured. The school had to be evacuated.
The school was principaled by Mr. White. Mr. White was stern and he demanded respect. He was an old southern gentleman, and if you knew what was good for you, you addressed him as sir. In fact, every sentence directed at the man had to either lead or end with a sir. If you breached this important rule of etiquette he would punish you for your blatant disrespect. I’m not making this up, I once had to run from the front steps of the school to the street and back 100 times in 90 degree weather for inadvertently saying, “Good morning Mr. White.”
High School was much of the same, only bigger. There were nearly 2000 students in Albemarle High School, and I was lost in the early 80’s crowd of big haired, shoulder padded girls, and mulleted, redneck boys.
So, I served my 12 years of hard time, and barely squeaked through (I’m just being honest here) by way of some carefully crafted cheating. I still managed to fail several challenging classes, such as typing and, by the end, I had resolved…well, actually, I hadn’t resolved anything. I was an aimless, devout socialite. In fact, relating to other human beings was about the only thing I had reached any tangible level of skill at. So I went to college.
Based on what you’ve heard so far, it should be no surprise that College was not for me. They were far too serious about me taking them serious for my liking. After all, I had spent 12 years building poor study habits and a solidly aloof attitude towards education. I wasn’t about to change just because my entire future depended on it.
So, after a couple of years, I dropped out, married the girl of my dreams and joined the workforce of the mid-80’s.
All of this might beg a well-warranted question. “What is he doing, speaking at a high school commencement?” It’s a fair question, and one that will likely still be lingering in the air as we file uncomfortably out of the auditorium tonight.
But it’s too late to do anything about it. You invited me. I’m here. Let’s just move on.
Obviously I am a flawed product of this fine country’s public education system. That doesn’t mean I’m against the idea of learning. Heck, I watch History channel all the time. Anyway, my journey has led me to this conclusion. I am resolutely committed to homeschooling. It didn’t exist when I was a kid. Its early form had been a long forgotten idea from the frontier days and it has only recently been rediscovered. When I was young every child was committed, by the parents who claimed to love them, to the government funded educational institutions, or, if they were wealthy, military boarding school. My parents were not wealthy, nor were they in any mood to put a lot of effort into my upbringing. You see, I was 11 years behind my next youngest sibling and my parents were just tired when I came along. So they shuffled me off to the big school building, and trusted that something productive was happening in there. But honestly, even that really didn’t matter, as long as I didn’t try to come home before 3pm.
So with my poor opinion of public education and my devout commitment to homeschooling, I pondered the enormous responsibility that I wield here tonight. I wrestled with lofty concepts. I toyed with deep philosophical premises. I googled. In the end, as my inclination to woo you with slick and didactic discourse faded, I set my pen to what I do best. Rambling. And I decided it would be best to ramble about you graduates, and your journey to this day.
Let’s first start with some facts and observations. Fact: I am the head of a homeschooling family. Fact: In spite of what you might assume, I am actually aware of what effort and sacrifice goes into the process. Fact: I have taken copious notes. Unrelated fact: It’s the man makes the clothes, not the other way around.
Here are some of my observations.
One: Each summer we reach a period when I lie in bed and pretend to sleep as incessant mumbling goes on beside me. Summer is beginning to wane, and the dark ominous first day of school is approaching. The mumbling in question comes from the general direction of my wife who is trying to reconcile the stewing anxiety inside her. She will do this for many a hot and sticky night. What she is doing is wrestling with her conscience, and her fear. She will eventually end up on her knees before God with that unavoidable burning question on her lips, “Is there no other way, Lord?” His answer is inevitably, “No!”
Two: I’ve come home to the blank, empty eyes, the bustled hair, pasty vitamin D deficient skin and pursed lips at the end of the school day when just two subjects have been completed.
Three: I’ve fielded statements like, “I can’t do this!” and, “I’m ruining our children!”
Four: I’ve quietly soothed and rocked this once stalwart, determined, capable and dignified woman as she teeters on the edge of irrational hysteria.
I know the journey well, and I commend you mothers. This occasion is as much about you as it is your fresh young graduates.
Tonight, young ones, you will exit this hall Graduates. You will have reached an important milestone. And as you head home, or to parties, or likely Applebees, a new clock will begin counting down. At zero hour of this clock, whether it be days, or months, or God have mercy, years from now, you will be leaving your homes, and striking out on your own. I want you to remember one thing as you sever the ties to the empty shell that was once your mother. This isn’t easy for her. She’s not built to let go. Fathers will be proud and mostly worried about money, and if you leave siblings behind, they will just be plotting how to divide up your things.
But your moms. Well, they didn’t homeschool you because it was easy, or because they wanted to drain important life sustaining energy prematurely from their bodies. No, they did it because they are hopelessly in love with you. They did it because it was the best way they knew how to protect you. They did it because there was nothing more they could give you than everything.
So, promise me this. Hug her tightly when you say goodbye. Accept that you have been the intellectual equivalent of a parasite and she the willing host. Know that her tears are real. Listen closely, because her words will be muddle and difficult to understand, but she will likely repeat herself a lot. Realize that a piece of her is dying when you leave. And just like a severed limb, she’ll need to scratch. Let her. Let her tell you over and over again about things like being prompt, taking care of responsibilities, driving safely and keeping yourself in clean underwear. Accept her friend request. This is a big one, respond when she texts. These are ways she scratches.
Eventually though, your family will grow accustomed to your absence. They will observe from afar as their wide-eyed pup turns into an adult, and they will be proud. They may even welcome you back into their home for brief visits, at which time you can get your laundry done for free and use the home as a basecamp for visiting your friends.
But the visits will become less frequent. Your mission in life will become more crystalized and your family will become your friends.
Okay, enough about them, I’m here to talk about you, or at least to you. Hopefully, unlike my own set of teenagers, you will listen.
It’s been a long arduous 12 years — for some, maybe more — coming to this end. You’ve waded through the muck of tables, graphs, formulas, equations, historical events, diagramed sentences, spelling quizzes, flash cards, online, self-paced courses, state capitals, word problems etc. Some of you may feel that the world’s insistence that you wade through more muck is valid. As such, you will go on to the world of higher muck, at the conclusion of which, you will receive a fancy embossed certificate stating that you have, in fact, mastered some specific form of muck. We will celebrate you then, as well.
Some of you may have had enough muck and will choose a different path. No matter what course you choose, I am certain of this, you are young and naïve and fearless. You will meet the world with ambition and enthusiasm. I know, because I once possessed those things.
So, the message I have for you today is a simple one. It’s a warning, really. You see, ambition and enthusiasm are great things. Things I pray you can keep your whole lives. But they are dangerous things as well, because they can lead you down two very different paths. Success or failure.
Success can look like this. You may wake up one day, years from now, in a large house, married with children. You may report to a job where you wield great power. At some point, you may ask yourself, “How did I become so successful?” As you ponder this, you might just claim responsibility for it. But I caution you. This could be only perceived success. If you pat yourself on the back and think it was you who got you there, your success is perceived. If you’ve relied on your own strength and forgotten your Savior, your success is only perceived. Because you have an enemy, who is real, and he wants you to believe that you are the cause for your accomplishments. You see, God gave him this world to temporarily rule, and he may just give you everything you ever wanted, all the while whispering in your ear that you did it. He will tell you, it was your hard work, your drive and your skill. He will show you a world full of bigger houses, luxury, money and power, and he will tempt you to want them. And when you get them, you’ll want more. Our enemy loves our pride, and he will feed it and nurture it until we stop looking to God all together.
Or, maybe your enthusiasm and ambition will lead you down a different path. Maybe you will be frustrated by failure. Your life may lead to lost jobs, broken relationships, money struggles, addictions and any one of thousands of scenarios. These things will lead you to believe you’ve failed and before you know it you’ve long stopped looking to God. This too is the work of our enemy and is only perceived failure. When you are at your lowest, he will accuse you of your weakness. He will show you all the great things this world has to offer and he’ll tell you you can never have them, because you are a failure.
Our enemy doesn’t care how he steps between us and God because he is in a battle to destroy the most precious thing in the world to God, which is you and me.
Here’s the truth, I’ve been both places in my life. I’ve had the big house, nuclear family, and professional success. Guess whom I gave the credit to? Then I nearly lost everything, and my life was broken. Guess whom I blamed?
I didn’t learn to truly live until I heard the voice of the wisest of all men, who said to me, “Brian, I forgive you.” He said, “I know you, and I still forgive you.” He said, “Brian, even though you’ve run from me. Even though you’ve tried to rule your own life. Even though you chose your own path, lied, stole, treated those I love with contempt. I forgive you.” He said to me, “Do not be afraid. I have paid for the consequences of your actions. And because you believe in me, you will live in everlasting glory.”
Those are the only words that matter. You can listen to them now or you can wait. God possesses more patience than you can ever try. But he is not going to force himself on you. Here’s the key, He is in the business of redeeming those who come to him willingly. He will gently call to you, and he will wait. He will send intercessors into your path, and he will wait. And just like the father of the prodigal son, whether you stay in his home or wander off to squander what he has given you, he will always embrace you and love you when you are ready. Because the blood of Jesus Christ has redeemed you.
So, let me tie this up, because I’m running long and I’m sure Brigid is bouncing her leg. Here is what I want you to take away from this night. Go! Go out into the world. Take your great gifts from your Creator of ambition and enthusiasm, and use them to bless the world. Keep your eyes on Jesus, always. If you do something and it is successful, praise Him. Thank Him, and tell everyone who observes you, that He is the reason for it. If you do something and it fails, praise Him still. Consider it an opportunity to learn and know that observers are watching how you, a Christian, deal with your failure.
Tonight begins your story. And your story can be intertwined with the God of creation. He has adventures and blessings lined up for each of you so amazing that you can’t imagine what they could be and he will share them, if you will just let him. But you must let him. Don’t close him out of your story. Invite him in and be a part of His story. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll get to speak at a high school graduation.
May God bless each of you, and may he keep you near to him your whole lives.