The commencement address at university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least to get a decent job and pay your own bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into crap-what-do-I-do-now. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months or had a terrific entry level position in a company that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.
I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the proof of solid accomplishments that look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and bologna sandwiches, and housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a writer had been sustained by only marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (If you’re 30 or under, you don’t know about the classifieds – no worries.)
Over the next decade I wandered into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in lackluster positions paid bills until marriage. Then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with them, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with celebrations, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, museums visits, scouts, theater outings, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.
I loved those years and I harbor no regret.
The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first as occasional work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program, then as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. (I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “Free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings. “Lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon. Or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separations.)
Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint under pressure and with peculiar requirements. Like board short designs with no orange as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange, damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics is the norm, stealing credit is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, joyously.
At any rate, I took what I’d learned – to paint fast and accurately – and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, how color suggests mood or seasons, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head, and that less glue is better than more. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, docents, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art.
I taught children to paint, I loved those years, and I harbor no regret.
Eventually a roadblock stopped me. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Unable to continue to teach art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Three completed novels, another well on its way, short stories and poetry as proof: I am a writer.
Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation – it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:
Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that’s left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair solution but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable to bear the weight. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were: stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold your loved ones as if their lives and yours depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day.
And harbor no regrets.
mortarboard art courtesy Clip Art
I learned more about you in this article than I’ve learned in a decade of hanging out with you. I need to ponder that a bit more.
I bet there’s much I don’t know about you either, Jacqui. We need to hang out more.
Yes, you’ve got the writer’s gift of telling a story well. Yours in this case. Keep writing, keep being creative.
Thank you, Andrew. As I’m always full of doubt, this is salve to my soul.
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I, too, have struggled with the “what do I want to be when I grow up” issue. I know it is not what I have become (old, grumpy, tired, bitter)…but I haven’t yet found anything that will rescue me from this trajectory. Your words have inspired me to keep trying, though.
I hope you’re just a bit tired today, Rob, because I don’t find you grumpy or bitter and you’re much younger than I am. But please keep trying – that’s the most important thing.