Attending Ashland High School‘s 2018 commencement ceremony in June was a privilege. Fourteen valedictorians and one keynote speaker addressed the attendees. Their collective voices began painting a diverse, colorful and hopeful canvas. They made me hopeful for the future.
One Ashland valedictorian, Zaida LaRose, questioned whether their monotonous commencement caps and gowns were relevant, considering how crucial one’s individuality is, stating, “they show us all being the same, while the one thing we should be honoring and celebrating at this ceremony is how vastly different and complex we all have become.”
Another speaker expressed that so many of her peers on stage were not entitled to the colorful ropes of “accomplishment” she wore, braided ropes that should recognize the truly inspiring values her peers hold dear. One can assume them to be, based on the tone of the speech, values like friendship, kindness, loyalty, tenacity, honesty, compassion, generosity and collaboration.
There was a shared sentiment among the valedictorians that their individual “success,” as measured by our culture and their GPA, was a result of inspiration and support by their friends, parents, grandparents and community.
The keynote speaker, renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch, described his struggle within our culture during his youth as an effort to be his authentic self, and the peace that finally came when he did so. When he finally accepted and loved who he truly was, he found the love of his life and began raising their children, one of whom was graduating that day.
Individuality, community, and being strong and confident in one’s self are important qualities; we have heard similar sentiments elsewhere this past year, including:
In Bronnie Ware’s book, “The Five Regrets of Dying,” Ware describes regrets of people in hospice care on their deathbed. Some of the top regrets expressed include:
1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
2: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
3. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
We saw the Dalai Lama ask people to lay down their religions and come together as a human species. His book, “Beyond Religion” is described as, “Transcending the religion wars, he outlines a system of ethics for our shared world, one that makes a stirring appeal for a deep appreciation of our common humanity, offering us all a road map for improving human life on individual, community, and global levels.”
Perhaps for the first time in history, one of our most highly regarded religious figures is asking us to stop battling over religious ideals and beliefs and recognize that we are one people, and to treat each other as such.
In Amy Cuddy’s book, “Presence,” she shares the idea that we cannot truly create community without inviting the people into it whom we least desire to be there. This graduating class, and those coming behind them, seem to have an innate understanding that we cannot solve problems without inviting each other in, and begin treating all people as human beings.
Around the country this year, from Abby Wambach’s commencement address at Bard’s College (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We will unite our pack, storm the valley together and change the whole bloody system”), to Hamdi Ulukaya’s address at Wharton School (“What matters most, in business and in life, is the difference you make for other people, for your community, for your country, and for humanity”), to Ronan Farrow’s address at Loyola Marymount (“More than ever we need people to be guided by their own senses of principle — and not the whims of a culture that prizes ambition, and sensationalism, and celebrity, and vulgarity, and doing whatever it takes to win,”) the message is one of celebrating our diversity, remaining humble, staying true to oneself and finding strength in community.
Graduates, I respect and admire you. You already know that we cannot effectively contribute to society until we become true to who we are. I will ask that you hesitate to spend precious time trying to act, look, or be liked by someone else — put down Instagram, nix Facebook. It is almost impossible emotionally to be thinking about what others are doing or thinking and be truly present as yourself at the same time. Using social media daily is robbing the world of both your time and of that which is uniquely you, and we need you!
Class of 2018, in speaking with you through the years, you give so many of us hope that our outdated, competitive, exclusive cultural ways of life will someday fade away. You give us hope that someday all ships will rise. We can see passion and compassion in your eyes, and hear courage and strength in your collective voices. I, for one, cannot wait to watch you finish painting your beautiful, vibrant, diverse, global canvas in collaboration with all people.
Jennifer Gibbs is an Ashland resident.