Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you find it's kinder hard.
Don't you all now--For I'se still goin' honey
I'se still climbin'.
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
--Langston Hughes, "Mother to Son"
Bill Cosby spoke at a college graduation several years ago. He leaned over the podium and shouted to the graduates: “Don’t Go!” He brought down the house. But there was a truth there. It’s a scary time. Washington is in a mess. The unemployment lines are still too long. Many college graduates worry about how they’re going to pay back their college loans. Jobs are scarce. And parents are politely asking: “Er, what are you going to do?” One fellow answered, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to get by on my allowance.” Many have no clue about their futures. It really would be comforting if the graduates could just stay where they are. Leaving is tough. Saying goodbye to friends. Leaving the security of the last four years—maybe more. Stepping out into the unknown is scary business any time.
I remember my high school graduation as if it were yesterday. (And it wasn’t!) We had on dark blue shantung robes with white stoles. I peeked into the gym which was filled to overflowing with parents, brothers, sisters and friends. The lights were dimmed except for the stage where we would sit. We lined up as we were instructed. And suddenly it was time for the festivities to start. The Band struck up “Pomp and Circumstance” a little wobbly. And the parade down the long aisle began. This was it. No more high school. We had finally graduated even though there were days when we wondered. There were some mean teachers and mean kids I was glad I never had to see again. But as I started down the long aisle my cheeks were wet. Tears came into my eyes. Even after all these years I still remember the feeling on that dark evening in my high school in Columbus, Georgia. Despite it all I didn’t want to leave. I had grown accustomed to those hallways, those classrooms, the cafeteria, the classes and friends and even the girl friend I did not get.
What happened after that night was hard to explain. I left home that fall and it was never the same again. I discovered that what I knew was not even the tip of a very big iceberg. There was a world out there I did not know even existed. It wasn’t all moonlight and roses. There were dark days and incredible disappointments from time to time. But what I really discovered was that the world was a whole lot bigger than I ever imagined. More than one summer I spent on the third-shift of a non-air-conditioned cotton mill working with living people. After those summers I escaped and worked out West and the following summer at a camp near New York City. My tiny little world was expanding fast and furious. There were books to discover and friends I made that are with me to this day. Somewhere back there I discovered what I thought I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And looking back I learned that many of those first hunches proved right.
History tells me that every generation faces the kind of challenges that high school and college graduates face today. We’re not much different than them. We can spend all our time mistrusting and second-guessing ourselves. We can get down in the mouth and stay negative and bitter for the rest of our lives. We’ve all had days like that.
Most of us will not win American Idol or Miss America or the Heisman trophy. So what. Life stretches out before us and certainly the unknown is scary. If we ever talked to our parents about these things we find they had a hard time when they stood where we now stand. They experienced incredible heartbreak and wrong turns. But most of them came though and found that in the hard places they developed strength they never thought they had.
But the temptation for all of us is to never leave. You see them hanging around the fraternity house twenty years after they have graduated. They’re still cheerleading, fighting old battles that they should have shed long ago. They corner others that come back on alumni weekend and drunkenly mutter over and over: “It was great back there, wasn’t it.” They never left. They got stuck.
But the good news is that we really can leave. And we just might discover lessons no American idol winner or Miss America may not know. We can all make a difference. We can influence more lives than we think. We can learn the hard lesson of forgiving ourselves for all those times we stumbled and fell. Arthur Miller wrote in one of his plays, “There comes a time when we all have to take ourselves in our own arms.” I guess that’s what I hope for all of us. In work and play and love we will find that saying goodbye is very hard. But there is a more powerful truth: saying hello to a yet unknown may be the best thing we ever do. And that’s why we have to go.
(This article appeared in The Greenville News (SC) May 27, 2013)