2011 Graduation Address, Edison High School, Minneapolis, Minnesota

I want to thank you for asking me to speak tonight. "Oh, thank you," wasn’t the first thing I said, but I really am flattered. This is probably my last chance to speak at a graduation, of course. And it really is an honor. As most of you know, I’m retiring next week. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not disappearing. I’m not just going to do nothing. I may even be around Edison a little. I’ll do some of the things I couldn’t do while I was at school day after day after day. I’m retiring, not stopping.

I’ll work with new teachers, I’ll travel, I’ll ride my bikes, I’ll write and I’ll certainly continue to read and even reread some of the books I haven’t been able to get to. And I’m going to study abroad some more, at Cambridge this summer and perhaps other places around the world in years to come. So, I’ll be practicing what I’m preaching tonight. You see, I can’t stop being a teacher. A teacher after all is someone who thinks learning is just so darn much fun, everybody must want to be doing it, all the time. So as I said, I’ll be doing a lot of reading–in planes, on trains, in cars and at home.

In the things I read, I sometimes find wise ideas, and new ways of seeing the world. When I read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem "Ulysses" I connected with it right away. The original Ulysses epic is the story of a great general whose cleverness as much as his soldiering has saved him and his crew from many monstrous dangers. It is the story of a journey and a lesson in leadership, meant for future leaders, but in his poem, Tennyson takes up Ulysses at the end of his adventures, all his great accomplishments accomplished. In the poem, Ulysses is not satisfied with having achieved everything he has achieved, and he realizes that what made life worthwhile to him was the striving, the trying, not the success. Success is not an end, but a place to start again, to try something new, to go where he hasn’t yet been. He says:

 I am a part of all that I have met;
        Yet all experience is an arch, wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margins fade
For ever and for ever as I move.

Now you know that as you move toward the horizon, it will simply move on away from you. But it isn’t just your moving forward that is important about this quotation; it’s about experience and what you can see in your future. Unlike Ulysses, you are still short in experience, but as you gain more experience, you will gain more height, more vision; your horizons, the margins of your world, will grow. You’ll see how big your “untravell’d world” is. You’ll never see all there is to see, do all there is to do, know all there is to know. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot reach the stars, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach. Reaching for the stars is about you, not about the stars.

When you’re down at ground level, you can’t see too far into the distance, but when you get up high, you can see much farther. Reaching, trying and getting experience is like getting up higher. Experience makes you taller in the world of opportunity, and allows you to see much more of the possibility that exists for you. Getting experience is learning: learning by studying, learning by doing and learning by talking with and listening to people. Learn through experience. Be a tall person. See what’s out there for you. No matter what you do in life: school, work, home-making, learn from and in whatever you do. It counts. Make your life count.

Those of you who go to college and other schools study many kinds of things. A liberal education gives you the power of adaptability. When someone tells you to specialize in some subject exclusively, remember that greatness has always been achieved by those who stepped out of their limits into the unknown. The more you know, the more you will come to understand how much there is to know and how little we know of it. It is your flexibility and confidence that will let you go into what you don’t know, and that will lead you to your greatness.

Those of you who go right to work continue to learn, study, experience other things. Learn the guitar or write or join the church choir or learn to fly. No matter what kind of work you do, up on a roof top or down a hole in the ground, alone in an office or on a crowded sales floor, the more you know and the more ready you are to learn, the better you will be in your work and more likely you will be to advance. And the happier you will be in your life which will feel more full and worth living.

And those of you who stay at home and raise children, you will  do the important job of modeling and valuing learning for those children, so that they will aspire and achieve in their lives too. So that they will continue learning in their turn. So they will be the next great generation of kids to graduate from Edison.

Think about this. If you stop learning, you’re dead. Your body may trudge on, but your spirit will have died, that inner light that I and your other teachers have loved about you, will have gone out. And that will be a shame, because that flame that shines in you can light the way to your greatness. That inner light of yours is why I am so thankful to have taught at Edison and to have been allowed to be part of your lives. Keep the flame alive.

Tennyson closes with, the words of an old general, but if old Ulysses could still kick it, I know you can. Ulysses was great not for what he did, which means nothing in the world today, but for how he did it. We can all live our lives as the great ones did by doing as they have done. The great deeds will follow or not, as they may. It isn’t the score; it is how you play the game. Live your life like Ulysses. Live your life greatly. 

I close with the closing line from Tennyson’s poem as my charge to you. I charge you "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Congratulations, Edison Class of 2011 and good luck.

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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