Coloring Outside the Lines: A Message to Graduates

Coloring Outside the Lines: A Message to Graduates
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Recently, I was deeply honored to receive an honorary degree from Southern Vermont College. It was a poignant and humbling moment to be sure. Every since my days as a professor, and thus, long before I became I college president, I realized that we often forget the speeches delivered at our own graduations and those of our family members. The messages are understandably lost in the hubbub of the day's events.

But, the graduation messages are generally speaking (but not always) valuable. They usually signal what the selected speaker wants graduates to remember as they move forward into the next chapter of their lives. The chosen speakers usually reference things that have personal meaning for them, ideas that they learned from their own experiences. For the speakers, it is an opportunity to impart some wisdom; it almost feels like a moral imperative to do so. As Margaret Fuller put it: "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles on it."

Commencement remarks, though, are unique in many ways. The address needs to be short; it is easy to lose the audience, especially since the speaker's remarks are usually what occur just before the prospective graduates walk across the stage and receive their well-earned degrees. While it is an honor to be honored, the day really belongs to the graduates and their families and friends. For this reason, it is important to know and speak to the audience -- for their benefit.

In planning my own remarks, I was struck by the recent movement in the U.S. involving the detailed and artful coloring books that adults are now using. For many people, coloring freely is relaxing. People can choose their colors and de-stress from the tensions of work. I would add that coloring and those amazing Crayola crayons bring back childhood memories for virtually all of us. Inspired in part by this movement (although not the need to stay within the lines) and the desire to give a speech that had an actual deliverable (a crayon), I wanted to share a portion of my remarks delivered at SVC's 88th Commencement Exercises held on Saturday, May 9th.

I have one wee suggestion and a request before you read these remarks: buy some Crayola crayons please. Then, it is my hope that you will be able to appreciate and use the message proffered and carry it forward to improve our world. Let me know if you do.

With that, here is what I said:

There is a well-known book by Robert Fulghum written some 25 years ago titled: All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

The author specifically culls out key skills we learn early on. Here are some of them: Share everything; play fair; don't hit people; put things back where you found them; wash your hands; flush; watch out for traffic; hold hands and stick together. I have always thought many of the items on Fulghum's list are remarkably on point - useful, thoughtful and decent. His book is worth re-reading from time to time.

But, I disagree with one of the things many children learn in kindergarten (to be fair, it is not on the mentioned Fulgham list), namely coloring inside the lines.

Raise your hands (or in this instance, reflect internally) if you remember as a child being given an image of something innocuous or ridiculous or pedestrian and then you had to color the image with crayons. And you had to - you were instructed to -- stay inside the lines of the image. Further, you were expected to use the "right" colors; the grass had to be green, the sky had to be blue. You get the idea. Your teachers and kindergarten friends noticed when your crayons strayed, or you used colors that did not match reality. Everyone knows the grass is not pink and the sky is not purple.

I could never do it. Never. No matter how hard I tried, I always colored outside the lines. And, my color choice was often unusual. To be candid, I think all this foreshadowed my life! So, I hope you can unlearn this lesson from kindergarten: Do not always color inside the lines. Do not always use expected colors. I think SVC has already helped you start down that pathway.

Color with joy and with creativity. Let your crayons go wherever they want to go.
And, if possible and appropriate, feel the freedom to discard the pre-prepared drawings we are given in life and make your own drawings.

I now keep crayons with me - everywhere I go. I have them here today as you can see, and later, if you want one of mine, just ask. Buy some and perhaps you too might keep them with you - in your backpack or briefcase or purse or on your desk or your night-table. They can be a tangible reminder of these remarks.

To be sure, some of the rules of kindergarten are important. But this message, about drawing outside the lines, is equally if not more important: Be Bold; Use Bright Colors; Design Your Future; Color Freely In and Outside the Lines.

They are, after all, your crayons now.

We are fellow alums. Our diplomas bear the same date. I share a degree with you. And with that comes certain responsibilities to each other and to SVC. I know what we will do with our lives in the future will make SVC proud of us. We can and should share with each other and with SVC our future endeavors. Our successes become SVC's successes.

That is why, as fellow alums, I want to make this plea: together, let's draw lives that matter.

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