We Are With You

Hey there, Fancy.  Look at YOU in your shiny robes and crazyhats.  You look like a mildly deranged gospel choir. And you are Beautiful.  You have invited me to mess with you for a few minutes before you get on with the rest of your lives, so let’s be honest while we have the chance.   You don’t fool me. Even in the glamor of your radiant splendor, I see you.

My niece used to stand at the edge of the merry-go-round and wave her little hands because she was so excited to jump on, but she was so scared to jump on, and so mostly she just stood and flapped.  You are flapping.

You may be playing it cool, and I know you are ready to be done standing on the side, but you are about to jump on a reeeeally big ride, and it’s so exciting, and it’s so scary.

And I’m here to say that if you’re completely confident about this whole transition to adulthood, I’m not sure I believe you, and I certainly don’t understand you.  Because I am a worrier. I get scared a lot. On my first day ever of teaching in New Hampshire, I walked out the door to be a professor and command the respect of my class without my shoes because I was so preoccupied with all the ways students might hate me.  That sign on my classroom door that says “A Good Place to Be” is for you, but it’s also for me.  There are plenty of mornings I drive to school certain that my lesson plans will not help you, and may in fact make you worse.  And at the end of every school year, I’m pretty well convinced any success was all just luck and it can never work again. This is over.  I had a good run, but probably everything from here forward will be a blazing and spectacular failure.

I’m telling you this because I actually am good at my job.  I have a fair reputation, and a consistent track record.  And I’m still not 100% confident.  So if you don’t hesitate one smidgeon before you go flinging off into something entirely new, I’m not sure you’re entirely well.

Thus, what I have on offer tonight, for all of us, is a little boost of confidence, but not in the way you expect.  I am not going to tell you to believe in yourself, and I’m not going to tell you to stop listening to what others say.   I would like to redefine confidence for you, so that it becomes something we can all rely on with greater consistency, something that won’t waver or flicker in the face of new challenges or changing circumstances.

I want to take confidence back to its roots (and of course I do).  Confidence comes from two roots – con and fidere. Fidere should sound to you like fidelity, and it means trust.  It’s that sense of something being worthy of your faith, something you can count on and believe in. And CON means together.  It means with. So when you reCONcile, you get back together with someone.  When you CONgregate, you gather together with others.  In a CON-versation, you’re turning over truths with someone else.  So tonight I don’t really care about your self-confidence.  Tonight I care deeply about your with-confidence.

You don’t do anything by yourself.  Touch your bellybutton. Go ahead. Give it a poke.  That’s proof you carry around on your body that you didn’t make yourself.  You come from someone. You entered the world con-nected… with in a very literal sense, tied to another person.  And even if that person isn’t here tonight, you are not alone.  Even if you have no genetic relations in this entire audience, you are sitting among people who know your name, and you are flanked by faculty who have poured themselves out for you, caring about your growth and progress even when you didn’t.  You are not simply self here tonight.  You are with.

And I think that with is what matters.  If I may be so bold, I believe it is not your sports stats, your GPAs, your trophies and medals, your awards, certificates, or even your scholarships that make you worthy or special.  Other people win those every year.

And I’m in the same boat because my degrees and lesson plans don’t make me important.  I’m not special because I teach Beowulf or Hamlet or a thesis statement.  There are thousands of teachers all over the country teaching those every year.

I think what I have, that matters is YOU.

And I think that what you have, that matters, is ME.

And Ms. Coelo.  And Ms. Beale. And Mr. Nicholai.  And Mrs. Johnson. And Ms. Kristo-fitz-ovitch, or whatever her name is now.  You have the people who remember you from Health class freshman year, and the people who took math beside you for four years, and your lab partners and writing partners and teammates and club members.  You don’t have a statue or memorial leaving here. You have relationships. You have your with-ness.  You are someone’s with-ness.

So…what if you didn’t try to place all your trust in yourself?  What if you didn’t try to be the perfect brimming container of everything reliable and true?  What if you let other people hold onto some of it for you?

On days I’m not sure I know how to do this job, Tanja Gens thinks I can do it.  Here’s the card she wrote me in March that says, “You will make an impact.” Duncan Baumgarten thinks I can do it.  Here’s the email he sent saying, “There will always be strange new faces. I was a strange new face once. And look where we are now.”  Zee Nace thinks I can do it. Here’s the note she left on my desk that says, “Ole for showing up, and ole for tomorrow, too.” When you think I can do it, so do I, and so I do.  That’s my CONfidence.  That’s the with that helps me trust enough to try.  And that’s what I want to offer you.

We know you can do this adult thing.  And you can trust us because we’ve always known your abilities before you did.  People in this space knew you were going to walk before you took a step. We knew you were going to read while you were still struggling with letters.  We knew you were going to learn to understand your feelings and manage conflict when you were still pouting and screaming. We knew you were going to make friends, make art, make a speech, make music, make waves, make change, while you were still worrying and whining, face down on your carpet.  And we know you can do this next thing, not because you already can or have, but because we’ve seen it work before. You can have CON-fidence, with us. Our faith will hold you up.

This ceremony tonight confirms that we are with you.  Mrs. Gillam thinks you can do this. She’s probably crying already because she believes it so hard.  Your teachers think you can do this. Staff, I haven’t warned you about this, but I’m about to ask you to make some noise.  The class of 2019 needs to hear what you believe. When I ask you this question, would you clap and woohoo them so they can know?  West Valley staff, do you think they can do this?

Thanks.  And you know who else?  Your grandma thinks you can do this.  Your best friend’s dad thinks you can do this.  Heaven knows your aunties think you can do this.  Gathered family and support network, it’s your turn.  Would you make some noise for the class of 2019? Do you think they can do this?

There’s your confidence.  There’s your with.  People are not your obstacles.  People are your allies. They will be with you if you give them half a chance and a quarter of a reason.  When you are standing alone in your dorm room for the first time, wondering what have I done, we are with you.  You can do this. When you are facing down a difficult task in a new job, wondering why you didn’t just stay at ACRC, we are with you.

You can do this.  When adult crises come for you, you can trust that you are in a gigantic game of Red Rover.  You lock arms with the people who are your CON-fidence, and you clothesline the heck out of the problem that’s headed your way.

Your confidence is not in your self alone, and your confidence isn’t to be made or broken by the perfection of your results.  Your confidence is that with your community, you will make meaning, no matter how things unfold, and it will be luminous.

I’m about to wrap it up.  I want to take our last moment here to tell you that we, as West Valley staff, as your families, as your community, have loved you, even when we didn’t do it well, and we are sorry for the times you didn’t feel us with you.  Our gift to you now is this encouragement:  Enough flapping, already. Just jump on the ride.  We are with you.  Congratulations, class of 2019.