I was given the honor of speaking to the most recent graduates from St. Vrain's Adult Education school on May 22. Here is the text of my remarks.
It is a great privilege for me to be here with you tonight to witness this milestone in your life – to witness your accomplishment of reaching graduation.
I want to thank Mary Willoughby for inviting me to be here tonight. I want to say congratulations, too, to all of the families who are here. I know from personal experience that very few of us achieve a milestone like this on our own. Teachers and family provide us with immeasurable support.
My wife and I supported each other as we completed our educations. First, she worked while I finished school and then we traded roles. I worked while she finished school.
So, I would like to say thank you to the staff at Adult Ed and to the parents, spouses, significant others and friends who are here.
I want to talk for a very few minutes about a subject that is not often mentioned at graduation ceremonies. I want to speak on the subject of Underdogs – people and groups who find a way to be successful even when the odds are against them.
Some, perhaps many of us on this stage have felt like an underdog at one time or another in our lives. I know that I have had that feeling.
I never felt more like an underdog than when I graduated from high school and went off to college.
I grew up in a small town. There were barely 1500 people in my town. I had 40 in my graduating class from high school. About the same size as your class.
When I went to college, there were more people living in my dormitory than lived in my entire town. I went to my first class – a required class for freshman in a giant lecture hall. There may have been more students in that one lecture hall than there were students in grades K – 12 where I had come from.
I didn’t know if I could do this. I didn’t know if I could survive at a big University.
I became even more intimidated when I heard my college classmates talk about all the math and science classes they had taken in high school.
When I was a senior in high school, my science teacher took a new job the 2nd week of school. My school wasn’t able to recruit a new teacher. That was the end of science for me.
I wasn’t sure how I would be able to keep up in college. I went to sleep feeling homesick most nights my first semester.
But, I had learned something growing up in my small town that would help get through college and succeed I had learned to work hard. I’ve had jobs since I was 10 years old. That was a gift my parents gave me. It was a gift my wife’s parents gave her. They made us work.
I learned that hard work can make up for a lot. And the best thing is, we get to decide how hard we want to work.
I read a magazine article recently by a person named Malcolm Gladwell. The whole article was about How Do Underdogs Win? How does David beat Goliath?
Gladwell says that there are three reasons that Underdogs are successful.
1. They work harder than most people are willing to work.
2. They are willing to do things other people won’t do. Successful underdogs don’t care if people say “you’re not cool.”
3. Successful underdogs keep getting up on their feet when they get knocked down. They don’t give up.
I want to tell you about the janitor at my high school. Mr. Bray.
Mr. Bray had a big family. He had five or six or seven children. I don’t remember exactly how many. Mr. Bray had a dream. He wanted his family to have a house where every one of his kids could have their own bedroom. Throw in a family room and a dining room – that’s a big house.
It’s hard to find a house like that on a janitor’s salary in a small town. But, that was Mr. Bray’s dream. He wasn’t going to be stopped by lack of money.
From the time I was about five or six, we would see Mr. Bray at different places around town – after school, on weekends and all through the summer. Mr. Bray would tear down abandon buildings in town. He would work out an arrangement with the property owner. He would tear down their old building if he could keep the wood and bricks and pipes.
I remember people around town talking about Mr. Bray. They would say things like, “I can’t believe he spends so much time tearing down buildings.”
I’m ashamed to say we kids weren’t so kind. We said the things kids say before we know better. “There’s Mr. Bray tearing down another building. What a dork.”
Mr. Bray didn’t care what people in town said about him. He had a dream. He was going to make it come true.
Mr. Bray carried himself with pride and dignity everywhere he went. When he completed a demolition job. The lot left behind was spic and span. Mr. Bray did things right.
And, by the time I was a freshman in high school… Mr. Bray had built one of the biggest houses in town.
That’s what successful underdogs do. They work hard. They do things others won’t do. They don’t worry whether or not people think they are cool.
I want to tell you one more story. It’s from a book I’m reading with my daughter. It’s called Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor. It is a true story about Juan and Lupe Villasenor – two immigrants who were driven from their homes in Mexico by a revolution almost 100 years ago. They built a successful life in the United States. (Their son is a well known author – he wrote the book.)
Juan and Lupe did not have easy lives. Their families were knocked down many, many times. But, they kept getting back on their feet.
There is a scene in the book that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Juan and his family are camped outside of Ciudad Juarez. They are hoping to cross the border into the United States.
They have nothing. They have to pick corn out of manure to keep themselves from starving to death. One night, after a terrible sandstorm, one of Juan’s sisters goes blind. The family is discouraged. They want to give up.
Juan’s mother, Dona Margarita, calls her family together. This is a women whose lost several children; her daughter is blind; her grandchildren are crying with hunger; they have to sleep on the ground through dust storms.
With all these hardships, this is what Dona Margarita said to her family, “We must open our hearts so that we can see the possibilities in our predicament. If we do not look for the possibilities, we have nothing.”
I can’t imagine the hardships the Villasenor family endured. It is humbling to hear the words spoken by Dona Margarita; to hear someone who has endured so much declare We Must Find the Possibilities in our Predicament.
But, that is what successful underdogs do. They work hard. They do things other people say aren’t cool. They keep getting back up on their feet when they are knocked down and they look for life’s possibilities.
That is how Dreams Come True.
You all have taken a less traditional path to graduation than people who will graduate tomorrow from traditional high schools. Some people might consider you underdogs.
Here’s what I would say. You already have an advantage in life that others don’t. You know how to overcome adversity. There’s no softness on this stage. I’m sure of that.
You know how to work hard. You know how to keep going when others say you aren’t cool. And, you know how to pick yourself up when you get knocked down.
You can accomplish your dreams if you keep doing what you’ve done to reach this place tonight.
Thank you again for giving me the privilege of witnessing what you’ve accomplished.