refuse plastic bags: a commencement speech

at around this time two years ago, i went back to my high school to speak before the graduating class of 2011. when my teachers informed me that i would be the commencement speaker, i began thinking of the overarching theme of my speech. then i realized a little later that i would not be talking to 16-year olds who are moving on to college, but also to 12-year olds making the jump from elementary to high school. having that broad an audience rattled my ideas and i ended up not having any. then i realized something: most commencement speeches, whether it be the class valedictorian's or the guest speaker's, are usually self-serving testimonials few people care to remember even days after they were given. i graduated four times and heard more than eight of these including the years when i volunteered to usher the graduation ceremonies, and i always hear prolonged stories about how one worked so hard to get somewhere. i didn't want to bore anyone with my life story -- i honestly didn't think it was compelling, regardless of the poverty angle. besides, i wasn't running for office. i was merely there to give a hint of inspiration to a dwindling graduating class.

it was then when i realized that the speech that had crumbled in my mind had an audience of one: me. i wanted nothing else but to impress myself. i wasn’t thinking of the graduating class: elementary and high school students eager to take off their awkward hats, return their borrowed togas, and leave the campus so they could have extravagant meals with their beaming parents. it was clear to me what the role of the commencement speaker was: to inspire. but with what? dollops of wisdom culled from life’s experiences? i didn’t want to read a self-congratulatory speech, or shower false praise on my high school for helping me get to where i am now. i wanted, rather, to deliver a message that might actually not waste anyone’s time, most of all, the graduates’.

so with some inspiration from the theme of that fake graduation speech wrongly attributed to bazz luhrmann, i went on to sharing a few things that i felt everyone, regardless of where they were headed, might find useful. here it is.
Let me begin by saying that I have not quite received a singular recognition such as the one that has just been bestowed upon me today. To be invited to speak before the graduating class of your very own school is an honor without compare. Let me express my heartfelt thanks to the teachers of Trinity for trusting me with this responsibility.

I must confess that although I was asked to give this speech last January, it wasn’t only until this morning that I managed to sit in front of my computer and start arranging my thoughts. I allowed many weeks to pass without me writing a single word. Yes, I may have had a few ideas about what I might want to say to all of you, but always, I postponed writing it down.

I was actually thinking these last two months about my role in this exercise. Many of you might have high expectations of me. Perhaps you expect that I will say something inspiring. I cannot promise that, but at the very least, let me try. To tell you frankly, I am the least important person here today.

This is all about you, dear graduates. This day is the culmination of years of toil, of sacrifice, of hours away from play. But this is not solely your achievement. Your proud and loving parents had something to do about this moment as well. And let us not forget the dedication of your unselfish teachers. I play an insignificant part in today’s program. And yet, I am given a prominent seat on the stage.

So let me return the favor of having this place of honor with this speech, which I hope would invite you to think and to ask questions.

Exactly 18 years ago, before any of you were born, I was seated right there, waiting for my turn to be called up on the stage.

I remember this gym vividly. Its walls were covered by egg trays. It appeared to be bigger than it is now. Sharon Cuneta’s song was on repeat the entire day. I remember several details of the day I was conferred my high school diploma. But oddly enough, I do not remember many things about our commencement speaker whose role I now reprise. In fact, I could not recall a single word that she said.

I was listening. Of that I am certain – we had no distractions like cellular phones and mobile game consoles in 1993. But for the life of me, I have no recollection whatsoever of the content of her speech. Which is not to say that she was an ineffective speaker. When I graduated from law school, we had a justice of the Supreme Court as our guest of honor. In 1997 when I finished my undergraduate degree, a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines was our commencement speaker. Eloquent and accomplished as they both were, I also do not remember anything from their speeches. So it is possible that it had nothing to do with them. It had to do more about me.

These are not very encouraging thoughts for someone in my position right now. It suggests that what I stayed up for until early this morning was futile. Despite the possibility that my speech today will be largely unremembered, I shall endeavor to share with you some things that you will find useful in your lives now, and probably in the future.

While I do not pretend to be bestowed the wisdom of experience, I have had the privilege of being among wise women and men, and I share with you today a few of the things that I have learned from them. I list them for all of you in no particular order of importance.

Be a little foolish. Now is not the time to be too serious: you have the rest of your adult life for that. But not too foolish that you will later in life regret the things you’ve done. Remember that we live in an age of status updates and instant rewinds, where events are not stored merely in personal photo albums or scrap books or the unreliable memories of our friends, but in digital form, hidden in someone’s harddrive or kept in a remote server somewhere in Switzerland.

Do not be afraid to commit mistakes. Be petty if you must. Try the latest fashions and trends even if a decade hence you will look back in horror at how terrible you once looked. Learn while you are young what burns, what hurts, what does not taste good, what does not work, what brings you displeasure, so that when you are older, you do not run the risk of repeating any of them.

Do not plan on doing things someday, if you have the opportunity as well as the means to do them today. You will later regret the things you did not do, rather than the things you did. Do not dwell on the could-have-been’s or the what-might-have-been’s. Instead, focus your energies on what you are able to do now, and what you could still do.

Chase your dreams. Your OWN dreams, rather than anyone else’s. Take the path of your own choosing, and do not stop until you’ve reached your destination. Your parents will not be dismayed when they find that you are happy following your heart’s desire. The best occupation is the one that doesn’t feel like work, where the salary is not a reason to rise out of bed in the morning, but merely a bonus for doing what it is that you love. Think about what you want to do in life, and match your wild ideas with your skills and your talents, and you wouldn’t be working a day in your life.

Always be grateful for any form of kindness you receive. Blessings are not only material things, but gestures as well. You might be surprised how gratitude can open doors and break down barriers. I could not think of a phrase more mood-altering than “Thank you.” And also remember that “Welcome” is just as powerful.

Never believe in people who are trying to put you down. Fly on the wings of encouragement, even when you sometimes find them exaggerated. Have the humility to accept that you are not always the smartest person in the group, but never scrimp on confidence.

Keep a journal. Have a record of your thoughts, your ideas, your joys, your heartaches, your trips, your adventures. The highlights of your young life, the events that were crucial in making you the person that you are now. And by this I do not mean that we should all maintain written diaries of our routines and travails. I could very well be referring to Facebook. Just remember that there will come a time in your life that the need for nostalgia becomes as necessary as nourishment itself, and you will look to the past with fondness.

Have foresight. Think about the future, but not in a way too rigid that you deprive yourself of the spontaneous, or that you live your life according to a fixed schedule. Do something new and different everyday.

Have a bucket list of things that you must do before you reach a certain age, but do not fret when you do not accomplish most of them. Be realistic, and adjust your goals if you must.

Principles are still in style. It would be devastating if you do not believe in anything, or that you can very easily let go of something simply because it is inconvenient for you. Live in dignity.

Be passionate about something, and there is nothing too small or too big or too trivial for you to be involved in, whether it is fighting for the rights of marginalized sectors in society, or collecting action figures.

Exercise. You will not recognize yourself at some point in time.

Use the pedestrian lane. Avoid jaywalking at all costs. Never be too lazy to use an overpass if one is available.

Refuse plastic bags. Reuse the ones you already have. You are already suffering from generations of neglect. The earth is fragile, and we must do something to avert destruction and devastation.

I have not counted the lessons that I’ve just shared with all of you, but I think I have said quite enough. I doubt you will remember many of them. So although I consider the invitation to stand here before you as a distinct honor in itself, it would not be complete if you all leave today forgetting that I was even here. If you must go home with at least one thing, it is this, and it isn’t even original: refuse plastic bags. It will do you, and the earth, a lot of good.

Thank you.