Here is the speech I was honored to give this year at graduation. While I’ll spend the summer revamping the look and focus of this site, here is something I’d like to share in the meantime. You may not get all of the inside jokes, but I hope you enjoy it. Thanks!
Good evening, everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, I go by many names: Mr. Stepensky, Mr. Patterson, Mr. Provencher, Mr. Antwan, and even Mr. Handberry. To simplify, I’ll choose to go by my given name today, Mr. Antonitis. Yes, my parents really named me Mister. That’s why I’m not offended when some of you call me that when you can’t figure out who I am.
I have known many of you for a long time, and I even remember most of your names–Duane for his singing, Sequan for his dancing, Bryce and James for forcing me to play Clash of Clans even though they quit years ago, Louis for beating me in arm wrestling (I was injured!), Sarah and Sarah and Sarah for being so quiet in class. Mitchell for using his improv skills to take over for me when I had laryngitis. Marlee and the rest of my homeroom for devouring thousands of dollars of donuts over the past four years. Even Brian and Mamata for forcing us to adopt a new mascot.
Truly though, it is an honor to be chosen to speak today. I spoke a few years ago, and, now that I am a parent, I realize that, someday, I will be leaving my son’s future in your hands. This idea scares the heck out of me. So, I’m going to have to offer you some advice. Those of you who have known me over the years should know most of my advice shouldn’t be followed. (Put butter in your coffee! Hit yourself with a sledgehammer!) Therefore, I would like to honor a favorite teacher I wish I had growing up, scholar and philosopher, Joseph Campbell, by sharing some of his wisdom with you today.
Campbell studied and taught us about the myths of the world. Like one of his influences, psychologist Carl Jung, Campbell saw that every society creates stories about heroes and that we all tell similar stories about them. Years of study revealed to Campbell that the stories we tell across cultures are so strikingly similar that they reveal fundamental aspects of our psychology. In his most famous work, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, he explains that enjoying these stories–whether in epic poems like The Odyssey, dramatic plays like Hamlet, or sci-fi movies like Star Wars can teach us about ourselves and others–and how to live well together.
As an English teacher, I spend most of my day discussing imaginary people doing things that never happened and trying to make them sound important. What a waste of time, right? Probably, but this is my last chance to convince you otherwise—that stories can be powerful…especially ones about the Hero’s Journey. So here is how Campbell’s work applies to some of our favorite stories and what we can learn from them.
Campbell’s explanation of what is referred to as The Monomyth begins with the everyday. In such a story, we meet the hero as he or she goes about the normal chores and routines that make up a normal life. At the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss simply uses her skills and wits to provide for her family–not yet to contend with other tributes or President Snow. In Kung Fu Panda, Po only wishes to be The Dragon Warrior; in the first act, he is just a big, fat panda. Remember Up Country? For the first few chapters, Carl fixes stolen car stereos and dreams of leaving the city and going to college. As you know from reading the book, it takes him a while to get there.
We immediately identify with these characters because we’re stuck in the same kind of grind. Get up, go to class, go to practice, do homework, play with our phones, go to bed. For better or worse, this is your normal world. But as these heroes soon discover, there is more to life than their quotidian tasks–much more. This is true for you, too. Conard is a wonderful place, but you have been called to leave for an adventure. Graduation is a rite of passage that marks the start of the search for something greater.
The second part of The Monomyth is the quest. Graduation is not only an initiation into the adult world, but it is also a call to action. It is natural to refuse the call. Don’t! The hero’s journey demands you to seek something greater than yourself. In Divergent, Trice struggles in vain against her true nature so she can stay with her family. Arlo, from The Good Dinosaur, is swept away by a raging river but eventually overcomes his fearful nature as he travels the long road home. Macduff must sacrifice his own family to the tyrant Macbeth when he leaves Scotland for England to find the true king, Malcolm. It is extremely difficult for them to leave their homes, but they must in order to fulfill their destinies.
None of these characters face easy decisions, and neither will you. You will struggle and you will often fail. But, in time, you will find your way through your ordeals. You will also find that you must leave your past and your ego—your most precious sense of self—behind. This is scary, but you must let go of your old self in order to grow. Campbell states that “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek”. Don’t be afraid to enter that cave.
Remember, too, that self-pity is the Pandora’s Box of all our sins; it is all too easy to shirk our duties, to fall into vice, and to harm others and ourselves because we feel the universe owes us something. It doesn’t. Replace feeling sorry for yourself with a sense of gratitude and your journey will be a lot easier and more meaningful.
After the hero ventures from the relative comfort and safety of home, experiences conflict, and is victorious over an adversary and his or her own sense of self, the hero comes back with a reward to share with everyone. This is the third and final stage of The Hero’s Journey. This reward can be anything valuable to a social group or civilization–a championship, the cure to a disease, spiritual enlightenment. As Huck Finn completes his journey with Jim, he taught a generation of Americans that they wouldn’t go to hell for rejecting the bigotry of the times. Simba, from The Lion King, successfully combines his duty and problem-free philosophy to reclaim and restore prosperity to the Pride Lands. By overcoming a major trial and earning a great reward, these heroes return to their homes with greater capacity to enact positive change for all.
But the reward is actually secondary to what makes a hero truly heroic–service to others. This is where a lot of fiction falls short: real-life stories of service are often more compelling. For example, Shin Dong-Hyuk, the subject of Escape from Camp 14, survived and escaped the brutal totalitarian regime of North Korea and now works hard to put an end to the oppression. Malala Yousafzai recounts in her autobiography her valiant advocacy for women’s education even after being shot by the Taliban. In his second book, Service, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell explains that, “Service is selflessness— the opposite of the lifestyle that we see so much of in America today. The things that entertain us don’t often lift us up, or show us as the people we can rise up to become . . . You do what’s expected of you, and more. You look after others, and put their welfare ahead of your own. You don’t worry about the big purpose of it all . . . but if you do the small things right long enough, you might find yourself coming out the other side having done something important . . . And you hope that by the time you leave this earth, it will be a better place than it was when you got here.” You can’t imagine better heroes than these.
Like I said earlier, the stories we share are more important than you realize. Studying stories helps us to live better lives. Inspiring tales can take many forms–not just books and movies and not just those of heroes. However, Campbell warns throughout The Hero with a Thousand Faces never to confuse a story–or any other metaphor–with its message. It’s only a vehicle. Focus on the tenor, or moral. Stories, achievements, philosophies, politics, religion, money, and, dare I say it, mascots, are only meant to inspire us to better ourselves and those around us. They are not meant to be placed before people or the planet. They are not meant to divide but to unite us all.
When you complete your first journey–be it in college, the military, or the start of a new career–it will be time to build something new. But remember this: humanity’s greatest triumph and most fatal flaw is our ability to develop ideologies and organizations. Our philosophies, religions, forms of government, corporations, schools, and families help us to create great goods. They grant us security, solace, and a sense of belonging. But we are all too often bound to the dogma of our own ideas. Because of our important, human need for belonging, we constrain ourselves to being only Democrat or Republican, Hall or Conard, Chipolte or Moe’s. Fealty can be fulfilling, as service to others is honorable and belonging is essential to our emotional wellbeing. However, idealism like this, and in general, blinds us to reality. Your philosophy, religion, political party, career, ambition, favorite sports team, or school pride are only ideas—not things to fight over. They are abstract notions and not physical reality. Don’t let your conception of what should be blind you to the way things really are.
Do me a favor. High five the person next to you. If you’re sitting near Coach Litos, put your hands in your pockets: we don’t want to be here all night. Next, stomp your feet on the ground a few times. Take a deep breath. Feels good, doesn’t it? That’s you connecting with people and planet. The real, physical world. Not a book, a song, or a logo. This is who you should serve throughout the journey of your adolescence and for the rest of your lives. Your journey must bring you back with a boon for others. Don’t squander it on yourselves. Don’t blindly give your best to an ideal or organization. Better the person next to you and the world around you. Leave a real legacy.
In closing, I love this senior class and will miss you greatly. You are all heroes to me, and this is why I know you can relate to this speech. You have helped comfort me during some struggles I’ve faced over the past few years–often without you even knowing it. I hope that sharing some of Campbell’s wisdom with you today will help you as you begin your own personal and professional journeys. Most of you know that I will begin a new journey of my own this fall and that I will not be returning to Conard. Hopefully you will see Mr. Stepensky, Mr. Patterson, Mr. Provencher, or even Mr. Handberry and think of me. I wish that, like Bilbo Baggins I could slip on a magic ring right now and see myself off. I can’t do that, but I will leave you with one last piece of advice: When in doubt about anything in life, just try to do what Coach Litos would do. Thanks!