I THINK I CAN, I KNOW I CAN, 'CAUSE I LEARNED IT ALL IN KINDERGARTEN Words of Encouragement for a Life After Graduation

Chancellor, Distinguished Platform Guests, Graduating Students, Parents, Family and Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

When Interim Dean of the Evening College, Dr. Sheila Ekong, asked me to consider giving the commencement speech at these Graduation Exercises, I felt particularly honored. However, I was a bit reluctant to accept, since I could not think initially of a reasonable justification that would qualify me to be able to say anything of value to students who have successfully navigated the rapids of the set of courses leading to a degree from this esteemed educational institution.

Then I remembered that some twenty-four years ago, I successfully negotiated those very rapids. And so I said to myself that I could find something from those years that I could share with you today as you celebrate your success, and begin this next phase of your life. After some thought, I focused on a couple of simple stories that I could use as points of beginning and ending to weave what I hope will be a simple but lasting web of thoughts for you to take with you as you move on with your lives.

But before I get into those thoughts, let me begin by offering you my heartiest congratulations on a most significant achievement!! You have worked over the past four or more years, and have each successfully completed the requirements for the degrees that will be conferred on you this afternoon. Enjoy this moment to the fullest!! Thank your parents, your significant others, your friends and your family and all who have supported you. But most of all, thank yourselves and now give yourselves a rousing round of congratulatory applause!! YOU DESERVE IT!!!

However, let me remind you that this is not the end. Rather, it is just the beginning of another phase in your life and, as I thought of what I was I going to say to you, I remembered a book I read many years ago that struck a chord which I think is so critical but so oft forgotten as we deal with the "stuff" of everyday life. It is none other than the story of The Little Engine That Could, attributed to "Watty Piper," which is a pseudonym used by the publishing company of Platt& Munk with Mabel C. Bragg as the original author.

Much like the Little Engine, you have just demonstrated the tremendous impact of positive thinking contained in the little clause "I think I can". You have persevered, and pulled those heavy course loads up and over the hill when others either refused to, or gave you the impression that you could not. They might have been the naysayers, those who put obstacles in your way, the distractions of daily life, the various issues that you have faced, whatever they might have been. Golfer Arnold Palmer captures this concept of the potential of positive thinking in a plaque that he is reputed to have kept on the wall over his desk and which reads in part:

Life's battles don't always go
To the stronger woman or man,
But sooner or later, those who win
Are those who think they can.

Like the little train, you have said over and over again, "I think I can, I think I can, " and the obstacles were eventually overcome, and have resulted in this day of celebration and all the benefits that go with it

But along with the benefits, come the responsibilities of your new status. These responsibilities are not only personal. They are responsibilities that extend much beyond that realm. They are responsibilitries that must be undertaken at a time when it is important that each of us who has been given the opportunity that you have, exercise them with the involvement and commitment that is deserving of our status as graduates. This could not be more true than at this time, when we are faced with local, national and international issues that require our participation.

We are a nation at war, faced with the threat of terrorism, in the midst of an econmy that is just recovering from a recession and whose future is still uncertain, and we are a nation needing to make critical and informed judgements about who should lead us into the future.

In the face of these circumstances, I encourage you to maintain that same sense of optimism and determination that has brought you to this point. As you go forward, you will be required to undertake tasks, to set goals, to make decisions in a vast and sometimes dizzying array of varying situations. Not all of you will be leaders; some of you will be followers. BUT FOR SURE, ALL OF YOU WILL BE CONTRIBUTORS- contributors to your jobs, contributors to your families, contributors to your communities, contributors to your society and contributors to your country. As you are called on to make those decisions, as you carry out your various roles as contributors, I encourage you to remember the words of Jesse Jackson (which you might adopt as a motto) when he said, . . "If you can conceive it, and you believe it, you can achieve it." In short, think of the little engine which said, "I think I can, I think I can", and ended with, "I knew I could, I knew I could".

But what of those contributions, you might ask? How do I insure that, above and beyond my duty to myself, I do something to enhance my community, to make sure that I leave it a better place after I have gone than before I came?

FIRST OF ALL, and here I make a plug for the University-and note that they have not paid me, at least not yet, for this endorsement-BE AN ACTIVIE PARTICIPANT IN YOUR ALUMNI ASSOCIATION. Not only are there many benefits, but also many opportunities to contribute, to give back and to make a difference.

  • SECOND, PICK A FAVORITE CHARITY AND BECOME INVOLVED AND WORK AT IT. We ARE our brother's, our sister's keepers, and we are made worse or better in like manner as we treat our neighbor ill or well. And what can I do, you might ask? Just to give you an example of the need that there is, consider the following:
  • According to the last census the poverty rate in the city of St. Louis was 24.6% for all people and a whopping 36.4% for children, that is those under 18 years of age.
  • The Federal Reserve for the St. Louis District reports that unemployment this year is at 6%. (and that figure does not consider what it is specifically in the minority population)
  • A 2003 study by the St. Louis Regional Health Commission indicates that despite the presence in St. Louis of some of this country's best health care institutions, there are still significant disparities in life expectancy, mortality rates for diabetes, cancer and heart disease between city and county, and blacks and whites.
  • As you are all aware, the public school system in the City of St. Louis is under severe stress and going through some major changes.

So whether it be battered women, delinquent fathers, AIDS and cancer victims, heart disease, victims of drug abuse, or children in need of tutoring and mentoring, or any other worthy cause, there are numerous opportunites to contribute. AND I ENCOURAGE YOU TO DO SO. This is something you can work at. Remember, this should be more than your JOB, because "a job is what you do for a living; work is what you do because you like to do it."

FINALLY, I would like to turn to the other book that I plan to use to capsulate this simple web of thoughts I would leave with you. It is a book by Robert Fulgham that expresses better than I ever could the nuggets of wisdom, those symbolic germs of truth which, if adhered to, can carry you successfully through this and other stages of your life. Most importantly, this book conforms to the concept of the KISS principle-Keep It Simple Stupid, a principle which I commend to you and encourage you to adopt as your modus vivendi as you go forward with your lives. The book is "All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", and to conclude my remarks I quote from it as follows:

"Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in Kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school [and I would add much less the undergraduate school] mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.
These are the things I learned:
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Flush.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life.
Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup - they all die. So do we.
And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.
Ecology and politics and sane living."
GRADUATES!

I EXTEND TO YOU MY HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS!

ENJOY YOUR DAY, AND BEST WISHES FOR A SUCCESSFUL FUTURE!

8/8/2004