I am humbled and honored to be here with you.
I haven’t done this before, so I was not sure what to say, or even how to say it.
I googled graduation speeches and learned that it is good to tell a joke, and so I ran that by my wife Jeanne, and she said “Don’t, you’re not funny.”
So rather than try to be funny, let me tell you about a few people I have met.
A little over two years ago, I was on a Greek Island, about 7 miles off the coast of Turkey, volunteering at the Moria Refugee Camp, often referred to as the worst refugee camp in the world, called “hell on earth.”
One evening I and some other volunteers met with two young men for dinner in the city near the camp. The young men, boys really, had met on a boat while making the dangerous crossing from Turkey to the island. They had lost their families, were alone and scared, and so promised each other they would forever stick together, as brothers. They had started working their way through the asylum process, to the point that they were free to travel in Greece. Instead, they chose to stay on the island, working and volunteering to coach soccer to the younger residents, and they managed to get a small basement apartment.
After dinner that night, the young men invited us to their apartment for dessert. The outside door to the apartment was wrapped like a Christmas present. Their small living room had a Christmas tree, and there were stockings on the wall. Their personalities filled the room. They could not wait to share the dessert they had made.
The next year when I returned to the camp, I spent time with a resident from Syria. We were clearing an area to place more tents. He told me he had been a soccer player but had to flee his home because of the war. He showed me a picture of his home – it was a pile of rocks, destroyed by a bomb. He lived in the camp but was also volunteering each day.
On a trip to Vancouver, Canada, I spent time in a neighborhood called “Skid Row”, described as one of the worst neighborhoods in North America. I was there to research addiction treatment programs. I spent a couple of days walking through the neighborhood, sitting at bus stops and on park benches, observing what was going on, and found the neighborhood rather shocking.
When I walked into a building where one of the treatment programs was located, I saw a man in the corner, curled up in the fetal position, slightly rocking. I did not know quite what to make of it, as nobody else seemed concerned. A short time later, as I was talking with the woman who ran the program, that same guy came through the room, politely said good morning, and then proceeded to empty the barrel and sweep the floor.
He was addicted, and injected drugs at this place because he felt safe there. In return, he volunteered cleaning the place and welcomed others seeking help.
And, about two months ago, I met a man who told me how he had given up his job to live with and care for his dying mother. After she passed, he struggled with mental illness and soon found himself living on the streets. One day he found himself at Father Bill’s, a “homeless shelter”. As he recovered from his illness, he stayed there nights and volunteered there days. He told me that the “homeless shelter” saved his life.
Each of these people was on their own, distinct, difficult journey through life.
They are people of incredible resilience, and what they taught me I wish to share with you.
They taught me about the importance of two things when facing adversity in life: home and humanity.
Maya Angelou, an American poet and civil rights activist, said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
Each of the people in these stories grew up in a home. They had lived in places different from where I met them, and they found themselves far away from their earlier homes, in places and situations they likely never imagined. They all ached for and were in search of that special, more permanent place they could truly call home.
All of you have lived in different houses or apartments – some big, some small. Some modern, some a little worn. Some of you may have lived in shelters, on a friend’s couch, or even in cars. Some of those places have been happy places, some not so happy.
But I am willing to bet that for many of you there has been a special place, that place where you can go, be yourself, and not be questioned. The place, wherever it is, which at that time feels like home.
Maybe it’s where you live, in your bedroom or a little nook in the corner of the house or apartment. It may be here, at this school, on a team, on this field, in a club, or on stage. It may be a place of worship, in a scouting group, at a coffee shop, or a local park.
It is that place that has, when you needed it, made you feel safe, the place that has accepted you for who you are, and has been a big part of getting you through school and to graduation.
And perhaps some have not yet found it, or maybe have not needed one.
As you graduate tonight, as you leave high school to go to college, to the military, or perhaps to start a job, you are stepping away. At some point, you may end up where you never imagined, for better or worse. It can be a little scary, but don’t be afraid.
Like the two young “brothers” living in a basement apartment on an island far from their first home, like the young man living in a refugee camp building tents for others, like the man essentially living in the offices of the treatment facility in Vancouver, and the man at Fr. Bills, no matter where you go next, no matter where life takes you, no matter what hardships you may face, try to make your special place. Try to make a home, even if it is only for a short time, try to make a place where you can be you, accepted for who you are, without question.
When you move from there, bring that special feeling of home with you to the next place, and always remember your special place, your home, here in Holbrook.
The second thing that these people taught me is the value and the importance of humanity – of kindness, compassion, of giving back.
You have already learned this value here in Holbrook. You have volunteered at your special place or went out of your way to make the path for others easier – the lives of others better.
You did it by helping and cheering on fellow students on the fields, courts and stages, by sharing your artwork, collecting items for Fr. Bills, promoting the food pantry, fighting to end the stigma of autism, helping those in Ecuador, expressing appreciation for your teachers, raising awareness about climate change, and remembering veterans on Valentine’s Day, and students from this great school worked to pass legislation recognizing World Peace Day, and led the way in passing a first in the nation law to protect your generation from vaping and smoking.
In each of these ways, each of you has shared your humanity.
So, as you leave your special place, your home, to take on new challenges, remember your humanity.
The two young refugee brothers lived their humanity by coaching children, the Syrian soccer player shared his – while living in a tent – by building tents for others. The man living with addiction in Vancouver welcomed others when they sought help, and the man living at Fr. Bill’s Place helped others coming to the shelter.
You have learned humanity here, in your community and in your school.
Exercise it wherever and whenever you can.
As good as your humanity will be for others, it will also help you during challenging times.
The stories I shared of the people I met teach us all that we do indeed ache for that place, not necessarily of four walls and a roof, but rather a safe place to go where we are not questioned or judged, a place that feels like home.
The stories teach us as well of the value of humanity.
I am so honored to have gotten to know your class, so proud of each of you, and so excited about what your futures will bring.
My hope as you make your way through life, as you pursue your dreams, is that finding or making a home will sustain you, and that your humanity will nourish you and others.