The Moment I Went Back In Time: The private school I attended from grades four thru nine, Unquowa, invited me to give a Commencement speech thirty-four years after I graduated. Considering that in my first year there a teacher sent a note home to my parents saying, “Lauren is a butterfly who flits from one thing to another; she doesn’t appear to have a clue what’s going on,” it was nearly impossible to believe I’d traveled in life from being that girl to receiving this huge honor. And yet some how I had. For those of you with really long attention spans, here is that speech, reprinted in full:
Thank you for having me.
The top three things human beings fear are, in reverse order, as follows: Number 3: Spiders, a fear I am personally determined to hang onto; Number 2: death, something that’s never bothered me, at least not the idea of my own, because I’m too busy living; and Number 1: public speaking. I’ve been speaking publicly on a regular basis for years now and can normally do so for any length of time without the aid of notes. It is a sign then of how seriously I take the honor bestowed upon me this evening that I have come equipped with notes to ensure that I do not spectacularly louse this thing up.
When I first entered Unquowa School it was the middle of the fall semester of 1970. I was eight years old and in the fourth grade, a whole other story. Let me assure you, no one looking at me then would have ever guessed that forty years later I would be invited back to give the commencement speech. I had very little self-esteem and was woefully behind in the critical subjects of Math and Science. In fact, I performed so poorly in Math that first semester – I didn’t flunk, but still – that the headmaster at the time, Manson E. Welch, came to talk to me right before the winter break. After explaining that no one at Unquowa faulted me for my lack of numerical prowess, he then used the entire blackboard to map out how if I did X and Y and Z, I could bring my Math grades up during the next marking periods, thereby lifting my average to something more impressive by school year’s end. So I did X and Y and Z, I did it in all my subjects. Before long, I got one of those little Honor Roll cards – do they still hand those out? – stating that I had achieved Second Honors. Not long after that, I got one saying First Honors. And not too much longer after that, I began receiving on a regular basis those incredibly lovely gold cards emblazoned with the words “Headmaster’s List.” By the time I graduated ninth grade in spring of the Bicentennial Year, my individual course averages were sufficient to win me the French and English Prizes. And while I did not win the Math Prize, I was only barely edged out by a genius.
Unquowa believed in me from the beginning. Unquowa believed in me before and until I was capable of believing in myself.
At Unquowa, I learned that anything is possible. At Unquowa, I learned that a poor student could become an excellent one. At Unquowa, I learned that it is possible for a shy kid to become a popular kid, because at a school like Unquowa everyone is popular in some way. At Unquowa, I learned that a hopelessly uncoordinated kid could become co-captain of her basketball team. Yes, I’m still talking about me. Eventually I’ll get around to you.
No parent chooses a place like Unquowa lightly. I know this because I send my own amazing daughter to a very Unquowa-like school in Danbury called Wooster. An Unquowa education is expensive, both in money and in time. Yet each of your parents still chose this for you, as my parents chose it for me. And the reason they chose it is because they wanted to give you the best possible education. They wanted to provide you with the best foundation available. They wanted you to go to a school that would believe in you before and until you were capable of believing in yourselves.
So that’s what you’ve been given: an amazing foundation. The inevitable question becomes: What are you going to do with that foundation?
If this were a college commencement speech we’d be talking about your futures in terms of your adult working life and if this were a high school commencement speech we’d be talking about the importance of career choice. But since your parents have no doubt taught you that it is never too early to plan ahead for your future, I think I’m on safe ground talking about dreams here.
I urge you to take this phenomenal foundation you’ve been given and dream big. Dream as big as you can. I’ll tell you one thing, no one has ever gotten very far except for perhaps a lucky few by dreaming small. Think about what you’re good at, but more importantly, think about what you have a passion for, and build your dreams around that.
So now, let’s see… You’ve got a solid foundation and you’re dreaming big – it’s all going to be smooth sailing from here and you’re never going to fail at anything, right?
You cannot be serious. Oh, believe me, you’ll fail. Hopefully not at any of your academic courses – I mean, come on, look where you’ve come from – but you will most definitely fail at something, maybe lots of things. Someone else will get that job you interview for. That girl you like so much will like your best friend more than she likes you – man, that girl is stupid. You’ll have your mom come visit you at your first apartment, which is something you should be proud of, only that apartment will be over a garage with no heat or indoor plumbing – true story! – and for a moment, you will feel as though you have failed. It’s not a question of if you will fail but rather when and at what.
We are not defined by the fact that we have failed. We are only defined by what we do with that failure.
You have perhaps heard of a writer named JK Rowling. She wrote a book about a boy called Harry Potter and she is a slightly better known author than I am. No, I don’t know her personally. When JK Rowling sent her book out on submission, no less than twelve publishers rejected it. She was repeatedly told that no one would be interested in her story about a boy wizard. All of the big publishers in the United Kingdom passed on it. Eventually she did sell the book, to a relatively small UK publisher by the name of Bloomsbury – their American arm is publishing one of my books this summer, and you can imagine how excited I am about this, but enough about me. The only reason Bloomsbury UK bought Harry Potter was because the owner’s eight-year-old daughter begged him to publish the book. Who knows what would have happened if that little girl hadn’t intervened? But we all know what did happen. JK Rowling’s first book was finally published, after twelve rejections and at a point where many other writers would give up and just get on with writing the next book, or just quit altogether because getting rejected is hard. JK Rowling’s books have gone on to sell more copies than I can comfortably count, even with my superior Unquowa math skills, and she now has more money than the queen of England.
We are not defined by the fact that we have failed. We are only defined by what we do with that failure.
Like JK Rowling, I suffered my own share of rejection on the way to publication. Lots of people dream of being writers. The New York Times once ran an article citing a poll in which 81% of people asked claimed to have a book in them. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. After all, it’s not as though it’s like wanting to be a doctor, where there’s specific training involved, where people might actually expect you to do something like, I don’t know, go to medical school. Every year in the United States, millions of people try to get a book published. Every year in the United States, a few hundred thousand books get published; and of those that are, the overwhelming majority earn the authors of those books less than a thousand dollars each. Very few people can make a living being a writer.
I left my day job in 1994. It was a good job, one that came with a decent salary, full medical benefits, and four weeks’ paid vacation a year. It wasn’t easy to walk away from all that but it was finally time to take a chance on my dream of being a writer, it was finally time to take a chance on myself. Over the course of the next seven years I wrote as many novels. Seven novels’ worth of rejection – that is a lot of failure, by anyone’s yardstick. Then, seven and a half years after I started, I sold the sixth book that I had written. To date, I have now sold a total of twenty-three books for adults, for teens, for children, I make my living off my writing, and by anyone’s yardstick I am a success. But none of that would have happened if I had counted myself out after Book 1 or Book 2, or even Book 7. I kept going, because no matter what happened, no matter how many people said no, I still believed in myself. I kept going, because once upon a time Unquowa provided me with a solid foundation that I still stand on to this day.
I have never been defined by the fact that I have sometimes failed. I have only been defined by what I have done with that failure.
May it be the same for you.
And now we come to the subject of choice. It is easy, sitting where you are now, to imagine that certain stages of life will go on forever. It is easy to be in a rush to grow up so that all manner of things that seem exciting might happen. Well, I am here to tell you: do not hurry time. Standing here right now, it suddenly seems a blink since I first walked through Unquowa’s doors nearly forty years ago. Choose wisely: in terms of your dreams, in terms of which steps you take on the road to achieving those dreams, but also in terms of how you spend your time. One of the saddest things in life, to me at least, is failure to see the choices that one has. And yet we all have choices, are making choices every second of our lives. Even now, right this moment, you have a choice: you can choose to listen to what I have to say to you or you can choose to spend this time wondering, “Hmm…I wonder what kind of cookies they’re serving at the reception afterward?”
The choice is yours. Nearly all the choices are yours. I hope you will take the foundation Unquowa has given you to dream big and to make the choices that will give you the life you want to live. And I hope that whenever confronted with a fork in the road, a choice where on one side lies good while the other offers something less than good, I hope that you will always choose the better path.
There’s a saying, “The world is your oyster.” Well, as Unquowa graduates, the world really is your oyster. Make the most of it. Choose to live every second like it matters, because it does.
When asked to give this speech, I immediately knew what themes I would talk on – Unquowa has given me so much, it was obvious – but more difficult was figuring out how to end the speech. I mean, I can’t just walk away mid-thought, can I? So then I got to thinking about some of the things I know I will never achieve in life, one of which is to be president of the United States. I may yet become Mayor of Danbury, a secret dream of mine, but I will never be president, and that is OK, because I have been what I wanted most to be. But since I will never get to be president and since presidents of the United States always conclude addresses to joint meetings of Congress in the same way, please indulge me as I close by saying to you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
Thank you, and good night!