Thirty-four years ago this year I marched down a grassy ball field in Masontown, West Virginia, pinkie finger intertwined with that of Mike Sheets, my fellow classmate. We marched to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the same tune thousands of other graduates will march to this month and even next, as American commencements continue into June.
May is a month marked by graduation speeches: from pre-K to high school to college, guest speakers have tried to choose the perfect words for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. They’ve probably sought words that are dignified yet celebratory, serious yet not so weighty as to feel like an anchor. Much of what they say will be lost on the graduates, whose heads will be full of plans for the future, whose minds will be on changing the world or whose thoughts will be anticipating that other equally important tradition: the graduation party. (Or, of more immediate concern, how to keep their mortarboard from sliding off, or the tassel from hanging down into their eyes.)
I don’t know what I would say if I were giving a graduation speech, but I can tell you what I was thinking and doing thirty-four years ago. I was not, despite what my yearbook claims, expressing disbelief in what Mike was saying. I was not wondering when a West Preston High administrator would call my name for some academic award or even what party I would be going to after commencement ended, since I knew I would be celebrating with my family.
I was thinking about whether I could safely make it across the field without tripping in my four-inch high heels. I was also terrified that someone, anyone, in the audience, or one my classmates, would discover I was hiding a baby bump under my gown. I realized, too, how odd it was to be graduating a year early, while many of my childhood friends were still trapped, destined to spend another year in high school.
I was also angry that my fiancé wasn’t there to witness my accomplishment: his claim about working overtime should have been a red flag flapping right in front of my face, a brief glimpse into the next ten years of my life. I know I felt no small measure of trepidation, since my wedding day was one week away. Finally, I was thinking about how grown up I was, and how I could handle anything, as evidenced by the small bit of grease staining my cuticle—a testament to the flat tire I changed all by myself before commencement began.
Much of my thoughts were wrong, though. This is why, and here’s what I’ve learned since then: Don’t waste more than a few minutes of your time on anyone who won’t do the same for you in return. Better yet, when it comes to relationships designed with permanency in mind, such as those in marriage or business, if that person doesn’t first give to you, at least fifty-percent of the time, ditch them before you spend half your life being the giver, while silently resenting how much your partner is taking. If someone you love repeatedly disappoints you now, while you’re dressing for tonight’s graduation, they’re going to continue doing that very selfish behavior as long as you let them.
I’ve also learned this: money does not buy happiness. It buys things and stuff, which might make you wonder why people want to spend time with you, if they really love you—or if they only love what you can do for them. Also, buying things and stuff might give you temporary pleasure, but it won’t reach your heart or touch your soul. So give back, and give more than you take. It’s not thinking ’what do I get?’ but ‘what can I give?’ that will make you content. You see, the Golden Rule really is true: there is more happiness in giving than receiving.
I’ve learned that everyone—every single one of us—has a dirty little secret we’d rather keep hidden, so you are not alone. Chances are, if your secret is no worse than being pregnant at sixteen or getting pie-eyed on your father’s homemade wine, it isn’t going to cause anyone to hate you, or even think of less of you. Keeping secrets somehow makes us believe we’re the only one who could be guilty of such “brazen” behavior, but guess what? Once you open up and tell the world, you’ll find out how to deal with your own problem, whatever it is—because most of us have not only already been there—we’ve got a solution, too.
Finally, I learned that things are rarely as they seem. For instance, the title “Pomp and Circumstance” came from a speech in Othello. So yes, we have Shakespeare to thank for this great song. No, seriously, we can thank another British composer, instead. Edward Elgar composed “March No. 1” in 1901 as part of six commissioned pieces, and chose to use the Bard’s words for the title of this beautiful piece.
An aside: Elgar didn’t pen the words for his tune; Arthur C. Benson did, in what has became known as “Land of Hope and Glory,” the song that Wikipedia says most Brits would choose as their national anthem, if they could. The song that has become such an important part of American graduation exercises got its start here in 1905, when Yale University awarded Elgar an honorary doctorate in music.
Now, back to matters at hand: Ironically, Othello was convinced his wife, Desdemona, had cheated on him. Nothing could dissuade him of this false idea, which ultimately led to his downfall. The point is, though, he was tricked by something that seemed to be true, when it was nothing of the kind.
Whether through self-deception—believing you’re an adult at eighteen, and you know not just all the answers but all the questions, too—or another person’s deceit, it’s good not to take yourself too seriously. If you do, life is going to come along and hit you upside the noggin with a frying pan, hard enough to make you wish you were a child again. So be humble and know your limitations. Be willing to accept other people’s advice, when the person is trustworthy and has your best interests at heart.
Quite often, those people share your genes. I call them your parents. Or people who have taken care of you as if they were your parents, in case you’re an orphan of sorts, like so many of today’s youth. Listen to them, because they’ve spent a lifetime learning from their mistakes just so you don’t have to waste yours repeating them.
I also learned, pretty quickly, that a grassy ball field isn’t the best place for spikes. At least, not of the four-inch variety designed to make a woman’s legs look long and lean. First off, you’re going to look wobbly. Worse, you’re going to twist an ankle and perhaps take your pinkie-linking classmate with you. Besides, no one’s going to see your legs under that robe anyway. So stick to some low wedges or better yet, a sensible pair of flats.
Ultimately, I think that’s what my message to today’s graduates is: Yes, do go out there and grab life with both hands, make a dent in the world, even, but do it with a measure of sense about you. That way, you’ll still be around to enjoy life thirty-four years later.
* * *
If she was still alive, Skylar Neese would be graduating from University High School tonight. I’m sure I’ll be joining many Morgantown residents in saluting the woman she would have become, had she not been killed long before she had a chance to reach her potential as a giver, not a taker. My congratulations go out to all of her friends, and every graduate who has successfully made it this far in life.
* * *
My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”