News Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers was asked to deliver the commencement address to the Amherst High School Class of 2016. This is what he said.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m here. I guess the other 48-year-old hippie guitar player rock critics who live in Amherst were all busy.
Regardless, I’m honored to be here. I know some of you well, and watched you grow up. This is an exceptional class.
You’ve got Clark Mazzio, a killer classical trumpet player.
You’ve got Kellen Devlin, a three-time New York State wrestling champion.
You’ve got Matthew Incontro, who is headed to the prestigious Eastman School of Music to study saxophone.
You’ve got Ethan Weissman, a fantastic guitarist – just ask him, he’ll tell you.
All of you are remarkable in your own way. Some of you may know exactly what it is you want to do with the rest of your lives. Some might need a little more time to figure it out. Either way, it’s OK. Take the time you need. Because from today forward, your life belongs to no one but yourselves.
I’d be a liar if I stood here and told you all that you were inheriting the world at an ideal time in history. You’re not. In fact, you’re inheriting a country and a world that is deeply conflicted, troubled and divided. It’s a world in transition, not a world at peace or in repose. And it’s not a world that will favor the weak or the indecisive.
It is during these troubled transitional times that the windows of opportunity open, however. More than any other point in my lifetime, the world needs people who dare to be exceptional. We’ve seen what mediocrity, apathy and greed bring us. It is always the darkest days that preface some kind of new dawn. You guys, whatever you decide to do, have the opportunity to help bring about that new dawn.
That doesn’t mean you need to be an Albert Einstein, a Gandhi, a Muhammad Ali, or even a Kendrick Lamar, Prince or David Bowie. Most of us don’t ever get to speak to the entire world at one time. Our victories and triumphs might not make the headlines or trend on Twitter. But studying the way these people lived is a good place to start.
I’ve had the opportunity, because of what I do for a living, to interact with some of my idols. Sometimes in person, sometimes by phone, sometimes by email. What I found, whether it was Bowie, or Prince, or Carlos Santana, or Robert Glasper, or Gord Downie from The Tragically Hip, was that these were people of exceptional character who dared to dream big, and to demand that their dreams be taken seriously in a world that often crushes dreams for the sheer amusement of it.
Many of them, while deeply talented, did not have any real advantages when they were growing up. You guys have some advantages, though.
Some of you might know my son, Declan. He came up through the Amherst school system and spent freshman year at Amherst High School before transferring to the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. He was here at Amherst long enough for us to realize that this is a school that offers its students the opportunity to excel. Not everyone is as lucky as so much of the student body at Amherst is. Just down the road in the city of Buffalo, so many students come from challenging circumstances – economically and in terms of family life. You guys are all lucky to have attended Amherst High School. And with that luck comes the responsibility to help those who have had far less luck as you go forward into your adult lives. That’s the way this country is supposed to work.
The Beatles were only partly right when they sang “All You Need Is Love.” In the real world, love isn’t all you need. You also need courage and intelligence. But without love – and I don’t mean just romantic love, but compassion, dignity, grace, some sense of empathy for your fellow man – you’ve got nuthin’. You might get rich, you might have a nice house, but your parties won’t be any fun.
You’ve all probably heard the old cliché, undoubtedly from people with the best intentions, that you should always “follow your dreams.” I wouldn’t put it that way, necessarily. I think you need to lead your dreams, more often than not. To grab them, and push them, and protect them vigilantly, and to nurture them. And sometimes, to wrestle them back from people who would steal them, or kill them, or exploit them for their own gain.
The dream can’t just be a dream. It’s more like a jewel that you keep close to you – the secret part of yourself that is, in the end, the most important and most vital and most defining thing you will ever own.
Don’t follow your dreams. Drag your dreams kicking and screaming into reality.
Congratulations, Amherst Class of 2016. The world is yours. Try to leave it a better place than you found it.