(This is a guest post by Joseph S. Lento, a licensed Teacher of Orchestral Music and School District Administration. In 2014, President Obama named him a National Teacher of Arts and Humanities. Joseph also has commendations from Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. In 1999, he was named NYC Public Schools Bronx County High Schools Teacher of the Year. Learn more at his website, Brasscomets.angelfire.com.)
Twelve years fraught with the do’s and don’ts of our formative years have led to the crescendo of this seminal moment. Yes, it’s been a long time in the making. The ink is barely dry on all those well wishes in your Yearbook and now you are officially a high school Graduate!
Congratulations! Let’s face it, the post celebration realities haven’t had a chance to sink in, and how could they? The sounds of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstances still reverberating in your ears. The accolades, speeches, cheers and the occasional sermon by a nosey neighbor or third cousin nine times removed who knows everything there is to know about anything who must impart their wisdom to you are still fresh in your mind. However those aren’t the only reminders of graduation. There might still be a hunk of that made to order cake from your party, while the balloons are still circulating around the house but you haven’t the heart to pop! Yes, those ‘silly things remind me of you’ my dear graduation.
So, what’s next? Let’s briefly reflect. While everyone goes through the motions of a commencement exercise, everyone experiences it differently. Many have a sense of despair for losing what has been their identity and the kinship of their peers. Personally (some 41 years later) I still experience that. Some people feel surreal while others bask in the moment. Don’t run from these emotions. Embrace them and incorporate them. They are simply you being human.
The reality of heading away from a place that was a home away from home (while still rapt in the fresh memory of the event and celebrations) keeps us tethered to the dock. It’s okay because these emotions for high school seniors are normal. Do I jump in or run back to the dock? We often feel this way because school is our home away from home, and for many it is their home. These factors soon make all the ‘Pomp’ a distant noise and all the ensuing ‘Circumstances’ our new and uncharted adventures.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a newsflash for you! The unknown is what you’ve been preparing for all these years. Embrace it! Are there many things you must get used to for which there are no familiar faces to comfort you? No friendly hands to hold? Will there be professors and employers who know you only as a number on a roster or payroll sheet? Yes to all those things for which you should be grateful. Grateful? Why? Because it means you are making progress, and another thing; disappointment and failure ( if you heed their lessons) are the most valuable teachers you will ever have!
This is just the beginning of your journey to be the best you there can be! Will you falter? Who doesn’t? Will you make mistakes? Who doesn’t? Will you slack off now and then? Who doesn’t? Will you want to quit? Who doesn’t? Will you do foolish things you wouldn’t (some day) want your children to do? Of course! Will your heart be broken? Yes! Will you break someone’s heart? Yes! Welcome these life events. They will make you stronger and more resilient!
While I’m at it, try not to rest on your laurels. Sure, you’ve earned them and you should be proud but many others have them too. You see we are either big fish from a small pond or big fish in a big pond. We are also small fish in a big pond and small fish in a small pond but all fish can swim. Remember that.
While I’ve been blessed with recognition from an early age I learned to be humble because life humbled me. As a trumpet player I was a big fish in a big pond at an early age. At 17 (by the way that’s a great song by Janis Ian and is on my list of 20 songs every high school senior should know) I was one of three trumpet players in the NYC All City High School Orchestra, which, by all accounts, was the most prestigious Youth Orchestra in the United States, if not the world. At 18 I (and my peers from the NYC All City High Orchestra) performed with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center! To me, the universe began and ended with my environment but I soon learned that there were 17 and 18 year old trumpet players in Iowa, Minnesota, Alabama and North Dakota who could play circles around me. The point is that no matter how big you or your pond are, all fish can and will swim. Be prepared!
As you go on in life and amass successes and failures, always remain humble. Be open to listening because the world does not revolve around you no matter how much experience or accolades you earn. Use your wisdom and experience to be kind. Show deference. Teach others not as knowledgeable as you are, not by shoving your expertise in their face, but by giving your expertise away with grace, dignity and a smile. I know it’s a different type of message I just gave you than you might ordinarily hear, after all the world does not revolve around you or me. While we might be accomplished we are not the best. I know you are not supposed to be told those things but why? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to learn to be a great driver. You don’t have to be the best in order to be great. We have to learn when to keep quiet and when to say something. We have to learn when to jump in or when to walk away. We have to learn that many times life is not fair and not because we simply did not get what we wanted, but simply because life is not fair and it’s then that you must make your own happiness.
Before I offer my last bit of advice please be aware that many of your peers might be feeling anxious or emotionally unstable at what is for many a very difficult transition. If you or someone you know is having trouble please use the following resources immediately.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): 1-240-485-1001
Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides information on prevention, treatment and symptoms of anxiety, depression and related conditions.
In closing, I suggest that you take the beaten path as often as possible. It’s there for a reason. It’s the legacy of those who’ve come before us. They were the great women and men who they themselves (while trailblazers) were immersed in tradition. Einstein and Beethoven weren’t great because they reinvented science or music. They were great because they mastered what existed and added to it. Before you can become an original you must be a traditionalist. Master the past and only then can you too become a trailblazer!