A Message to the Class of 2023
Check out the transcript below from the commencement speech given by AACC professor, Candice Hill, at last month's ceremony.
Thank you, Dr. Lindsay, Board Members and guests, faculty, staff, family, and graduates of the class of 2023 for the opportunity to speak to you today. And for the honor of one of this year’s Teaching Excellence Awards.
My name is Candice Mayhill. I am a writer, a poet, a professor, and a strong believer that the words we say matter, yours as well as mine.
I am very well aware of my rhetorical situation here, as an English professor delivering the Commencement Address for the School of Health Sciences, Science, Technology, TEACH, and Continuing Education. I get it. I *am* the general education requirement standing between you and Dr. Lindsay handing over that degree.
I get it. I hear about it a lot on my Student Opinion Forms.
I do take all of that feedback to heart.
Things like, “Nice lady, looks like Miss Frizzle.”
“Great teacher, but never lets me use my phone.”
My personal favorite,
“Would be better if she didn’t want me to participate quite so much.”
Well, guess what, Kyle (yes, I knew it was you), it’s happening again. Get ready. Audience participation time.
Grab our your cell phone for me! Yes, I mean it! (See, I do take that feedback to heart!)
Flick that flashlight on for me if you have ever taken an English class at AACC or anywhere else. Leave it on if you liked it.
I have been teaching English here full-time at AACC for the past ten years and have been teaching English and writing for 20 years. I am well-used to my students disliking my class on the first day and at least some of them liking it on the last day. Don’t feel like you have to watch your grammar; I don’t give a [bleep] about your commas; I care about your stories.
Class of 2023, your story is a special one.
I know, I know, you’re probably thinking to yourself that your faculty speaker is going to tell every class that. (True, we do, but we mean it every single time.)
This time, though, this time is different.
When the rest of us thought to ourselves, in the middle of pandemic isolation, I should probably binge watch all of the cartoons I used to watch afterschool when I was 6 (hello, Animaniacs), you thought to yourself, I am going to go to college.
While I was updating my Instagram with new dog photos for the sixth time in a day or photos of my 10th chocolate cake, you took a long look at yourself, then a long look at the world, and you stepped up.
You didn’t cling to the cliffside and hang on through your education; you stood at the precipice, and you took agency to build something.
You recognized that things (none of the things: the pandemic, systems of oppression, financial strain) get better without hard work or without people willing to come together.
You became the author of your own new story.
Today, we honor you for that choice and for the thousands of other small choices you made after, to follow through on your commitment, to get out of your own way, and to get this done.
Seriously, you embraced the difficulty of doing hard things!
Okay, phones still at the ready? Show me that flashlight, friends and family included here, if you complained about school or heard someone complain about school in the last 3 years.
Class of 2023, I want to talk to you about your mental health.
Not about your anxiety. Your depression. Your self-care. Not about the excuses you’ve had to make. Or all the excuses you’ve told me; it’s a lot. Teachers, you hear all the stories, right?
I want to talk to you about how you’re carrying your joy.
Take a look at that giant pile of emotional baggage you are carrying with you and tell me how much weight you’ve dedicated to it. Life, like the best of the budget airlines, does have a baggage limit. How much space did you leave for joy?
Not for a splurge on a latte. Not for the five minutes that you convinced yourself a nice face mask in a shower is an adventure.
Like real joy.
Like your heart is BEATING joy.
Show me that flashlight if you’ve felt real joy. Leave it on if it’s today.
I went to a concert last week (er, partly while procrastinating this speech, because, let me tell you, this speech gave me a case of writer’s block as bad as the decade long one I got while trying to wrap up my dissertation on Emily Dickinson). Anyways. I went to a concert. It was Frank Turner. Google him later; you’ll like him.
I’m old. So, like, when an artist played a song that was like a power song and I was in my teens — — you’d hold up a lighter for that extra YEAHHHH. But, now we all know smoking is bad (if you didn’t, news flash from the school of health sciences, smoking is bad.) and we all know that having a bar, a crowd, and something flammable is a bad idea… so anyways… you’ve been to a concert, right? And everyone uses their cell phone flashlights instead of the lighter. If you’re the amazing rock star up there (and you all make me feel like a rock start right now), you see this sea of light. You’ve set the crowd aflame, you’ve set the crowd alight.
Okay, but back to my story, I’m old, like I said. So I don’t go to the front of the concert any more. I hang out at the back, regretting that I didn’t wear more comfortable shoes and that the venue doesn’t have seats and that the floor is concrete and slightly wonder how my hearing is going to be the next day, because my goodness that bass is loud and did you KNOW an electric mandolin can hit THAT high of a note?
At the back of the show, when everyone has those flashlights from their cell phones up, what you have a sea of cellphone wallpapers in front of you. Little windows into people’s lives. Lovers. Dogs. Kids. Vacation photos. Wedding photos. A really nice looking chocolate cake. A Camaro. A sunset. A grandmother. A best friend. A flower. A butterfly. A smile. A favorite book cover. An angel. A life.
I was standing there in the back and there was just this ocean of joy ahead of me.
And I knew what I wanted to say to you:
This is my charge to you, Class of 2023 and friends: Carry your joy with the same importance you’re carrying your obstacles. It means more. It defines you more.
When you’re at that moment when you want to set the world alight, that’s what we’re seeing. Not what held you back, not what you’re waiting for, not what got in your way: we’re seeing your joy.
Friends, family, frenemies, and everything in between: when you congratulate your graduate at the end of today’s ceremony, please don’t ask them “What’s next.”
The Class of 2023 has just participated in the pinnacle of soul-work: they have created.
They have created a new self.
They just wrote a new story.
This is what we do here at the community’s college. That’s what community colleges across the country do. Every day. We create. We create new narratives, new stories, new systems, new versions of ourselves. Every single day. All of us.
We have the great joy of being everything to everyone. The honor of being that. We won’t let that go.
Do you want to know the real reason why your English faculty want you (okay, literally make you) take writing classes with us? Sure, it’s because when you hit the career world, in whatever career, employers and clients value strong communication skills and they want to hire strong critical thinkers. Yes, we like that data point. Data matters.
But you are more than your career and you are more than data.
What matters more is that you leave us knowing that someone cares what you have to say. We see the value in you and your story so much that we want you to be able to make that new narrative, to explain that new system, to express that newly redefined self. We want you to share your joy and your anxiety; we want the whole you.
Words are a gift. Words spoken, words received. We want you to have that. This is what this commencement speech is to you. My gift: you are loved, you are heard, and your joy can change the world.
Last time! Get those flashlights up if you are ready to get that degree (and for me to stop talking!)…. Wave them around so I can feel like a rockstar like Frank Turner…. One more wave for Miss Frizzle….
Graduates, when someone asks you, “What’s next?”, tell them you are too busy carrying your joy today. Tell them that you, like my hero Emily Dickinson, are dwelling in possibility.
We know you are going to set the world alight.