Last night was one of the highlights of my writing career – I had the honor of being chosen to give the commencement speech for Wakapa Academy’s graduating class of 2019.
If you would have asked me, when I had graduated clear back in ’91, if I would ever be able to stand in front of a full auditorium of students, faculty, and their friends and family… the truth is… I wouldn’t have been able to picture it.
It was their special night, not mine. Yet to be chosen as the guest speaker will be one of the top milestones of this #writerslife.
Originally, the English department chose 3 of my books, Broken Things, Soul Sister, and Sharkbait – one for each grade level – to read for their third quarter. This was followed up with a meeting with the school board sharing the student’s work, an end of quarter parent-student meeting to show off their work, and a morning for me to spend with the students.
Being the local author, I was able to go in and spend a few hours with the class, answering their questions, discussing the books, and discussing life in general.
There is a wonderful intimacy to these events, one in which the students can share common themes from their own lives. There is a level of unexpected sharing, of connecting with the students and their own life events that as a writer you cannot fully expect, and it creates a candid moment when an author can see his writing through someone else’s eyes.
I also got to see the creativity and artistic talents of these students based around the books. There are some gifted artists, poets, and storytellers coming out of Buhl, Idaho. Watch out, world.
So there is a certain honesty and vulnerability that pays for a writer to put into his writing. Maybe not all the time, but we as human beings should seek to connnect with our audience, at least from time to time, to say, “Hey, I feel the same as you, I’ve been there. We’re not alone.” And to do this without preaching. Because at the heart of our art, it is our honesty and vulnerability that resonates with the audience. Not judging. Not preaching. Just sharing.
My first experience with a school was several years ago, at the Magic Valley High School. They had chosen Broken Things for a One Book, One School program, which means that every student and faculty member read the same book in the school over a period of a few weeks. It was a similar event, where I got to go in and spend the day with the students. To this day, going into stores, or just walking in one of the small towns of Southern Idaho, I still occassionally have those past students come up to me to talk.
It is humbling.
When I was asked to be the guest speaker for Wakapa Academy, the English teacher said that the graduating class voted who for who they wanted, and that my name was on every slip of paper.
It is terrifying to get up in front of a full auditorium for the first time. It is just as frightening to live up to the trust and expectation of those who put you there.
I’m not what you would expect at an event like this. I look like a middle-aged dreadhead hippie. I’m sure I raised a few eyebrows. And yet that moment of taking the stage, fear gives way to taking action, to the prepared words that are for the graduating students. To hopefully live up to their expectations on their day. To live up to expectations from a very flattering introduction.
This graduating class is right up there as a highlight of my life as though one of my own children had been a part of it – certainly better than my own graduation. And it is difficult to share this experience, as the last thing I want to come off as is prideful and/or narcissitic. Yet it deserves to be shared, because the experience means a lot to me. I would expect most writers do not expect to have their books necessarily well-received, especially when you think of the challenge of connecting with High School students. Of students being told they have to read your books.
So to the Wakapa Academy graduating class of 2019, congratulations, and thank you for letting me share (and steal) some of your time.
(And a special thank you to the amazing teacher and principal who made this opportunity possible! ❤ )