Graduation speech by Michael Bryant, Berlin High School Class of 2021 salutatorian.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you to the administrators and faculty for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this evening.
I’d like to start by telling you a story. I was a Griswold Elementary School kid. Like all fifth graders, I ruled the school and walked the hallways with a strong confidence, sort of like how us seniors walk the hallways now. On this particular day, I rode the school bus home, in the back, like all the cool fifth graders did. When the bus got to my house, I confidently strolled down the aisle past all the younger students and hopped down onto my driveway. Waiting for me at the front door was my dad. He took one look at me and made a weird face. Before I could even walk in the door, he said, “Michael, your pants are on backwards; did you wear them like that all day?” With a dawning terror, I looked down. At which point, my dad added, “Dude, they’re jeans.” And there I stood, with two huge pockets in the front, and a golden zipper running right up my backside.
Now, you may wonder why I’m sharing this rather embarrassing story with you, here today. First off, to all the younger siblings who are sitting in the audience right now, I want you to know that you too can be the kid who wears your pants backwards to school and then, a short 7 years later, be tasked with imparting great wisdom to your graduating class.
But, today my focus is on my fellow classmates, sitting here before me. I want to talk about our lives not just today, or tomorrow, but after high school. As we head off to college, and into the world — as we start new jobs, or join new organizations — we will all experience those kinds of days. Days where we realize that we wore our pants backwards. Days where we look ourselves in the mirror and say, “How could I have made such an embarrassing mistake?”
As we head out into the world, we have to expect to make mistakes. We are going to stumble, fall, fail, and sometimes embarrass ourselves. The mistakes we make may be minor, like wearing our pants backwards, or they may be bigger, like oversleeping and missing a major exam or presentation. And, I could stand up here and talk about how to bounce back from embarrassment and failure, but I don’t want to do that. What I do want to talk about is how you react when you notice that someone else has made a mistake. When you notice that someone else is wearing their pants backwards.
After I got off the bus that day, my dad sat me down and told me a story of his own. He told me about his first day of work after college at a big, fancy accounting firm. He told me how excited he was and how he enthusiastically raised his hand at every single opportunity during his first day training seminar. And, It wasn’t until he got home and looked in the mirror that he noticed the enormous, neon orange clearance tag hanging from the armpit of his new suit jacket. Now, aside from the obvious takeaway that the guys in my family seem to have an issue with clothing, what I mostly remember from my dad’s story is how much better I felt when I knew that someone cared about me and could relate to what I was feeling.
Up until now, it has been our parents, family, and teachers who have filled this role of showing us compassion through the failures, mistakes, and embarrassments of life. They have wiped our tears, picked us up, and given us the fortitude to go back and try again. Our teachers have guided us through failed homework assignments, assuring us that comprehension of the material was within our grasp, even when we did not believe it ourselves. Our families have spent countless hours helping us to navigate the failures and complexities of life.
And now, as we head out into the world, make new friends, and forge new bonds, it’s our turn to fill that role for others. It’s our turn to put into action what we have learned from our family and our teachers about compassion. How we react to someone who is metaphorically wearing their pants backwards is just as important as how we react to our own failures and embarrassments.
So, what I am saying to you, BHS Class of 2021, it’s our turn to relate, be vulnerable, and show we care. It’s our turn to wipe someone else’s tears, pick them up, and give them the fortitude to go back and try again. By bolstering the confidence of others, we strengthen ourselves. And, we all become better human beings in the process. So, extend a hand to your new friend who overslept and missed an exam. Display understanding to that new professor or boss who has not quite found their footing. Show compassion to your parents and siblings who try to hold back tears, and fail, on the day they drop you off … and say goodbye.
To my classmates, for the past thirteen years, we have succeeded, failed, and grown together. Our paths leading from Berlin High School will undoubtedly take us in different directions, but I am sure that, right now, we are all experiencing some of the same emotions. Excitement, nervousness, uncertainty, and maybe even a little bit of terror. But, that’s OK. Life is filled with mistakes and rebounds, embarrassments and celebrations. I know that we are equipped to handle whatever comes our way. And so, to the Class of 2021, here’s to a life filled with meaningful stumbles, personal connections, and ever-present compassion.
Thank you very much.