Graduation Speech Written For Paw Paw Schools Class of 2018

Hello everyone, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to speak here to my former students. I’m honored that the class of 2018 selected me to be their speaker.

When I came to Paw Paw, the class of 2018 was in the 10th grade. I was a fresh-faced new graduate, scared to death that I would accidentally ruin a kid’s life. I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would crash and burn that first year. But I landed here. I met wonderful people who taught me how to be a better teacher.

One of those people was Beth Delawder. Beth is retiring this year, and I just want to say that I don’t know if I would’ve survived my first year without her. Beth cares deeply about her students, and if I learned anything from her, it’s that loving children is how a good teacher becomes a great one.

But on to the class of 2018. What a group they are. They made that first year exciting. And even though they call me a traitor when I see them, they are very special to me.

I hit it off with these guys right away. They were the perfect mix of smart and crazy. Capable, creative, always up for a challenge, and always pushing limits. Haven never listened. Christian never turned anything in on time. When I yelled at Hunter he always pretended to have his feelings hurt so I would apologize to him. Landon and Tristan were the reliable ones. Zach and John were always quiet. And Katie was always sweet.

And then, apart from all the others,… there was Matt.

Every day Matt did something to throw me off balance. He tangled me up in my own words. He hid my markers and office supplies, and he went out of his way to embarrass me when other adults visited my classroom.

He tortured me just a little bit each day, and he always made sure I had a reason to laugh when I needed it most.

Later that year, we had a pep rally, and if you’ve never been to a Paw Paw pep rally, it’s incredible.

The best part is when teachers are allowed to pie students in the face. Students line up on one side of the gym, and the teachers line up on the other. Each teacher gets a pie, and they get paired with a student.

It took a little bribery, but I made sure that I got paired with Matt.

I took that pie pan full of whipped cream and I turned it over on top of his head, pulled it down and then pushed it back up. He had whipped cream in his hair, in his ears, and up his nose. I still don’t know that I’ve ever been happier as a teacher. He stole a pie from somewhere and chased me across the gym, but I got away.

Now everyone is here, sitting in their graduation robes. Those memories already  seem like a lifetime ago.

It has been 11 years since my own high school graduation. It’s been a busy 11 years. It’s been a time of great change, of great joy and great pain. I’ve learned a lot, and I hope that I can share some of that with you here tonight. I hope that it makes your transition to adulthood easier, and I hope that you can avoid making the same mistakes that I did.

So, ladies and gentlemen, at the risk of sounding like a future self help guru, this is Dugan’s 4 simple rules for the next 10 years.

Let’s get started.

Rule 1: Be prepared to grow apart. You will soon have new surroundings inhabited by new people, and you will have new and more time consuming responsibilities. Life will change for your friends as well, and you will drift apart. Over time you’ll forget the names of people that you once wanted to impress. You’ll come home for the holidays and bump into old friends.

You’ll make small talk, “hey how’s school?”

“What’s your major?”

“How many classes you have left?”

But there will be a new distance between you. You will no longer have common experiences. You won’t have anything of substance to talk about.

After a while you’ll avoid making eye contact altogether. But it’s OK. People will pass into and out of your life all the time. It’s a sign of growth and of moving on.

I learned this from a friend of mine named Tom Heath. I dated Tom’s granddaughter for a few months, and Tom and I hit it off right away. I visited him for years. I helped him around his house and he taught me how to build furniture.

But after I graduated from college, started working, and got married, I didn’t have time to visit very often.

One of the last times I saw him, I apologized for not stopping by more. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “people drift in and out of each others lives. It’s sad, but it happens.”

I haven’t seen Tom in years, but I still think about him every once in a while. I wonder how he is, if his health is still good.

But we have both moved on.

Shifting relationships are a part of life. Be ready for it.

Rule 2: Listen to yourself. When I graduated high school, my dad wanted me to work a trade, my pap wanted me to own a business, and my mom wanted me to be a lawyer.

Before I left for college, I was so worried about what everyone else wanted for me, that I never considered what I wanted for myself.

I changed my major three times my first year. I finally settled on business, not because it excited me, but because it seemed like a quick path to a good living.

But I hated those business classes, and when I got out of school, I hated the work. I have never felt more like a failure than when I came to realize that I’d wasted four years of my life chasing someone else’s dream.

The thought of working in a cubicle for 30 years made me ill.

I was a ball of misery, dragging myself to and from work everyday. When my wife couldn’t stand to look at me any longer, she sat me down and demanded that I go back to school to teach.

I won’t tell you that the change was easy. We lived frugally those years. Showers were five minutes or less. A light left on during the day was a sin. I ate more peanut butter and ramen noodles than any human ever should. But after all that sacrifice we had changed our lives.

I’m not sure that I would change my path given the opportunity. I think I had to suffer a bit to get some things through my thick skull, but I would’ve saved my family a lot of heartache if I’d of listened to myself sooner.

Which brings me to Rule 3: Do for a living what you would do for free. In retrospect, it was obvious that I was meant to teach. I worked with children at multiple church and community groups. In high school, I taught martial arts to grade schoolers. During my off hours at Shepherd, I volunteered at the writing center.

But I brainwashed myself against teaching as a career.

And I know why. Young men don’t start out their lives with dreams of being a middle class school teacher in a small town. I wanted to be famous and filthy rich.

It took time and maturity to understand that wealth and cash are sometimes not the same thing. It took some time to quietly mourn the mansion and Ferrari I would never own.

When I announced to my parents that I quit my job, my dad asked me just how exactly I planned to pay my bills for the next two years. When I told him that we would live on student loans and my wife would work full time, he didn’t speak to me for two weeks.

The people who love you want what’s best for you, and if they think you are making a mistake, they should work to change your mind. Listen to, seek out, and take advice, but ultimately you are the one who has to live in the life you build.

Finally, Rule 4: Treat every choice as if it’s important.

Imagine a round gauge with a needle. You can choose any pair of opposing things to go on each side. Your gauge might say sad on one side and happy on the other. It could say failure and success. Mine says Chaos and Order.

I value a life of consistency. When my life is in order, I have more free time, fewer worries and less anxiety. I like my life much better when it’s free of surprises.

I carry my invisible gauge with me everywhere I go, and I consult it before I make a decision. Every choice moves the needle in one direction or the other.

If I lie, overeat, overspend, procrastinate at work, or mistreat my loved ones, the needle drops toward chaos.

If I help others by donating my time, money, and skills, if I tell the truth and work hard, if I spend meaningful time with my family, the needle rises toward order.

If you find that you’re trapped in chaos, you likely know how you got there. If you hate your body, exercise and eat less sugar. If your mind is stagnant, learn something new. If a fight with a loved one is hurting your spirit, call them and tell them that you miss them.

When life is a mess, we know what to change, but we’re often too lazy, stubborn, self-sabotaging, fearful, or prideful to take action.

Start small. If your life is in shambles, then keep your house clean. If you don’t own a home, clean your room. If you share a room, make your bed. Find whatever tiny area of your life that you have absolute responsibility for and force it into place.

Hope is restored by taking action, and all good things begin with hope.

And those are the 4 most important things that I’ve learned since I received my high school diploma.

Now, I don’t know about everyone else here tonight, but I can’t even remember who spoke at my high school graduation much less what they said. And If I’ve gotten used to anything as a high school teacher, it’s that teenagers ignore me when I speak.

So, I’ve made a copy of this speech for each of you. At the bottom is my email address. I hope that you’ll stay in touch. I hope that you’ll ask for my help if you should ever need it, and I hope you’ll make me aware of your successes.

And on behalf of every teacher and mentor you’ve ever had, from your schools, families, churches, and communities, we are proud of you.

So let’s hear it for the class of 2018, and congratulations to the town of Paw Paw for raising another quality group of young men and women.

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