Although I wasn’t asked, this is what I’d say if I delivered a commencement address this year:
Congratulations, Connecticut high school graduates of 2018. You have successfully navigated your journey from childhood to young adulthood amid some of the most tumultuous times since the 1960s. Now it’s time to begin a new journey.
As you contemplate that next step, I have some advice, drawn from recent news events, that I will frame with “two R’s”: responsibility and respect. If you keep these two R’s in mind throughout life, you’ll find them consistently useful and sage.
First of all, be responsible with your finances. You already know about the exorbitant debt facing college graduates these days — currently to the tune of $37,172 in student loans per college grad, an increase of $20,000 in 13 years. Reckless practices with personal finances will only exacerbate this burden, so responsibility is clearly the watchword.
The state of Connecticut provides the perfect example of fiscal irresponsibility, currently facing a $4.46 billion deficit over the next two years, thanks to unfunded pensions, a flailing economy, and a shrinking tax base.
Some of these factors, like many things in life, are not foreseeable or avoidable, but still, a more responsible approach to fiscal policy would have prevented much damage.
The lesson to you, graduates, is to pay your bills on time, avoid using credit cards whenever possible, and spend only as much as you can afford. As the classic Fram oil filter commercial says, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” Guaranteed, you’ll ultimately pay a good deal more if you postpone your financial responsibilities until later.
A second lesson involves the other “R” word, respect. No news story in the past year more glaringly demonstrates a lack of respect — a lack of basic human decency — than the revelations brought forward by the #MeToo movement. Headlined by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer recently charged with rape, #MeToo spawned a firestorm of sexual harassment allegations, including a “deluge of complaints to human resources departments everywhere.”
The movement’s impact in Connecticut was seen when Elizabeth Esty, Connecticut’s congresswoman from the 5th District, announced in April she would not run for re-election after mishandling the alleged abuse committed by a former chief of staff against a female staffer.
The lesson here: Treat everyone with fairness, decency, and compassion. Don’t use an advantage, real or perceived, to pursue selfish motives. In short, treat people in your personal sphere with the utmost respect.
A third lesson is to be a good citizen. This year saw yet another spate of mass shootings, underscored by the February tragedy at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School. While the heartbreak for students was unspeakable, the strength they gained was loud and clear, as they advocated for common-sense gun laws in Tallahassee and launched “March for Our Lives” in Washington, an initiative that earned them the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Closer to home, Lane Murdock, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School, helped organize the National School Walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, sending out another deafening call for gun safety. Said Murdock: “Most of us can’t vote, yet.”
And therein lies this lesson: Before you’re old enough to vote, get involved. Read up on the issues and use your voice to call for positive change. And when you are old enough to vote, by all means, vote! Unless citizens take responsibility, our representative democracy will fail.
Finally, graduates, always try to be a mensch, a person of integrity and honor who represents the ultimate in respect and responsibility. According to Jewish tradition, a mensch is one who helps others, does the right thing the right way, works for peace, and always strives to be a better person. The world desperately needs menschen, especially in our leaders.
Admittedly, it can be confusing when the president of the United States makes an average of 6.5 false or misleading claims every day. Indeed, it seems unfathomable that a world leader would use social media to insult 459 people, places, and things in a 15-month period.
But don’t let this repeated incivility and petulance fool you — it’s neither normal nor constructive, no matter how much he does it or how much his supporters like it. Such behavior is and always will be distasteful, petty, and ultimately counterproductive. So put your smartphone down every so often, talk to people face to face, and show some kindness and understanding. That is, do the responsible and respectful thing: Be a mensch.
So, congratulations high school graduates of 2018! It’s been rough out there in the wider world you’re about to enter. But if you approach your next step with the two “R’s” — responsibility and respect — firmly in mind, you’ll be making the ride a little less rough for all of us. And you’ll feel good about yourself in the process — deservedly so.
Barth Keck is a father of three and an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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