Editor’s Note: Karmen Classen gave the following valedictory address at the Kachemak Bay commencement May 7.
I have only been to one other college graduation. It was in this very theater, but so many years ago I don’t even remember who I had come to see graduate. What I do remember is the keynote address given by our very own Professor Beth Graber, who got up and read a Dr. Suess book to the graduates — you know the one — “Oh the Places You’ll Go. ”
After reading to the class about the brains in their heads and the shoes on their feet, and all of the trouble they were likely to meet, she closed the book and said something I have never forgotten. She said, “Your life is like a lump of clay, and there may come a day when what you’ve worked so hard to create out of that clay is unexpectedly, and completely squashed and flattened. But if that happens, don’t worry, the clay is still there, and you can shape it again, into something new.”
Well at that point in time I couldn’t even imagine anything like that ever happening to me. I knew Professor Graber because I had spent a semester in her writing class. But after that one semester of college, life began to happen to me — in a good way! I was off on my maiden voyage, exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do. And yet, more than a decade later, almost two, I found myself sinking on what felt like my own personal Titanic.
Finally, everything I cared about, everything that mattered most to me was lying broken and shattered at the very bottom of an ocean.
During the years I grieved that loss, Professor Graber’s metaphor about the clay came back to me. I tried hard to believe that my life wasn’t gone, only life as I’d known it, and that somehow the clay of my life was still there and could take a new form. The one thing I knew for sure that I needed to do was go back to school. So 18 years later I was back at KBC and found out I wasn’t the only person, and not the only woman or the only mother trying to reshape her life after a series of unfortunate events. In addition I found myself among a faculty far more excellent than I ever expected to find at a small community college. Things started to seem possible again, but I still struggled with grief for what had been lost.
Alongside my unfinished business with school, I decided it might help to do some things that were completely new to me. One of those was learning to play the cello. Now to some of you, age 39 might not sound too old to start something like that, but since several of my children had learned to play the violin while they were still being potty trained, you can understand that I regretted my late start.
That is, until I met a dear little lady who changed my outlook completely. Her name is Rachel Bilbo, she lives in Homer, and maybe you know her. She, at the age of 76, had undertaken the daunting task of learning to play the viola. Not only that, but by the time I met her she was playing remarkably well and had already been at it for longer than it takes to get a college degree.
I must have been expecting to be an invalid in my 80s because this was a revolutionary idea to me. Here she was, not just checking things off a bucket list, she had started something with a significant learning curve that would take years of hard work to develop. And she does keep working. Every week I have the absolute delight of playing my cello with her, and with two other women who are both older than me, who also have no regard for timelines.
That’s what I love about the people I’ve met over the past few years. All around me people are starting and finishing, or in the middle of things. I’ve been in class with senior citizens, and with high school students getting a jumpstart academically. I’ve watched mothers making difficult decisions about where to put their time and energies; fathers in the same position, modifying their goals to reflect reality, yet pressing on; veterans, and former students returning after long detours.
In fact, I estimate that among our graduating class we may have more than a hundred collective years of detour experience.
Tonight means different things to each of us. For some it’s a finish line, for others, a milestone along the way. So whether you have finished an associate’s, a bachelors, a master’s degree, or a GED,
Congratulations! Well done!
You’re finished, for tonight –
Except, not quite.
One more assignment for you.
But don’t worry,
It isn’t due anytime soon.
Some day down the road, the assignment is this:
Start something new when you’re seventy-six.
Just plan on it. Make up your mind that you will!
That you’ll start something new that will
take you uphill.
It doesn’t much matter, just what thing you choose.
Just pick something fresh and inspiring and new.
With a mindset like that, there’s no limit for you.
What’s more, in the meantime, who knows what you’ll do!
You have places to go in those shoes on your feet,
Lots of adventurous people to meet,
More things to learn,
Some things to forget,
And new things to do when you’re seventy-six!
And I know you won’t worry, if things all go wrong,
You’re an Alaskan and that means you’re strong.
You know all about breakup. You’ve been through
You’ve been stuck in the mud, and you got unstuck!
Dr. Suess got one thing, just a little bit wrong.
Those aren’t shoes on you’re feet,
You’ve got Xtratufs on!