Between working in education and having tons of friends with tons of degrees, I’ve had the opportunity to see and hear more than my fair share of commencement speeches.  In 2005 at Wake Forest’s graduation, for example, I saw Arnold Palmer speak.  I don’t remember much from that speech because I spent the whole time gawking at the stage and saying to myself “Holy hell, that’s Arnold freakin’ Palmer!!!”  Also, I can’t find it on YouTube.

One particularly good one that is documented on the interwebs was John Grisham’s speech at UNC-Chapel Hill’s 2010 commencement – my fiancee graduated that day – in which he urged the graduates to “find their voices.”  The worst one I ever heard in person was Sen. John McCain’s speech at Northwestern University’s commencement in 2005.  It had its funny moments, but it had way too much politics and foreign policy for my liking (and this was before McCain went off the political deep end).

Earlier this month, my friend and boss Eric Grunden gave the commencement speech at Raleigh Charter High School, where he is on the way out after a decade as their chemistry teacher to serve as Research Triangle’s principal.  I had been told by people who were in the audience that it was very good, and after seeing it, I agree.  Watch it, if only for the hilarious pop culture references and the fact that its title is derived from a campy 1982 action film called Megaforce, a movie I’d never heard of and apparently for good reason.

Unless I badly missed the point, Eric’s thesis was that people should start doing something with their lives instead of sitting around learning from a book and trying to decide what they want to do.  Deeds, not words.  Great advice.  And I know he was talking to those brand new high school graduates, but the speech struck a chord with me as well.  He described these high school graduates as “cheap,” in that they can work for someone starting on the ground floor and do some good and help people and find their callings that way, instead of just thinking about it.  “The world needs cheap, energetic people who will shut up and pick up a shovel,” he said.  And then he said something that I can wholeheartedly vouch for:

The worst thing that’s gonna happen to you if you just go out and try something is that you’ll accidentally pick something that you turned out not to like later, or you’ll work at a job for a couple of years and find out you hate it.  And you will.  You’ll think that you wasted a couple of years doing something that you hated, but that’s not right; what you did was you spent a couple of years helping somebody else.

Freakin’ A.  The cruel irony is that as a teacher I already had the job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I just didn’t know it.  So I became a cheap, energetic pawn in a college athletic department.  And just like what Eric suggested might happen to those graduates, I worked in that job for two years and figured out that I was absolutely miserable and dreaded going to work every day.  So I’m re-entering the classroom this fall with a renewed sense of purpose, and the knowledge that I’ve found my calling has caused a palpable sense of peace to wash over me.

In light of my very circuitous route to reach this realization, I’ve been asked by a lot of people if I regret my time in Auburn spent doing menial labor for an NCAA compliance office.  I suppose it’d be easy to say yes because I missed out on the opportunity to influence two years’ worth of students, but that’s water under the bridge.  Because I took a leap of faith and tried something new that turned out not to be for me, I’m now going to influence a much larger number of students in the years to come.  And for that, I’m unimaginably thankful.

I hope those students lucky enough to hear Eric’s speech will take his remarks to heart and get out there in the world and do something.  I think the advice is so good, in fact, that I’m considering getting a Megaforce poster like the one pictured above to put in my classroom.  If anyone could help me score one of those, I’d be most appreciative.