Thank you for that kind introduction, Ms. Maselli. I’m honored to be invited to speak today. Faculty, staff, Board members, graduates, parents and guests. I’m very pleased to be at my alma mater and to join you in celebrating this wonderful occasion.
When I got the message to contact Clairton City School District, I worried that a mistake had been made, a grade had been recalculated and my diploma was about to be revoked. But Dr. Hunt assured me my Algebra grade is still passing… barely
Ok, first out of the box, let me congratulate all the graduates. You should be very, very proud of yourselves for accomplishing this goal. Well done. I know many of you must be excited to leave this place and make your mark on the world. Others might plan to stay and continue to make Clairton an even better place to live, socialize, study and worship. But first you need to go through the ritual of graduation. That’s part of where I come in as your commencement speaker. I’ll try my best not put you to sleep.
To the families of the graduates, congratulations to you. I’m sure you’re very proud of your graduates as they close this portion of their lives and prepare for their next steps into more schooling, marriage, or a career.
Graduation is one step in life that defines a coming of age – the ending of one part of your life, as a student, and moving on to a new stage as a leader, a do-er and an achiever in the wider world. Or maybe continuing as students for a few more years.
Some of you may have firm plans and a good idea of what’s coming. Others may have a pretty good idea of what you want to do next; a dream and a lot of hope to get you there, and some are just amazed that you made it to graduation at all!
Well, the coming times will be exciting. They will be trying, but success is dependent on you and your determination.
So, getting through Clairton High School was not exactly like High School Musical. But you made it. SPOILER AERT: Life is an improvisation. Most of the time you have no idea what will happen next. Essentially you make it up as you go along, though I will give you some hints to help make your journey smooth and successful.
You’re now armed with one of the most important tools needed to forge your path. It’s not the diploma itself that counts – it’s what you’ve learned along the way and what you do with the education you’ve gotten during your journey. Your future is in your hands – no one else’s. Seize this opportunity.
It’s been many years since I graduated from Clairton High School and things have changed more than a bit since then. Back in my day Moby Dick was just a sardine, TV, movies, and even rainbows were all in black and white. Our mascot wasn’t the Clairton Bear, but a dinosaur. In the news, George Washington was just elected president.
On a serious note, I was terrified of what might lay ahead for me when I graduated. Our valedictorian had a full academic scholarship to Carnegie Mellon. Many football players headed for college. Members of the Honor Society and kids whose parents had money also prepared for college. Others went into the workforce at the mill or other jobs. Several enlisted into the military. I wanted to join the Marine Corps, but my father had other plans for me. I did end up going to college.
Tonight, I find myself at a graduation once again but so many years later. My life didn’t turn out quite the way I imagined. I pictured myself as a psychologist, driving to work in a sports car, smoking a pipe and having 2 ½ kids and a white picket fence around a house in the suburbs. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.
I couldn’t find a job after college in my major field of study, so I began my career as a sixth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania’s first middle school. After that I’ve had jobs delivering flowers, driving taxi and limousine, writing for the newspaper, being a travel agent, a college professor and many other things. I did whatever it took to give my family a better life.
I’ve been married 47 years, have four grandkids and a cat. I don’t play football anymore. I watch it on TV. I enjoy writing books, blogs, articles, and even gossip on FaceBook. I don’t regret a bit of it. In fact, I stumbled into a life that makes me happy and fulfills me, and so will you if you follow the secrets I’m going share with you tonight.
My greatest satisfaction as an alum is being part of the “Reaching the Reachable” team and giving back to my hometown.
Clairton might have undergone changes in the years since I graduated, but some things have remained constant; the most beautiful park and pool in the area, and the good people who live and work here.
Life doesn’t always follow the plans you laid out for yourself. You will experience highs and lows of life, the difficult and the easy, and unfortunately, there will be times of too much difficult and just not enough easy. Your true success will be determined by how you handle both extremes.
Let me give you an example of too much easy. When I was a professor, I became close to a student who was smart, hard-working and a decent football player named Marion Knight. His ambition was to get into rap music after graduation. His gentle nature earned him the nickname, Sugar Bear, later shortened to Shug Knight. He became a highly successful record producer and music executive, founding a company called Death Row Records.
Made more money than you and I could count, hundreds of millions of dollars. But his success was not always tempered with good judgement and his life went from the penthouse to the outhouse. Today he is in a California prison serving a 28-year sentence. Mismanaged success can be more deadly than poverty.
As you graduate and take on new challenges, chances are you won’t be making the kind of money you dreamt about for your first job. In fact, you might not get the first or second or third job you try for. You may never become top dog in the company, but that’s OK. The important thing is you have already taken the first step needed to build a more promising future.
Every class you’ve taken, every lab, every essay written and every award you’ve earned, have been preparing you to adapt to change and challenges you will face. Things like taking classes, participating in sports or other extra-curricular activities, working, or helping out at home all help mold who you will become.
Just getting to school each day on time is difficult enough. But to do it after a football injury or a problem at home, an absentee father, an abusive step parent, an unplanned pregnancy or simply not having enough money to make it is really tough.
As many of you already have discovered, it’s a harsh world out there. Nothing in life will be handed to you – you’ll have to earn it – and your achievements will mean more to you because you earn them. Remember, it’s no sin to get knocked down. It’s only a sin if you don’t get back up. That’s an example of perseverance.
For another example of how perseverance can pay off, let me share my experience.
My grades in high school were below average. Our counselor said to me, “Andy, I know your father wants you to go college, but face it, you’re just not college material.”
I believed her. I didn’t have the self-confidence to challenge her. After all, she was the counselor and I was just a kid. I even applied to college twice and got turned down both times. But my father, God bless him, a man who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, was determined that his son would have opportunities he never had.
He married too soon and had four children to support. He worked nearly 50 years for the City of Clairton, first as a police officer, then for the Street Department. When it snowed, his job was to load the truck with sand to clear the streets. I’ve seen him work 96 straight hours, come home, take a quick nap, then go back to work again. On days off he’d pick scrap iron to sell for a few dollars. After work, he had another job distributing newspapers to stores and paperboys. He showed me the first secret of a successful life: “Work harder and longer than the other guy or gal.”
When I showed an interest in a college 2,000 miles away, in Utah where a classmate planned to attend, I think my father persuaded every minister, school official, teacher and elected official in the City of Clairton to write letters on my behalf. The college was so overwhelmed with letters from Clairton that despite my poor high school record I was admitted on academic probation.
I learned my second valuable lesson for success. “If you refuse to take no for an answer, the answer can change”.
Still at age 17 I doubted myself. The words, “You’re just not college material” continued to haunt me.
Two things happened that first year in college that changed my life. I decided to major in Psychology, not for any grand reason, but because my poor grades in high school made me believe I wouldn’t be able to compete in Math, Science, History, English, etc. But since nobody else had taken Psychology in high school, we’d all be even coming out the gate.
I learned in Psychology class that most people learn through their eyes (reading, watching, observing). A small percentage, though, learn through their ears (hearing listening).
I listened to the lecture and realized that my learning style was through my ears. I remembered every word to every song I heard, nearly every line in movies and TV shows; every word and comment in every college course lecture.
Once I discovered my learning style, my grades improved dramatically. To this day I am just an average reader at best, but a powerful listener.
Secret number three: “If you can’t achieve after multiple tries, step back, evaluate, and try a different strategy.”
Everybody has a gift. Try different things to find yours. In doing so you’ll find what your gift ISN’T. Mine wasn’t sports. I played mostly Left Out.
It wasn’t musical instruments. The only one I played was the radio and that was usually off key. I challenge you to find your own talent or gift and exploit it.
I discovered my talent to be words. My freshman English teacher wrote on one of my assignments, “You are a very talented writer, but your work needs polish. I’ll help you after class. Follow my advice and you’ll become a prolific writer.”
I didn’t know what prolific meant but I listened and followed her advice, and have written and published, over two-million words, three books, years of newspaper articles, stories, grants, and more, all because a teacher was willing to reach out to me and I was willing to listen. Secret: “A hand up is NOT a hand out.” Words are my passion. Find yours.
Before I make my closing remarks I have an assignment for you. You’ve already earned your diploma so this is for extra credit. Put on your thinking caps. Think of a person who had an influence on your life; Parent, pastor, grandma, coach, teacher, crossing guard. Thank them. Hug or shake hands but tell them how much they mean to you. There is no greater gift you can give than acknowledgement and costs you nothing. Do it today if they are here, or tomorrow, but do it!
Here are ten secrets to success and happiness in life that I promised you:
1: work harder and longer than the other guy or gal.
2: If you refuse to take no for an answer, the answer can change.
3: If you can’t achieve after multiple tries, step back, evaluate, and try a different strategy. Find a creative solution
4: Give back to the school, church, and community that helped mold you
5: Examine your strengths. Find your own talent or gift
6: Find your passion and pursue it with a vengeance.
7: A hand up is not a handout.
8: Creativity is the ability to look at something and see something else
9: Take chances but know and accept the consequences.
10: Success that comes too soon can lead to disaster. Keep life in perspective.
To help apply these secrets to your life, let me share this thought from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Lastly, join me in a chant, “IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME”
May all your dreams come true.