Every spring colleges, high schools and middle schools invite various distinguished alumni, public figures or others somehow connected to give advice to their graduating students on lessons learned and paths to consider. My friend Fred Cook, who with his wife Sara has a seasonal home in Keene Valley, was so asked and did comply for a middle school in Plainfield, N.J. named after his grandfather, who was the superintendent of the school district back in 1940s.
Fred thought back to what his grandfather might say and then gave the eighth graders six points to ponder:
1. Choose your friends carefully. We all are influenced by what our friends think and what they do. We shape our lives by what we see in those we look up to. So, be careful who you pick as your heroes.
2. Think for yourself. Don’t follow whoever or whatever is popular at the moment. Don’t even try to be popular or well liked. It’s not important although it may seem so at the time. The most important decisions you make are those you carefully think through and make for yourself.
3. It’s OK to make mistakes. Mistakes often come from making poor choices. We all make them. What we need to do is to learn from them. Why did we do that? What will you do differently next time? That way we learn and grow and become a better person for it.
4. Bring enthusiasm and energy to the important tasks you want to accomplish in your life. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Nothing great in life is accomplished without enthusiasm.” And he also could have added, without hard work
5. Be disciplined. Do what’s right as you see it. Character is doing what’s right even when no one is looking. Ask yourself, what would the person you think of as a hero do in the same situation?
6. Keep learning and growing. School is for learning. But life is a continuous opportunity to learn as you face new choices and dilemmas.
I rather enjoyed his advice, which made me think of a few that I got from my great-grandfather Harv Alford, which have stuck with me: Best way to climb a mountain is to climb it, best way to cross a river is to cross it, best way to chop a tree down is to chop it down.
He didn’t believe that practice made perfect as if you keep repeating the same mistake you’d never get any better. Another one of his stalwart expression was, “Can’t ain’t in the dictionary.”
But I think my favorite was, “If you stick your rear end out the window expect a cold wind to come along and slap it.”
Naturally, his language was a little more descriptive.
So I decided to ask some other locals what advice they would give to a graduating class of eighth graders.
Mattt Sorensen, box office manager and theater director at the LPCA, said, “Pay attention. That would be my first and most important piece of advice. Pay really close attention to everything you do. Being polite gets you pretty far in the world, too.”
Mary Beth Kikel, who founded the Lake Placid Poetry Guild, said, “Take the time to read and appreciate books. There is so much that can be gained from books. There is nothing like holding a book in your hands. It is like holding a piece of history. To me there is nothing like a book that is 100 years old. I think of all the people who may have held that book.”
“Learn to communicate,” said Tommy Ashley, who screened his documentary about the creation of the greatest skyscraper in to world to a very large and appreciative audience at the Northwoods Inn. “Media is continuing to explode, and if you can work in that, you will have tremendous opportunities. Learn how to listen and better express yourself throughout your life.”
“Be subversive,” said former Dean of the Syracuse Music Department George Pappastavrou.
“Is that all you want to say?” I said. “Do you want to add to that?”
“No, that says it all,” George said. “It is like if you really listen to Beethoven’s 5th, da, da, daa, da, da, da, daa, the opening music was really subversive for its time. As Picasso said, ‘Why assume that to look is to see”, or, to paraphrase, why assume that to listen is to really hear. I guess what I am really saying is, pay attention.’”
“I don’t know what I’d say,” said Gary Smith, owner of the Northwoods Inn. “I don’t think a lot of them would pay attention. But what I would say is, ‘Look around. Many of the people that they now see will be their friends for life. How they treat these people, how they treat them, how they support them, will in the end matter more than almost anything in their life. And beyond that, to be honest and of good character.’”
“I’d tell them; wake up every morning and don’t miss a thing, don’t let anything go by, live like there is no tomorrow and start young,” Georgia Jones said.
“Get to know who you are and at that point start making a list of what you want to do with your life,” Barbara Tamerin said.
“Work hard and have fun,” Serge Lussi said.
“Don’t take no for an answer and take responsibility for your actions,” Ann O’Leary said. “Don’t look backward, look forward.”
“Gosh, let’s see,” said Betsy Lowe, founder of the Wild Center and now director of DEC Region 5. “I would tell them to follow their passions, follow what really interests them. They will find their way if they follow what they enjoy with a certain amount of good will attached. How they treat others really matters. Do that and they will be fine.”