June is commencement time for American students and nearly all will be done remotely. Commencement speeches are a genre unto themselves. Occasionally, a talk doe not follow the well-worn ruts. A professor I knew well gave one such speech a few years ago.
Ed Bridges was Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. His focus on educational administration, leadership, principal preparation, and problem-based learning earned him the respect of both students and educators globally for decades. We had been colleagues and friends for over 38 years. He gave this commencement address June 17, 2012 at the Stanford University School of Education. Bridges died in 2019.
It is an honor and a privilege to be your commencement speaker. After accepting the invitation to be your speaker, I consulted my oldest and one of my dearest friends. Since he had served as the president of four Canadian universities and the Chairman of the Board for the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, I knew that he had listened to many commencement speeches and delivered a few as well. Over a Guinness, I said, “George, what advice could you give me?” He paused, leaned over, and spoke softly and slowly. Here is what he said, “A commencement speaker is like a body at an Irish wake; the organizers need you for the party and don’t expect you to say much.”
I intend to follow my friend’s advice and talk briefly about how my life was changed following a taxi cab ride I took more than 40 years ago. However, before recounting this story, let me preface my remarks with a few things that don’t appear in my bio or curriculum vitae. They provide a context for the important lesson I learned during my taxi cab ride.
Elliott Eisner speaks of career planning as an oxymoron. John Krumboltz refers to professional careers as a happenstance. Both of my colleagues are right as far as I am concerned. To their cogent observations, I would add the words spoken nearly 41 years ago by one of my three sons, then six. At the dinner table one evening, my son said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a baseball player. What do you want to be when you grow down?” How prophetic that question was. Since retiring, my height has shrunk two inches, and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next.
My professional career certainly had a life of its own. As a 16 year old, I walked across the stage at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, MO to receive my high school diploma. Having received first place in the state for a news story I had written for the school newspaper which I edited, I planned to enter the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and become a reporter. To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a Gandy Dancer, an occupation immortalized in a song titled, “The Gandy Dancers Ball.” Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in box cars on a railroad siding. The closest I came to journalism school was to marry one of its graduates, Marjorie Anne Pollock, who became the reporter in the family. Next month we celebrate our 58th wedding anniversary and a wonderful life together.
Now let me turn briefly to that fateful taxi cab ride and the lesson I learned that had a profound effect on my life. The lesson I learned concerns choices.
Every choice involves a sacrifice, for oneself and for others. That statement is hardly profound; however, its consequences are. Oftentimes, we are so blinded by our wants and desires that we ignore the sacrifices inherent in the choices we make. My work in the shoe factory and later as a Gandy Dancer led me to appreciate that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen. Many years ago I flagged a cab in Chicago and began a conversation with the cabby. Here is what he said that influenced my life:
“I wanted a nice home for my family in the city, a summer home on Lake Michigan, and a car for my wife and each of my two children. To afford these, I needed to work two full time jobs. We had the nice home, the summer home on Lake Michigan and cars for everyone in the family. My wife divorced me, and my children would have nothing to do with me. By working two jobs, I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had. What I had was more important to me than what I wanted.”
This cabby, fine man that he was, was so blinded by his desires that he failed to consider the sacrifices for his family and himself. Sadly, this is an all too common mistake.
Equally sad, if I had been riding with the same cabby today, I probably would not have learned this valuable lesson. Instead of listening to him, I would have been talking on my cell phone, surfing the internet with my smart phone, texting, or tweeting.
In light of this cabby’s story, let me ask each of you in the audience and on stage two questions, each one a variant of the same question.
- What are the three or four most important things in your life?
- What sacrifices are you unwilling to make no matter what the choice or opportunity is?
These are tougher questions to answer than you might think and even more difficult to act upon.
Not too long after the cabby told me his story, I created a mental list of the things in life that meant the most to me. This list exerted a major influence over my choices for the rest of my professional career:
1. my family
2. my students including teaching and advising
3. my research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have added a fourth—my own personal health.
For some reason faculty meetings did not make my list.
Thanks to that cabby, I can enter the check-out line when my time comes with few regrets. I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. I have several really close friends, the kinds who feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other. Strangely, the more I paid attention to the sacrifices and set aside my desire for professional recognition, the more recognition I received.
At every Irish wake, it is customary to offer a toast to the body. Instead, let me offer a toast to this year’s graduates. May you experience success, enjoy your journey, and end your life with few regrets because you did not let your desires blind you to the sacrifices inherent in your choices.