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home : columnists and contributors : columnists and contributors June 23, 2017

6/14/2017 12:01:00 AM
Class of 2017: You've got this. We've got you.

Editor's Note: This note comes from me, Charles O'Neill, who humbly claims the title of "Editor if you can't reach Kate". Kate Bassett came to the Harbor Light some 14 or 15 years ago (she knows the years, I have a hard time remembering Kate not being a part of my life). We invited her into our family and our newspaper, your newspaper, and she has never left. Thank goodness! Kate and I have shared so many of life's emotions -- ups and downs. We like to refer to each other as "brother/sister from another mother." Sitting in Ottawa Stadium two weeks ago, watching the Class of 2017 march on, including Kate's son Noah, who I have known forever, was emotional enough. To see and hear Kate share her thoughts on this transitional day for these students was remarkable. She offered such wonderful observations, and I have been asked by more than a few readers, to reprint her words. Of course she has resisted, not wanting to seem too much. Well, sometimes I get to win the debate in our office. Here is Kate's commencement speech. Please, take the time to read it through to the end. It is not the same as hearing it delivered, so eloquently, in person. Touching, thoughtful, and a wonderful tribute to this place and its people, it is Kate to the core. To my dear friend and colleague, Kate, too bad! I get to make this decision!

-Charles O'Neill

By Kate Bassett

Delivered at Harbor Springs High School Commencement, June 4, 2017

A card arrived in my mailbox recently that said "the nicest part of living in a small town is that when you don't know what you're doing someone else does."

I'd bet by this point in your life, you're all familiar with the sentiment of that card. As the editor of the local paper, I know when I moved here, I quickly learned the joys and burdens of living in a small town almost always come back to the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell about each other.

News travels fast here, which can be a huge gift....and an occasional pain. This is the reality of growing up in a tiny school district in a tiny community. I've interviewed lots of high school seniors over the years and I've heard lots of complaints about how small towns can feel hemmed in and stifling. But I've also heard some of the best observations: how it's a little like having 60 plus siblings by the time you graduate. How friendships are made with people who you may never interact with in a bigger city, a lesson to carry for the rest of your life. Or how in this small town, we have an almost unparallelled ability to shift our perspectives. All we need to do is look to Lake Michigan. It provides an instant sense of the infinite, just by way of its horizon.

We are together today to honor that sense of infinite possibility now stretching out before you. Please make no mistake-- I'm talking to every one of you, regardless of how you fared in high school. For some, this educational system was in your wheelhouse. Your achievements and hard work here helped pave the way for what's next. For others, your talents and dynamic personalities will serve you so well in life, but maybe didn't always translate to good test scores or honor cords. As a collective, I'm certain you've all at times carried the weight of pressure, of feeling labeled or scrutinized or overlooked. Here's the thing: high school kids everywhere, even here, can unintentionally get put in boxes to define them as students, and those boxes can start to feel like they foreshadow your future. Here's the other thing: they don't exist.

I'm so excited to be here today, not just because I happen to be pretty partial to the Class of 2017, but also because the box I most often found myself in during high school was "detention." I dropped out of college, twice, before working hard to get another opportunity to go back...And now, I share an office with the once upon a time Salutatorian of Harbor Springs High School, who went to one of the country's best liberal arts colleges and earned multiple advanced degrees. On paper, we couldn't be more different, yet there is no divide between our desks. We are equally valued and needed at the Harbor Light. Real life follows this universal truth: we are stronger together. When we collaborate and celebrate our differences. When we learn to lean into each other's strengths.

I graduated in a class of around 500 students. While I definitely didn't realize it at the time, I was so fortunate that even one teacher, her name was Mrs. Harrison, saw strengths in me, saw that I could be more than underachiever. The thing about small towns (and this small school district in particular) is that along the way, there are so many Mrs. Harrison's who become invested in your story. I know in this district there are at least 10 people who have always seen-- really seen-- you. Teachers or lunch aides, coaches, counselors, bus drivers, volunteers, school secretaries, custodians, principals, classmates, friends' parents...The list could go on and on and on. Folks who pushed you, supported you, gave you a pass or when necessary, nagged you constantly. Folks who appreciate you for who you are, even if they never express it out loud.

When I sat down to write this speech, there was one very particular memory with Mrs. Harrison that popped into my mind: I had just admitted to not completing, or actually starting, the culminating project of an entire semester's independent study. After freaking out, telling me I had 24 hours to get the work done or I would fail and therefore not graduate high school, she sighed, shook her head and said, "But we're all still rooting for you. Don't quit, because you've got this, and we've got you."

You've got this. We've got you.

Two simple phrases with such enormous power. The heartbeat of every story worth telling.

I know this because ever since I started working at the Harbor Light Newspaper, I've been blessed to see those phrases play out again and again in unspoken ways. The first feature I ever wrote was about a Harbor Springs High School student named Henry who had a neurological disorder called Hydrocephalus. He went through unimaginable pain and countless surgeries. School was not easy for him, but he found a true talent in the woodshop. I was called by his high school woodworking teacher, Mr. Regentin, to do a story on this beautiful bed frame Henry created, but what I really got to tell was the gift of a huge hearted boy and a teacher who saw him-- truly saw him.

I believe that's the magic of this place. There are endless opportunities to share stories about people who care enough to not just look, but actually see. People you know who see a need and fill it, without ever expecting recognition. From fifth graders setting an example of selfless service through partnerships with the food pantry, to those on the front lines of preserving our natural resources, simply because their greatest wish is for all of you to grow up knowing what it's like to build forts in the woods or dive deep under a wave and come back up with a wide open Lake Michigan on one side, and the safe familiarity of a beach on the other side.

You are in one of those dive deep moments in life. It's a time of great uncertainty and excitement. It's a time to ask yourself the big questions, and to be okay-- no, to be more than okay-- when you don't have a single answer. It's a rite of passage not unlike swimming out to the city beach raft. Some of you probably had no fear about taking that plunge, while others might have spent a whole summer working up the nerve. Everyone had to trust that all the kids jumping off before you-- and the lifeguards watching-- were proof enough that you'd be okay.

So yes. We've come to the part where I tell you it's time to be brave. No matter what your future plans are-- work, military, college, trade schools, or you still don't have a clue-- go forward with the bravery to try, and even more importantly, the bravery to fail. I feel like we adults don't say this enough in today's high pressure world: you will get so many do-overs in life. What matters is honoring what you learn, and then, being ready and willing to take another step forward, every single time.

In our graduate profile series I've gotten to tell a lot of stories about Harbor Springs alumni who started out thinking they would be one thing when they "grew up" and ended up in an entirely career or life passion, from volunteering in India to taking over the family business to becoming a Pixar animator. I love knowing that someday, I'll be writing similar, yet totally different features about alumni from the class of 2017.

But don't wait for a news article to see the good in your story. Start celebrating your unique talents and perspectives right now, because owning that will motivate you to put in the work and dedication it takes to experience success, whatever that means to you. So that's the self-reflective part. I'm also challenging you to take every opportunity to find the good in other people's stories, and then-- this is important-- share what you see with them. It may be noticing a certain skill or simply saying thanks for making a difference in your day. It takes so little effort, but the impact can literally be life changing. Who you become by always looking for and celebrating the light in others? It matters.

I've spent a lot of the last few weeks (and most of this speech) wanting all of you to already be nostalgic for your childhoods here. I'm a writer. I romanticize things. In reality, I know 99.9 percent of you are just ready to move on. I am sure I speak for the whole stadium when I say as much as we hope someday you'll rest in gratitude for this place you've called home, what we want more than anything is for your future moments to be filled with gut laughter and good friends. Sure, we'd love at least some moments to be spent watching sunsets along Little Traverse Bay or swimming up at Sturgeon or hunting, fishing, biking, running, making art or music along local paths and wild places you've come to know and love. We also hope for moments of grand adventures you haven't even imagined yet.

But this is life-- real life-- we're talking about, which means some moments will be hard. The kind of hard that makes you feel all alone in this world. That's okay too, because unlike every other senior around the country about to walk across a stage and get their diplomas, you have a secret source of strength that you can lean on, no matter what. Why? Because I believe whether you were born here or arrived a few months ago, you are now, and forever will be, a child of Harbor Springs. You are one of ours, and that means something much deeper than any cliche could offer.

Take a moment right now and look up into those seats. These are your people. This is your community. So I want all of you to take these words to heart. We love you. We believe in you. You've got this, and we've got you, always.

FCB 2017

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