“Go the way the wind blows, but be sure to always hold on to your hat.”
— Bill Cosby
This is the season for graduation ceremonies and sage words shared. One of my favorite old sage-sayers is Bill Cosby. When he spoke at a college graduation a couple of years ago, Cosby reminded those in attendance that many people had contributed to their education, though the graduates were likely thinking, “Hey, I did it!”
He took every tact he could think of to try to get them to see their accomplishment in a different light. Professors had shared their knowledge, parents had shared their sweat equity, university employees had contributed to their health and welfare in dozens of various ways.
He concluded by telling the graduates that they were now in the position to start the harder part of life — the time in which their own sweat equity must kick into high gear.
“You have been given every opportunity to make things happen, but that is now up to you and only you to take it from here.”
I have to wonder if his message rang loud and clear. It is not what young people are used to hearing.
The harsh truth can be hard to listen to when a fellow is thinking, “Hey, praise me! Look what I’ve accomplished!”
I think of the incredible differences among the generations of people I have known personally.
My great-grandfather left any hope of an education behind when his only sister died young, followed quickly by his own father’s untimely death. (“He died of a broken heart,” Grandpa Charlie always said.)
There were younger children in the family needing to be fed and clothed, and Charlie knew that responsibility fell to him. When word came their way that better opportunities existed in Ohio, than in their native Pennsylvania, young Charlie sat down with his mother and formed a plan.
A wagon caravan headed up by young Charlie brought them to this area. Real life began for Charlie without a send-off in a cap and gown. The family set up a farmstead in Ashland County, Ohio. Charlie “hired out” to local farmers while also working to establish a productive farm for his mother and siblings.
When Charlie’s mother became depressed that she could no longer visit the burial site of her husband and her only daughter, Charlie arranged to have the caskets exhumed and moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio.
One of the promises my father asked of me is to continue tending to those graves in a tiny rural cemetery, which is a promise I intend to keep.
Charlie married Anna and their first-born daughter, Helen, was my paternal grandmother. Helen continued this family tradition of caring for her siblings after her high school graduation at 17 and going on to Ashland College to become a teacher. When Helen’s younger sister, Virginia, graduated from high school, she went on to Chicago’s Sherwood Music Conservatory.
Helen, always the proud big sister, began working toward recruiting potential piano students for her sister. Helen had business cards printed and distributed and even placed an ad in the local newspaper, urging parents to sign up for music lessons with the Sherwood Music School graduate.
“Call for an appointment: 5070 Brown” the ad read.
Virginia returned to seven students awaiting her instruction. Over the years, Virginia taught hundreds of young people in this community, including my sisters and me.
When Helen died at 36, my father stepped into the role of being a very young breadwinner. He had been raised with the awareness that this is what is done, ready or not.
He began driving the crops to the grain elevator long before he was old enough to even drive a car. He learned how to stretch every penny and to respect every plate of food he enjoyed. He lived his life teaching us such awareness and respect. Every day was a gift, and every bit of education, no matter how it presented itself, was something for which to be very grateful.
When I hear graduation orations, I often think of this. My father contended throughout his life that he learned every bit as much out working the fields with his grandfathers as he did in the classroom. He urged us to value every learning experience and how it enriches our lives, rather than simply always focusing on a cap and gown at the end of some predetermined path.
Those words of wisdom echo within me, especially at this time of year. The donning of caps and gowns is merely the beginning of life’s true journey.