I recently had the honor of being invited by the senior class at Windham High School to deliver the commencement address at their graduation. It was the students, not the faculty or administration, who chose their graduation speaker so that made the invitation even more special.
I enthusiastically accepted, feeling especially privileged to be asked to participate in such an important event. But then after thinking about how special the day is for the seniors and their families, I suddenly had a wave of panic hit me like a bucket of ice water.
What in the world was I going to say that would be meaningful to these young graduates? This is not an ordinary speech or event – this is their one and only high school graduation and a day they will always remember. This address had to be special.
I pulled out some of my old speeches, searching for some magical words I could offer. I researched a few of our great orators both the past and present. Nothing seemed to fit.
Personally, I have sat through my share of tedious commencement addresses where many in the audience were ready to stick pins in their eyes because the speaker was so incredibly boring and lacking in coherence.
What was the answer, I asked myself? Where do I find the words of wisdom that would be just right for this day? Then it hit me. Of course! That’s just what I’ll do.
As secretary of state, then as a state senator, I visited schools all over the state, went to hundreds of classrooms and talked with literally thousands of students from kindergarten to college. Of all of those visits throughout Maine, there was one class of students that was so impressive, so memorable that I’ve never forgotten them to this day. These kids showed unique wisdom and initiative well beyond their years.
The school was in Raymond, and the class of students was Jani Cummings’ first-graders.
A few days after meeting with these kids, I received a written thank you accompanied by something I never expected. These amazing 6-year-olds had spent a lot of time and energy developing rules they believed were essential in order to be secretary of state. In essence, these were rules for life, and these kids both created and embraced them.
Their rules are insightful and embedded with common sense, so I offered them to the graduates as a gift to take with them to the real world. Here are a few of the first-graders’ rules.
Rule 1. A secretary of state has to wear a suit. Simple enough. The real world does have a dress code, so beware of it and dress accordingly in your job and life. Appropriate dress for all occasions is important.
Rule 2. Must be able to read. Most people can read, but not everyone. A literacy survey showed many adult Mainers – more than you think – struggle with this basic skill. Some can’t read at all. Imagine how embarrassing and difficult it must be to go through life not being able to read. Recognizing this problem exists and supporting literacy programs is very important.
Rules 3 and 4. Must have good penmanship and be able to spell. Today, electronic communication is widely used. There are no handwriting skills needed and correct spelling is essentially replaced with symbols. However, life still requires the ability to spell and be able to write legibly. A newspaper reported that 58 percent of information on hospital charts was unreadable and 38 million illegible addresses cost the postal service $4 million annually. Those first-graders knew what they were talking about.
Rule 5. Must be handsome. Obviously, these kids were not referring to me specifically on this one, but I think they were talking about a state of mind and an inner confidence. Handsome is something that everyone has – look for it.
Rule 6. Must have a big head so he can fit lots of things and ideas in it. These first-graders didn’t mean it the way it’s often times used by grown-ups. The kids were saying be open, accept new ideas from different people. Have a big head with a big open mind.
Rule 7. Care about everybody – even kids. I say “especially kids.” Children are vulnerable and need us all to protect them. There are evil people who prey on innocent children. Children know when things aren’t right and they will tell us, but we need to listen.
Rule 8. Be nice and polite to people. What a common-sense rule. Those who embrace this rule in life will experience a special success and happiness. Living this rule will be contagious making the world a better place.
These well-thought-out rules were given to me by first-graders with a vision well beyond their years.
Imagine – 6-year-olds being so handsome and having such big heads.
Bill Diamond of Windham served as District 12’s senator from 2004-2012, and is also a former Maine secretary of state.