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  • Writer's pictureDrew Dotson

A Graduation Speech Do-Over

On a balmy Georgia night twenty years ago, I stood behind a podium on the temporary stage erected on my high school’s football field. Wearing a purple robe and mortarboard, my dyed-platinum-blonde hair in beachy waves, I looked out at the faces of about 350 classmates. And I confidently delivered what I believed to be an oratorial masterpiece. In those eight to ten minutes, I felt alive—a major win for someone who was supposed to die young.


At the grocery store a few days later, I bumped into my third-grade teacher, whose daughter graduated with me. “That was such a beautiful speech,” she gushed, and, oh my gosh, did I believe it. And I continued to believe it until the summer of 2023, when Shonda Rhimes gave me a wake-up call.


I was browsing the shelves of the public library when I made my way to the 800s—the Dewey Decimel classification for nonfiction books about literature. I narrowed in on one of my favorite numbers, 808, which happens to be a section with books on rhetoric. It was there that I stumbled upon Shonda Rhimes’s Year of Yes, a book in which she commits to saying yes to things that scare her for one year.


One of Shonda’s most fear-raising yeses was when she accepted an invitation to deliver the 2014 commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth College, twenty-three years after she graduated from the university. As I read the transcript of her speech, I longed for a graduation speech mulligan. So, to the 2004 graduates of Chapel Hill High School in Douglasville, Georgia: I’ve got some retractions to make.


 

Let me first explain how and why I got to deliver the graduation speech. Toward the end of junior year, I asked around about how the commencement speaker was selected. I quickly learned that the class president was responsible for making graduation official through the turning of the tassels—after the vice president delivered the speech. So, when it was time to vote on senior class officers, I ran for vice president.


My campaign slogan was “Just Drew It,” and my logo, if you can call it that, was a replica of the Nike swoosh in a check box next to my name. Despite blatant trademark infringement, I emerged victorious. This meant I’d get to take the stage on one of the most important days of our young lives.


I imagine that, when I sat down to write the speech, I thought of some of the adversity I’d endured. I believed my life had been hard because, in some respects, it was. I was born with a genetic disease, cystic fibrosis (CF), which primarily affects the respiratory and digestive systems. When I was in elementary school, I learned I should die young.


“She might live long enough to graduate from high school,” the doctors cautioned my parents.


Between respiratory therapy, medications, and unrelenting thoughts of death, I tried to convince myself I would defy the odds—and, in turn, I became a dreamer. Hanging on my bedroom wall above my dresser was a poster featuring James Dean that read: Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today. In the land of dreams, I could cast reality aside and trust that anything was possible.

I thought my classmates should know that, too.


 

I can’t recall exactly what I said in my speech, but I do know it included several clichés about dreaming your way to success. I cited the story of how Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school’s varsity basketball team, and how it took Thomas Edison a gazillion attempts before he created the first successful light bulb. Imagine other blah-blah-feel-good nonsense about never giving up, and I probably said it. Proudly.


Though the specifics elude me, I know my closing line was an Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I’d first read those wise words on a poster affixed to a ceiling tile above the patient chair in my dentist’s office—something to reflect on with my mouth open wide.

When I finished the speech and heard the applause, I felt a fullness in my heart. My words had rendered my disease powerless. I was confident I’d just changed the trajectory of countless lives, all with my eighteen-year-old wisdom and the information I found through a few online searches. Gosh was my future bright.


 

Shonda Rhimes, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with platitudes. She broke her speech down into three main lessons.


Lesson One. Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.

In her first lesson, Shonda emphasized that dreams don’t take you where you want to go; hard work does. Despite what Eleanor Roosevelt implied every time I went to the dentist, dreaming gets you nowhere without action to support it. Looking out at the sea of Dartmouth graduates, Shonda announced, “I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing.” 


So, to my classmates, I regret that I painted the picture that your dreams would come true if you just believed—like life was some kind of Disney movie. I made it sound like if you wanted something badly enough the universe would conspire to make it a reality. But the real world doesn’t work that way. In fact, sometimes working hard—doing—isn’t even enough. What you receive in life doesn’t

necessarily match what you’ve contributed. Sometimes, even though you pay the vending machine exactly what you owe, your candy bar doesn’t drop.


Lesson Two. Tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you.

The day after Shonda graduated from Dartmouth was one of the worst days of her life, and not just because she was hungover. Instead, she hurt because she grieved her entry into the real world. Her educational path served as a layer of protection—a means to delay the inevitable, sometimes brutal, reality that exists beyond the classroom. When Shonda entered the real world, she “felt like a loser all of the time. And more than a loser? I felt lost.”


She then added an important second thought to the lesson: “Tomorrow is going to be the worst day ever for you. But don’t be an asshole.” Shonda reminded graduates to have some perspective, to remember that many fortunate things happened to make this milestone possible in the first place.  


I’m certain I didn’t tell you, Class of 2004, and I’m not sure you would have listened, but the real world will do its best to destroy you at times … but I imagine you’ve figured that out by now. No matter how bad things get, try to identify something—anything—that’s going right.


Lesson Three. Anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.

Given her life in the spotlight, Shonda is constantly asked how she manages to do it all. And I admit she does seem to have a superpower that the rest of us don’t possess. But, for the sake of staying on topic, Shonda confided in her speech that she doesn’t do it all: “Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life.”


This lesson is especially pertinent in today’s world which has been distorted by social media. I often see others smiling with their families in color-coordinated outfits, flying first class to magical destinations, and showcasing the befores and afters of their home renovations. And in those moments, it can be easy to feel as though something is missing from your life. But those posts don’t tell the full story.


So, to my classmates, here’s my updated take on Shonda’s third lesson: It’s impossible to do it all, period. Don’t let your social media feed trick you into thinking otherwise.


 

A lot has happened in the twenty years since high school graduation. So, in addition to Shonda’s wise words, I’d like to add two lessons of my own—from most morbid to least.


You will die.

I was tempted to find a better way to say that, like “You won’t live forever,” but I took Shonda’s straightforward approach. I’ve obviously lived longer than doctors expected when I was a child. Why? Well, because things are unpredictable. None of us know when our day will come, so it’s time to start living.


What are those desires you’ve tucked away for an elusive “better time?” Is there anything you can do today to take a step toward one of those goals? Maybe it’s an online search, a phone call, or getting something down from the attic. Don’t let another few years go by, then a few more, then wake up one day to realize it’s too late.


Acknowledge that your time is finite and choose how you’ll live more fully. Just take it one day at a time.


Live the life you have.

I never planned to live this long, and I certainly never thought I’d be widowed in my thirties. But both of those things came true. And they both went against the “life I had envisioned for myself”—one for the better, and one for the worse.


Through it all, I’ve learned that the best thing you can do is live the life you have. And I realize this might sound confusing, so let me explain. At the height of my grief, there were days I wished things could just go back to the way they were, despite knowing it wasn’t possible. I knew I could keep longing for that imaginary world, which would set me up for constant disappointment. Or I could accept my current reality and start living the life I had in the present moment.


So, twenty years later, here’s my final piece of wisdom to Chapel Hill High School’s Class of 2004. Don’t make life harder than it has to be by living the life you used to have or the life you hope to have in the future. Instead, think about where you are now, today, in this moment. And decide what small action you’ll take toward a better you.


Just Drew It.   



Me and Uren <- Class President

1 comentário


Convidado:
24 de mai.

I really like this. XOXO Elaine

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