Please welcome our Guest Speaker….
By Al Albers
My alma mater, Rice High School, held its final graduation ceremony on May 27, 2011. A college preparatory school, Rice was established in 1938 in Central Harlem by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. For 73 years “Rice-Men” have been taught personal qualities of responsibility, integrity, courage and empowerment. But more importantly, it was expected that they make a difference – in their family, community and society.
As I read the email about the final alumni open house on July 1, 2011, I thought about this year’s graduation ceremony. And that’s when it hit me: It’s been 41 years since I stepped on the stage and received my high school diploma.
Forty-one years … wow.Has it really been that long?
I looked at my wall calendar; yep, the year 2011 is boldly centered on the page alongside the month. And my cell phone and desktop computer also indicate its 2011. I guess I just don’t want to acknowledge that, like everyone else, I’m aging. You did notice that I didn’t say, “I’m getting old.” I cringe when I hear people say that; aging is not a disease, it’s a universal human experience. To wit: Age is simply a number.
It has been that long.
I clasped my hands together, placed them behind my head, leaned back in my executive chair, placed my feet on the wheel base and stared out the window that overlooks my back yard.
“The world has changed – a lot – over the past 41 years,” I murmur. “For that matter, so have I … I’ve aged.”
I tried, but couldn’t remember the name of the guest speaker at my graduation. I’m sure he was a local personality; a man with impeccable credentials and an eloquent speaker. A man who would deliver a fervent speech that was appropriate for the youth of 1970 America. However, forty-one years later, his speech, just like his name, is a long-forgotten memory. In retrospect, perhaps his speech was nothing special to a then seventeen-year-old with an aspiration to work as a studio musician – a guitarist to be precise – in California. (Attending college wasn’t on my “To Do” list.) I was 12 when I had my first guitar lesson and now, with almost six years experience, I could read sheet music and play a lot of what was heard on the radio. Working as a musician was, in the eyes of many other musically-inclined teenagers, the dream job. I was confident in my ability, I was determined, and I had passion. I saw myself playing music for the rest of my life. Alas, it didn’t happen. In October 1970, there was still no end in sight for the skirmish in Southeast Asia and young men were still being drafted. I scrapped my plans and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. But that’s another story for another time.
As I sat upright and reached for the ever-present pad of paper and pencil on my desk, I asked myself, “What inspiring words or stories could I tell the graduating class, with the hope that they would remember it forty-one years later? And if they also remember my name – even better!”
I stared at the blank paper. Ten minutes later, I placed my pen alongside the pad, reclined the chair and stared at the paper. Occasionally, I’d lean forward and scribble a formless note, then I’d sit back to think – again.
“This isn’t easy,” I said, some forty minutes later. “Then again, few things are.”
Over the course of a week, I wrote, edited, rewrote and edited. I eventually decided that less is more so I settled on three specific topics. I was sure the graduating class would understand. After all, there are more important things that will kick into high gear at the conclusion of the formalities: Graduation festivities. So, as they say in the speaker’s world, “You’re up.”
Okay … maybe they don’t say it that way.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Dearly beloved …. wait a minute; this isn’t my speech.
“Ah; here are my notes.
“Principal Ells, Rice High School faculty, distinguished guests, members of the graduating class of 2011, and ladies and gentlemen. I was both thrilled and honored when I was asked to be the guest speaker today. Three weeks ago on THE Saturday that I had specifically appointed, I sat down to compose the 60 minutes of remarks that Sister Ells had allotted me today. But the day was cool, slightly overcast, and the cows were standing so I went to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, instead. The Alpengeist and Apollo’s Chariot roller coasters were calling. I was certain that everyone would understand. So fifteen minutes is the best I can do. I just hope you all realize that there is no scientific connection between what a person knows and the time they take to tell it.
“Twelve years ago, a magician friend of mine asked, ‘If you could only have three magic books, which ones would you choose and why?’ It was a tough question to answer. I had 350 books and they all contained indispensable information; some more than others. As I carefully scanned the titles, I began to compile a list. Yes, it was more than three, but I needed a starting point and this was it. An hour later, I finished. The next step was to meticulously whittle the list until three titles remained. I winced each time I deleted a book’s title. ‘Could I really do without this one; it really has some pertinent information,’ I said. ‘Maybe I should write notes in the margins of the books I planned on keeping.’
“When I told my friend of my choices, the only thing he said was, ‘Thanks.’
“I couldn’t believe that I did all that work for a one-word answer. In a way, it reminded me of solving a complex algebraic equation – the bonus question on the midterm exam – and then only getting a checkmark.
“All that work for a checkmark? Wait a minute, how many points do I get; I need all the help I can get … and then some.
“I stashed away the list with some other papers and quickly forgot all about it. That is, until three weeks ago. I was looking for a membership roster and that’s when I found ‘THE LIST.’ I immediately thought about calling my friend … I still wanted more than just, ‘thanks’ … but I didn’t. Chances are he’d have probably said, ‘thanks, again,’ and quickly hang up before I tried to exact more information. In spite of the fact that, 12 years later, my personal library has expanded to over 600 books I still agree with the choices I made all those years ago.
“As I debated what to write, I started with a list of topics … subjects … themes … or what have you. And just as I did 12 years ago, I whittled the list until I had three items. After all, this is not my day … it’s your day. You’ve made it through the storm and therefore it’s only fitting that today you get the applause you richly deserve. Besides, the faster I end my ramblings, the sooner you get your diploma.
“With that said, I’ll press on.
“First. Don’t be a tourist. A tourist rides a bus or walks the streets that a guide has chosen. Don’t misunderstand; the guide will take extremely good care of you, and he’ll ensure you see the traditional sights. I’ve seen a lot of them up close and personal: Egypt’s pyramids, Spain’s cathedrals, Italy’s coliseum, and Greece’s Acropolis, to name a few.
“Instead, I suggest you become a traveler. The traveler seeks out the challenging paths and is not afraid to jump into the mud puddle. It’s the less-traveled roads where you’ll discover other treasures that are intentionally hidden in plain sight. Beaches, spectacular plazas, hillside-clinging restaurants, and alley stores where negotiating the price of a curio is the only accepted way to do business.
“I spent my formative years growing up in the Bronx. The only thing I knew of the world was what was happening on my block, around the corner where some of my friends lived, and at the school yard where there was always stickball and basketball games being played. It wasn’t until I joined the Navy and traveled around the globe that – aside from the myriad cultural and language differences – I realized that a kid growing up in the Bronx is no different than a kid growing up in, for example, Aarhus, Denmark. The games being played were different, but they were played with fervor. The tones of their voices were echoes of our voices: at times thunderous. (I think one team was complaining about an unfair call.)
“But every voice was one of hope and of dreams. And dreams are my second theme.
“Dream big. While growing up, you continually learned new games to play. After learning the rules you shifted your focus to the game, intent on giving it your all and knowing full well that your efforts might not reap rewards the first time. But you were persistent; you kept at it and eventually the tide shifted. Suddenly, you were the king of the hill; the guy everyone wanted to beat.
“The guy everyone HAD to beat.
“So when they turned up the heat, you stepped up your game and trounced the competition. ‘Yep, it’s going to take a lot more for you to win,’ you boldly said to them.
“When asked what makes a champion, Muhammad Ali said, ‘Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, and a vision.’
“Our dreams are what drive us so ignore the ideology, ‘You can’t do it.’ It’s your job to prove the pundits wrong. If you want to run a marathon, train for it. If you want to open a restaurant, first learn how to cook and then learn everything there is to learn about running a successful business. If you want to write novels, biographies or autobiographies, do it. Build on your strengths and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re devoted to anything you can overcome anything. The world isn’t going to stop and wait for you to turn your dream into a reality.
“Dreams are not what you see with your closed eyes but something which never let you sleep.
“Third. Ignore the wall blocking your path. There are only three ways to sidestep a barrier: Go over it, go around it, or go under it. Life is full of challenges; don’t let an inanimate object overpower you.
“Remember when your mathematics teacher suddenly threw you a curve ball after five or six regular pitches? There you were, knocking the ball deep into the outfield when suddenly your world turned upside down. You brazenly look at your teacher and she’s smiling. ‘I gotcha; welcome to my world,’ the smile says.
“You lowered your head and started to work out the problem. Soon, beads of perspiration started forming on your brow. The moment you looked at the result you instinctively knew it was wrong so you started again and took a different approach. When this one didn’t pan out, you tried it again and suddenly you found the hidden key, and everything fell into place. Emboldened by your accomplishment, you look at your teacher and this time YOU’RE smiling. Mrs. Browne is nodding. She knew you could do it; her intent was to bolster your confidence and prove that with determination you can bypass the wall.
“It would have been easier to throw down the pencil and say, ‘I can’t do it; I quit.’ But that meant you allowed the wall to best you. ‘Rice-Men’ aren’t quitters. Finding a solution to sidestep a barrier is much easier when you embrace the issue and redirect your fear of the unknown. That’s when your adrenaline becomes a source of resilience.
“Those, my fellow alumni, are my three topics … subjects … themes … or what have you.
“As you begin the next journey, look as far ahead into the future as possible. Think about what life lessons you wish to pass on to your children. And pass them on! Remind them that life is full of everyday miracles and sometimes it takes a bad situation to appreciate them. Behind every rain cloud is a rainbow waiting to be seen … all you have to do is look for it.
“In summary, don’t run from your fears, dream big, and take trips. It’s time for me to ‘take off,’ but before I leave I want to share with you a final thought. A lesson I learned – the hard way – when I was a senior, forty-one years ago. ‘Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.’ But that’s another story for another time.
“Thanks for inviting me to be YOUR guest speaker, but more importantly, thanks for listening.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was ten minutes to eight when I pushed open the door, stepped onto the sidewalk, turned and stared at the green placard with its yellow letters, neatly centered about twenty feet above the front entrance. A moment later I was transported back in time to 1966.
Small groups of students are slowly walking towards the school. Many are wearing RICE sweaters; some are carrying a few books while others have a RICE school bag. Everyone is laughing heartily. As they open the door, the laughter ends and they solemnly walk up the stairs to the main floor. Inside the classrooms, the Christian Brothers are watching their students enter and patiently waiting for the first bell to ring.
The sounds of two car horns rouse me from my short-lived daydream. As I blink my eyes to refocus, the last of the open house attendees step outside. Coincidentally, they, too, take one last look at the placard. I smile and nod at everyone, and then turn and walk away. As I head north on Lenox Avenue to the garage on 126th Street, in my mind I see another group of students casually walking towards the school.
“We’re gonna be late if we don’t hurry up,” I hear one of them say.
Been there and done that … being late, that is.
As I slowly drove past Rice for the final time, I murmured, “In the end, all that really matters are the things we did. And it’s those memories that we remember forever that give us the confidence to go on.”