I got to give the commencement address at Grand Rapids Christian’s graduation ceremony this year. It was an honor to be chosen, a joy to write the speech, and a privilege to deliver it to a group of students who have made a big impact on my life. I hope you don’t mind that I use this as my post calvin contribution this month. I think it’s something valuable for us all to think about—not just graduates. We all have the chance to make a mark on our corner of the world.
Grand Rapids Christian High commencement address
May 28, 2019
When you hear that an English teacher is doing the commencement speech, there are probably some things you expect. Definitely thoughtful use of language. Maybe some nice similes and metaphors. Very likely a quote from a famous author. And you students here who have had me for a class could probably guess one or two other things that this specific English teacher is likely to talk about. You might guess etymology—the study of the history of words. And you’d be right! Initially when brainstorming, I had a few ideas to talk about the roots and prefixes and suffixes of a few relevant words. For instance, have you ever really thought about what “commencement” means? It comes from the Latin word “initiare” which means “begin” (it’s where we get our word “initiate”) and then it moved to Old French as “commencier” and then to English as “commence.” We think of graduation as the end of something, but we use “commencement” as a synonym, and that word actually means to begin… anyway. I decided against the etymology speech. It’s almost too nerdy.
If you know me, the other thing you might guess I’d talk about is poetry, and on that front, I won’t disappoint. I love poetry. I read a poem almost every day. I use poems as devotions. I find poems related to almost every novel we read. I teach the writing of poetry in creative writing, I coach poetry in forensics… to me, it’s the most beautiful form of expression we humans have.
And so, the most meaningful thing I can think of to send off the class of 2019 is a poem. The poem I’ve chosen is called “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard,” and it’s by Kay Ryan, who was the Poet Laureate several years ago. It’s short, so I’d like to read it to you now. Right away, you’ll hear the words that inspired the title of my address: deep tracks. Here it is.
A life should leave
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn out place;
beneath her hand,
the china knobs
rubbed down to
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
Her things should
keep her marks.
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space
— however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
be so hard.
When I graduated from Christian High X number of years ago, Mr. Diekema spoke at the ceremony, and he acknowledged that graduation addresses are often forgotten in the excitement and busyness of the day, so he just wanted us to remember two words. And I did! The words were “airborne pathogens.” If you want the story of that, you’re just going to have to ask him. Since that worked so well, I’m going to ask you to remember just two words from today, and hopefully the context I give them in the next five or six minutes will come back to you when you do. The words are “deep tracks.”
Kay Ryan says that a life should leave deep tracks. Her examples are things like little paths in the front lawn where you walk to get the mail each day, or a worn space in front of the sink, or those little smudges in the paint next to a light switch. I bet you all have a pair of jeans that are worn through at the knees or a favorite book with dog-eared pages and maybe a little water damage from that day at the beach. There is something lovely about places and things that are used, that show someone has been there and loved that thing before.
You, class of 2019, have left deep tracks on our school. You’ve written for the school paper and taken pictures for the yearbook and performed at state solo and ensemble festival. You’ve joined our RPG club and been peer listeners and competed in forensics tournaments. You’ve lead our volleyball team and sung in gospel choir and planted ferns in the greenhouse with Mr. Borst.
And whether you know it or not, all of these things leave tracks, or echoes, or marks. In fact, our theme verse this year is 1 Timothy 4:12, which encourages us to “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” We have been talking all year in chapel about ways to leave your mark on the people and places around you.
Apart from making these visible tracks in the academics and extracurriculars of the school, you have also made your mark on the people around you. Some of these tracks may seem like little things—just habits. For instance, I’ve noticed that even when I don’t assign seats, you all sit in the same place in my classroom every day. You just choose one and never waver. It’s a habit, sure. It saves you from having to make that decision every single day. But that action makes a deep track because you start to form a little community of people who sit in the southeast corner of my classroom during fifth hour. You probably chose to sit by a friend initially, but you likely also sit near someone you don’t know very well. And then you spend a hundred and eighty minutes sitting near them every week, and I ask you to talk to them about some tough and complex things like prejudice and mental health and whether it’s ever okay to swear. And pretty soon, you know that person really well, and some of their opinions and life experience have burrowed into your brain and vice-versa, and you’ve left deep tracks in each others’ lives, even if you never speak again after high school.
So you’re leaving us for now, but the tracks you’ve made will show for a long time to come. The great part now is that you get to move on and find fresh ground to walk on, new places to leave your mark. This is where I could get cheesy and inspirational. Many graduation speeches encourage you to go out and change the world. Make your mark by curing cancer! Going to the moon! Writing the next great American symphony! That’s all well and good. I won’t tell you not to (please, solve childhood hunger, slow climate change, and make beautiful art!)
But I’d also like to acknowledge that making that sort of society-altering change is daunting, and I’d like to try to reframe it for you. The title of Kay Ryan’s poem isn’t “deep tracks.” It’s “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard,” and I think that’s because you don’t have to donate a million dollars to charity or discover a new species of insect in order to make deep tracks. The things Ryan mentions are everyday occurrences—watering the flowers, opening kitchen cabinets. In another of her poems she asks readers to make an “incremental resurrection.” Deep tracks are formed by the routine things we do that aren’t always noticed. In the next decade of your life, you’ll be faced with opportunities every. single. day. to make a difference in the places and people around you. You get to form deep tracks by asking a glum-looking coworker what’s wrong, by leaving the door to your dorm room open for visitors, by cleaning up someone else’s mess, and by finding a career that allows you to slowly heal some of the world’s hurt.
As Kay Ryan says, “the passage of a life should show.” We should be able to tell where you’ve been—as students, as athletes, as musicians… and especially as Christians.
I’ll end here—on a good English teacher note. In a grad school class I’ve been taking this spring, we’re studying the British Victorian author Thomas Hardy. I was pretty sure this class was going to be a bit of a bore, but it turns out that everything is material to a graduation speech writer. Before Hardy was an author, he was actually an architect, and one of his main projects was restoring old churches. He wrote an essay where he actually mourns some of these restoration projects for one particular reason—the stairs. You see, old church stairs are usually made of stone, and decades of parishioners climbing them often leave these sort of divots, little worn-out places where everyone has stepped. Hardy thought it was sad to be replacing those steps because it was like erasing the piety and devotion of the church members who had been worshipping there for so many years.
So whether your stairs are those of a traditional church, or stairs up to an observation tower to view the stars, or a long hallway in an office where you’re working for justice… even if your stairs are a hiking trail or just a particular couch cushion where you sit and listen to a friend—wear them down. Make deep tracks.
P.S. Looking for more Kay Ryan inspired graduation speeches? I have a bit of a theme going.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.