The following script is from my commencement speech on choosing friends wisely that I delivered to my graduating 6th graders at Presbyterian Day School on Friday, May 26, 2017.
Mr. Hancock, Ms. Glenn, Mr. Fruitt, members of the board of trustees, colleagues, family and friends of our graduates, and boys of the Presbyterian Day School class of 2017,
I am honored and grateful for the privilege of speaking with you this morning. I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to decide what I want to say to you today. After all, today is an important day, and I felt pressured to deliver a speech that would impress even Kemp’s late great-grandmother. So with Nan-Nan in mind, I asked myself, “What parting words do I have for these boys? What can I say to inspire them and set them on a path to greater success? What should I tell them that they’ll always remember and hold dear to their hearts?”
I considered it. I wrote down a bunch of ideas and found some inspiring quotes to share, too. I watched several excellent commencement speeches trying to figure out what I might say to challenge and motivate you, but none of the topics seemed the right fit for you and me and what I believe you most need to hear today. So, I kept on deliberating.
As I was brainstorming, I reflected on my sixth-grade graduation–way back in 1983, and the wisdom shared on that glorious morning. And I remembered…well, nothing. In fact, I’m not one to forget things, but I can’t even remember who spoke to my class that day. Not only that but as I thought on my high school graduation in 1989, I couldn’t remember who gave that commencement address either. Nor could I recall the points he made that night.
So I guess the pressure is off, huh?
As I reflected on my elementary school graduation and the years that followed, I realized that it wasn’t long after sixth grade that everything started to change for me. Oh, I’m not referring to puberty, but yes, that happened, too. What shifted as I became a teenager was who my primary influences were. In elementary school, my parents and teachers mostly swayed my thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, in junior high, their hold gave way to the influences of my friends. Sure, my parents continued to be a significant part of my life. They still are. But as I look back now, I realize it was my friendships that shaped so many of my thoughts and decisions. I’m incredibly thankful I chose good friends. A large part of who I am today is because of their positive influence on me.
Boys, my message this morning is simple: choose your friends wisely. The man you’ll become is going to be strongly influenced by your choice of friends. You are starting a new chapter at a new school next year. Many things will change. Some of you will attend schools where everyone is new. Others will enter situations where you’ll feel as though you’re the only one. Regardless, it’ll be a new start for each of you, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet many new people and build new relationships. Choose wisely the people you invite into your close-knit circle of friends. Your good friends will have a vital role in what happens to you over the next ten years and beyond. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
So, what makes a good friend?
First, a good friend is loyal. Through our seven virtues, you’ve learned that a true friend leaves no man behind. He should be there through the joy, the grief, your successes and your failures, and everything in between. Being there is important, but it’s more than just being present. A good friend should be trustworthy and willing to call you out gently when you’re in the wrong. And he should forgive you when you blow it and make of mess of things, too.
Melissa was my first girlfriend way back in the fifth grade. She was a cute and fiery redhead, and she liked sports. What more could an eleven-year-old want in his first crush, right? Things didn’t work out for us romantically that year, but we stayed close friends from middle school until today. As you guys know, my mom died when I was in the 6th grade, and I went through some tumultuous peaks and valleys as I worked through my grief over the next few years. Melissa had a front row seat to view much of my struggling, and sometimes she bore the brunt of my hurt and pain. Somehow, through it all, she never turned her back on me, and I’m thankful that her loyalty and her forgiveness has allowed us to remain friends for almost 40 years.
Find a friend like Melissa––someone true, who’ll stand by you to the end.
Second, a good friend is kind. He’ll treat you with respect. He won’t put you down or do things deliberately to hurt you. He’ll help you see the good that’s in you and encourage you to be true to yourself.
Kelly is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Back in school, he was the guy that everyone wanted to have as their friend. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying he was Mr. Popularity. He wasn’t ever the life of the party, the best athlete, or the funniest guy in the room, but he probably was always the kindest. I can’t remember anyone ever talking badly about Kelly, but then…Kelly never said anything bad about anyone else either. He was always humble, thoughtful, and kind. I liked being around Kelly. Hanging around a bunch of guys can be exhausting with fellows picking on each other and trying to “one up” each other for laughs. It makes it tough to let your guard down and to be honest about who you are. I don’t ever remember feeling that way around Kelly. I never had to pretend around him. He wasn’t that kind of friend.
I hope you find a friend like Kelly––someone considerate, who you can be your genuine self around.
Third, a good friend makes you want to be a better person. He’s not only someone you trust but also someone who brings out the best in you. His character is one you want to copy. He wants to do what’s right and inspires you to want to do right, too.
Kevin is one of my oldest and closest friends. Back in school, Kevin was known for being an excellent soccer player and for having a great sense of humor. Sometimes he’d do the most unexpected and hilarious things. But Kevin was also known as a hard worker, and he was very active in our church youth group. If our youth minister scheduled a service project like raking leaves or working at the community food pantry, it was a good bet Kevin would be there helping right in the middle of it all. Often, I’d join the work team just because Kevin was going and I liked hanging around him. Kevin was that guy. We don’t look like each other as much anymore. He’s still pretty skinny, and well, I still have all my hair. But back in high school, we had similar features and were often seen together. People would occasionally get us confused. I’d get called Kevin by mistake, but it never bothered me because Kevin was such a stand-up guy.
Find a friend like Kevin––someone who helps you become the very best you can.
Finally, a good friend prioritizes the friendship. All relationships require an investment of time, and a good friend makes himself available. Life through junior high and high school gets busy with school work, church activities, family obligations, sports competitions, extracurricular ventures, social commitments, community service, and yes, gentlemen, the pursuit of girls, too. A good friend should make time to hang out, to have fun, and to talk. If not, the friendship will never fully develop or will merely fall by the wayside.
Eric is a free spirit and a dreamer. He’s been a good friend to me through middle school, high school, college, and into our adulthood. One of the things I appreciate most about Eric is how he’s always demonstrated that our friendship matters to him. Eric was the friend who’d come over unexpectedly. He’d ask me to do something after school or to sit with him at lunch. In college, he’d frequently invite some guys and me to his room to play Tecmo Super Bowl or to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with him. I’ve never wondered whether Eric wanted to be my friend because he’s always shown that our friendship matters. Even now, rarely a month goes by that I don’t receive a text from Eric checking in and asking when we are going to get together.
I wish for you to have a friend like Eric–someone who places great importance on having you as a companion.
That’s my challenge for you as you leave PDS, guys. Choose your friends wisely. Choose people who are loyal and individuals who are kind. Find friends who make you better and who think spending time with you is important. Choose wisely, my young friends. But maybe, before you start picking who you want to have as friends, reflect on what type of friend you already are. Then, choose to be the friend that you want to have. Be a wise friend, gentlemen, and choose your friends wisely. I love you.
Here’s the video of the entire commencement as PDS shared it on Facebook. My speech came after an excellent speech by one of my students. Kemp’s talk begins at the 29:00 mark. My speech follows at the 37:20 mark.