Small Town, Big Life

I am a big fan of trusting your gut. Over the years, I’ve honed this skill and am slowly learning to quiet my head and give space for my gut to speak. I am learning to say “yes” when my head pleads “no.” My gut always pulls toward “yes.”

This intuition has helped me through numerous decisions as of late:  the decision to become a stay-at-home mom after my second child was born prematurely; the decision to pick the portly, lazy puppy over his two slender, more energetic siblings; the decision to stop our biological family at three kids to leave room for whatever comes next; and the decision to finally buy a domain and share our little family’s adventures through this beginner’s blog.

I believe this last decision actually led to my most recent dilemma when I was asked to give the commencement speech at my former high school this past weekend.

The principal had been following my vanity project along with our wandering ways and thought I might be a good candidate to address this year’s graduates. I was from that small town and had explored the world far beyond our city limits. Might I have some words of encouragement to share?

Confident in my writing skills but fully aware of my deficits (one being my lack of any societal symbol of status and the other being my nearly paralyzing fear of public speaking), my head screamed, “No!” My gut thought otherwise, though, and given its track record (the lazy puppy decision was on point) I decided to give it a go.

I regretted the decision almost immediately and for the eight weeks until graduation. The day arrived, and my head shouted at me to run while every ounce of moisture evaporated from my body when I stood to speak. Five minutes in, I had to stop the presentation and ask for water, so that my lips would release from my gums and I could resume normal speech patterns. I wanted to melt into the floor and disappear.

But my gut would not be denied. It had something to say, or rather, I had something to say.

I was seventeen the last time I spoke to a crowd this large. It was seventeen years ago in this same gym for my own graduation.

I didn’t like public speaking then, and I don’t like it now, but I really believe in what I have to say to you tonight, so when I was asked to give the commencement address to the Class of 2018, much to my own surprise, I agreed. 

To be honest, my fear of public speaking wasn’t my biggest reservation when I was asked to talk tonight. My biggest reservation was the nagging voice inside my head saying, “But I haven’t done anything to warrant this honor. I’m not important like that.”

I don’t have a fancy job or an impressive title. Degrees in English and Psychology landed me a solid bartending job for a while, and I moved on to work for various companies handling sales, marketing and communications until our family expanded faster than our income. Now I’m a stay-at-home-mom who picks up freelance writing jobs during nap time, but I like to tell stories about my life, what I’ve seen, where I’ve come from and where I’m going next.

When I last stood here, I was the class valedictorian and was on my way to college with a full-tuition academic scholarship. I was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ and having graduated with a 4.0 and solid ACT scores, I was sure I was on the fast track.

It turns out, I was on the scenic route, but this unexpected detour has taken me thousands of miles from here to other cities, states, countries and continents, and after spending more years outside of this place than in it – this is still the place I consider my hometown, and I am very proud to say that.

My goal tonight is to make sure each one of you feels that same pride in this small place that has set the foundation for the big, beautiful life waiting for you outside those doors. 

To do this, I want to address some common misconceptions about small towns, misconceptions that I have encountered since I ventured out on my own 17 years ago. I promise that as you start making your way in the world, whether it’s up north or down state, across the country or the globe, you will encounter these same misconceptions. You’ve probably heard a lot of them already, and they might make you rethink the pride you have in this place. They might make you feel like your hometown isn’t as “good” as the big city.  

You will find that when people discover you are from Nowhere, Up North, they might not expect a lot of you. Expect a lot of yourself and prove them wrong. You are bigger than any small town stereotype. For starters:  

Small town does not equal small accomplishments

Do not let people downplay the hard work you put in here. It is the same amount of work that anybody else had to put in to graduate. In fact, you’ve probably accomplished the same amount of work without the same set of resources that the students in their giant schools had access to, and for that, you should be really proud of yourselves. You should also be proud of the teachers, administration, support staff and board that keep this school running on a budget that wouldn’t cover the electric bill at some of the schools downstate.

When people find out I was the high school valedictorian, they are super impressed until they hear I graduated with 34 students. Then I watch their face change, and the accomplishment is lessened for them, but not for me. I walked out of here with a 4.0, and I would have done the same thing anywhere else because I know myself and I know my determination.   

A diploma is still a diploma regardless of the school’s name. Your SAT score means the same thing whether you attended this school or a high-dollar private one. Do not let people diminish your accomplishments given the size of your school or community. You have worked just as hard as anybody else to be sitting in those chairs tonight. The second thing you will find:   

Small town does not equal small mind

A lot of people think it does – I will give you fair warning – but I assure you that growing up in a small town does not mean you are small minded. I actually think that growing up in this little fish bowl made me a much more empathetic, accepting and open-minded person when I got dumped into the great big sea out there.

We had a graduating class of 34 kids, and we were all friends. That’s not to say everyone kept in touch for years after graduation. That just happens, people go their separate ways, but during our time here, we all got along. We had to; there weren’t that many people to choose from.

In a small community, you learn how to become friends with people that you might not otherwise elect to spend time with if given a bigger pool of applicants. It could have been out of necessity, but it was a great lesson in acceptance and appreciation for different types of people, different backgrounds and personalities. 

We are living in tricky times where people throw around a lot of labels based on what we look like or where we’re from in order to divide us, to make us skeptical of one another and untrusting of different groups. I don’t subscribe to this. Allow people the courtesy of getting to know them before you decide who they are. Encourage people to extend that same courtesy to you. It is the only way to fight the fear and anger that has been used to divide people for centuries.

I have friends from the other side of the globe, and I have friends from right here who grew up down the street. It’s amazing how similar these people are at their core. That doesn’t mean my friends all look like me or live the same way that I do or even believe the same things that I do, but that’s what makes it meaningful. We can learn from one another and appreciate the different strengths and perspectives that each of us bring to the table – and given the small community you grew up in, you have a unique perspective. Make sure your voice is heard, too. You have a lot to share – not just your perspectives, but whatever other talents you bring because:

Small town does not equal small gifts 

You all have gifts, I guarantee this is true. Some of you are super fortunate and already have a clear idea of what these are.  

Some of you might have a suspicion of what your talents are, but you are still unsure of yourself. That makes sense to me. I still feel that way, all the time, at 34.  

But some of you are sitting there, looking at the floor or your phone because you don’t think this applies to you. You’re convinced you don’t have any gifts at all. You are the ones I’m talking to right now. If you listen to nothing else that I have to say, that’s okay, but I want you to hear this:  you have a gift. You might even have more than one. You might have twenty!

I promise you – you are here for a reason even if you have no clue what that reason is yet, even if the people in your life who are supposed to support you and love you – the people who are supposed to help you find and develop your talents and gifts – even if those people have told you or shown you that you don’t have anything to offer – they are wrong. They could not be more wrong.  

You are talented and have wonderful things to bring to the world. Figure out what they are. Sometimes that little voice inside already knows, but you haven’t been listening or maybe you haven’t made the decision to put in the work and bring those gifts to the surface. That’s on you now. Nobody can do that work for you. Set aside the fear, doubt, and negativity coming from yourself or the people around you and uncover those gifts. The sooner you do, the sooner you can find the path you are meant to be on, which leads into my next point:

Small town does not equal small dreams 

Your dreams do not need to fit inside this gymnasium or this town or even this country. Your dreams might be bigger than what your teachers or family dream for you. That’s okay. Go get them. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by your goals. Say them out loud and to as many people as you can. Dreams that are hidden away get dusty and dim over time. Put yours right out in the open and be intentional with your steps to realizing them. 

In doing a little digging, I’ve learned that some of you are headed toward engineering degrees, some have a knack for welding, others are compelled to work with non-profits or children. Your love for hunting and the outdoors is steering you toward wildlife conservation or a degree in biology. You might love computers or be interested in psychology or police work. Others are going into a medical field as a nurse, radiologist or P.A. One is considering turf management, another cosmetology. One of you is creative and wants to write lyrics and another is interested in marketing and communication.

There are a lot of big dreams in this group of graduates and a lot more dreams throughout the friends and family that have come together to celebrate your accomplishments today. Big dreams don’t realize themselves; it takes a lot of work and sometimes a lot more time than you are anticipating. 

For example, I’m going to be an author. That doesn’t mean I have a book deal or an agent or even a fully completed book, but I have a lot of chapters and every week I post a new blog. My dream is still there, and I’m going to be an author.

Right now, however, I’m a stay-at-home mom to three small, needy little boys. Trying to carve out time for my dream is not easy at the moment but I still do it, and little by little, I get closer:  a blog post, some freelance writing, a few essay submissions and rejections every month or two.  

It sounds silly when I say that I’m going to be a writer. I know that, but I don’t care anymore. I used to care a lot, but all that got me were half-written chapters in my head because I was too afraid to put them on paper. Take away that fear and embarrassment, and now those chapters are on paper, my blog posts are online, and people have started paying me to write for them. I trusted myself, and all of a sudden, I’m a giant step closer to my big dream.  

I want that same thing for you, and I don’t want you to wait another 17 years to get started. Lastly, and most importantly:   

Small town does not equal small life

Had you asked my 17-year-old self where I would be today, I would have told you I had a mountain of novels with my name on them. That is not exactly my reality, but in another 17 years, I still feel like it will be. My big dream just had to step aside for a while, so that the bigger dreams I never even knew I had could come to life. They are my three children, and they are sitting in the stands watching me speak to you tonight.

I’ve learned that you don’t have to have a fancy job or an impressive title to have a phenomenal life. The big house and the high-powered career are not the things that actually bring you joy. The people inside that house and the work and service you are accomplishing through your career, those are the things that bring the joy.  

You can choose to stay here and build a life for yourself. That is okay. That does not mean you will have a small life. You can have a great big, beautiful life in a tiny place if that is what you choose for yourself, but make sure you are the one choosing – not your teachers, not your boyfriend or girlfriend, not even your parents.  

If there is something in you, telling you to go explore, go to college, go to trade school, start a business, start a family (side note: babies are really hard work – don’t do that tomorrow) listen to that voice. That voice knows you, that voice is pulling you to where your life is supposed to go. It might be here, it might not – but make sure you are listening to yourself before you start listening to everybody else. Those people will not be there at the very end, but that voice will be. 

You are entering into a new stage of life where you are in the driver’s seat and if the car goes 2 miles or 2,000 miles, it’s up to you. If it reaches its destination or if it crashes into the ditch – that’s up to you, too. I know that is a crazy scary thought, but it is also crazy exciting.  

Had you asked my 17-year-old self where I would be today I would have told you I was a successful author, but I wouldn’t have told you that I had visited over 20 countries and formed relationships with people all over the world. I wouldn’t have told you that I had three babies in four years or that I would have the privilege of spending my weekdays at home, taking care of them. I wouldn’t have told you that, because of this flexibility, my husband and I would take these babies and travel – all the way from the tip of Maine to the Grand Canyon, from the Carolinas to the Canadian Rockies, from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

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The Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park
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Digby, Nova Scotia with our two littles and one on the way!

And before the end of the month, we’ll set off to explore Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. This will be our last big adventure before my husband and I finalize the application process to become foster parents, another dream that I wouldn’t have told you about the last time I stood at this podium.

I wouldn’t have told you about any of this at 17 because I didn’t yet understand how big and far-reaching my life could really be. I hadn’t discovered all of my gifts yet – that I could be a pretty great mom, a pretty good wife, and a lifelong wanderer – and these gifts that I didn’t even know I had are now fueling my first dream and giving me something worth writing about.

I thought my success was directly tied to a job and a title and a bank account. Those things help, they obviously do. From here, you have to go get a job or continue your education to eventually get a job, but the job is a means to allow you to provide for your future family or set off on your own adventures or serve the people around you. Those are the things that bring the beauty and make your life about more than just yourself.

Growing up in a small community like this one, I think, helps you reach this realization a lot faster, that life is not about what you have; it’s about what you do with what you have – your accomplishments, your unique perspectives, your gifts, your dreams that are anything but small.

In Conclusion…

I want to take a moment to acknowledge [a former teacher], who this community very recently lost and whose legacy within these walls will be remembered by all those kids who had the privilege of sitting in his class. I was fortunate enough to be one of them.

[This teacher] did a great job of harnessing this small town’s gifts and using them to teach his students. From the trees, he showed us how to make syrup. He led canoe trips to give students a first-hand account of his biology lessons. He told us to find road kill, skin it, boil it down, and puzzle piece it back together to build a skeleton. Not only did we love it, we learned from it, and I guarantee you that kids in the giant, high-tech schools downstate were not given this assignment.  

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Look what some bleach and a hot glue gun can do!

[This teacher] understood that small towns held special opportunities for growth and learning, and he used the tools unique to this community to enrich the lives of his students. He was in no way limited by this environment, and neither are you.  

You can use our small town as a jumping off point or it can be the base upon which you build your home. Regardless of your decision, you are so fortunate to have an entire community, myself included, eager to see how you take the lessons you’ve learned here and apply them in this next stage of your life, a life that only this small town could have prepared you for, and one that will be as big and beautiful as you decide to make it.  

While I have removed some identifying info, this speech was delivered nearly verbatim. I scripted every word because I wanted to make sure that if I was going to step this far outside of my comfort zone, I didn’t walk away with any regrets, but of course, I still did – at least, for a few minutes.

I am hard on myself, as many of us are, and as I sat back down at the close of my address, I wished I had presented with less nerves and more grace. I wished I had thought to bring water to the podium. I wished I could start over. I sat there for the remainder of graduation, replaying those twenty minutes in my head, disappointed.

The ceremony closed, and I was making my way out when a woman approached and gave me a big hug. “You don’t know me,” she said, “but I just wanted to thank you.” She continued with words of praise, all very kind and very genuine. Despite my imperfect delivery, something I said had struck a chord and I could feel it, standing there with her for those few moments. My disappointment began to fade. Maybe she was the reason my gut dragged me out in front of all those people when my head begged me to spend the night at home.

I’m definitely not the best presenter my high school has seen or is yet to see. My head knew that going in which is why it cautioned me so strongly. More speakers will come and address new students and new audiences. They will share their stories and experiences with far more confidence and calm than I ever could. But I know, for a fact, that I am the only one who could have delivered that speech in that moment to that audience – and something that I had to say resonated in a profound way with another person. My gut told me it would. I just had to say “yes.”

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