The Learning Journey
The Learning Journey:
A Message to This Year’s Graduates
Graduation is the end to a phase of learning. Some of you are moving onto high school, college, trade schools, perhaps the military. Some may be beginning a new job. Graduation IS the end of a phase of learning. However, for each and every graduate, ALWAYS be open to every new phase of your life as the beginning of a new learning journey.
Your future phases of life learning will most likely look different. The people you learn from throughout your life may not appear to be like the teachers that you have known. Teachers come in many forms.
I have had many, many teachers in my life. Some have been friends, bosses, employees. Some have been our non-profit’s volunteers, some have been students, some have even been my dogs, and of course many have been family members. My children taught me my greatest of life’s lessons. My son, Kenny, through his illness and his death, was my greatest teacher.
Kenny taught me that a job with a fancy title, or a high salary does not define success. I have learned from Kenny that working to help others is the most rewarding work anyone can do.
Kenny taught the joy of living in the moment. When he was small, we spent countless hours building snow forts in the winter, coloring the driveway with chalk, constructing creative buildings or creatures with Legos. Kenny loved his Legos. I remember thinking at the time, about all of the things on my “to do list”. I am glad Kenny and I shared those treasured moments. I only wish we had done more moments together. Our “to do list” will always be there. Our loved ones may not be.
Kenny taught the importance of finding time to laugh. From the time he was very young, he was quick witted and smart, but silly at the same time. Kenny enjoyed making all people laugh. He tried to find humor in any situation and to bring that humor to others. Kenny taught me, when we make others laugh, it helps us help ourselves feel better.
Kenny taught persistence. He was smart, perhaps smarter than he knew. After being tested by the school when he was six years old, we found that he had the long-term memory of a 29-year-old. But Kenny had a learning disability called dyslexia. He worked hard, perhaps twice as hard as his classmates just to keep up. He would get frustrated, but he never complained.
Kenny taught the importance of showing kindness to everyone. He was in tune with how people felt. I remember walking in the mall with Kenny and so many kids we passed would say hello to him. Kids from so many different social groups. All liked Kenny because he treated each person as an individual and he treated him or her with respect. I remember times when I went to visit Kenny as a patient in a mental health hospital. I walked into the visitor’s room to see another student wearing one of Kenny’s tee shirts. Kenny told me that this young man did not have a change of clothes, so Kenny felt it was important to share.
Kenny taught empathy. He taught me that having a mental health or addiction disorder was not about choice. It is about having a brain illness. Kenny taught me to be understanding about mental health disorders. I now find myself giving to the homeless when I walk down a city street, understanding that it is not about choice but about illness. I know this is what Kenny would want me to do.
Kenny taught patience. Finding the strength to have patience was one of the most difficult parts of parenting a young person with a mental health disorder. Today, I wish that I had had more patience. He taught me how to separate a mental health illness from the person. Kenny was not his illness. Kenny HAD an illness.
Kenny taught me about life, and about death, and raising awareness of people with mental health disorders. These are only illnesses, diseases that seek a cure. It is not something to be ignored or spoken of in hushed tones. We need to know more, we need to be more accepting and understanding, we need to be able to provide more support.
We need to talk openly about mental health disorders, so all young people know it is always OK to ask for help for a biological brain-based illness. We need to be there for our friends who may be struggling with a mental health disorder. It may be difficult to be their friends, but they truly need the support and love of friends.
Kenny taught me that each one of us has the ability to really change the world…one small step and one person at a time. All we have to do is try.
So, what words would Kenny share with today’s graduates?
Tell the people in your life that you love them, as often as you can.
Always do your best. Even when it is hard.
Get at least 8 hours of sleep.
Hug your dog.
Keep in touch with friends- Be there for each other.
Wake up each morning and think of at least one thing you are grateful for. And it can’t be store bought.
Stop trying so hard to get your parents off of your back. One day you will realize that they were the ones who truly HAD your back.
And most importantly - In a world where you can be anything,
Be. Kind. Always.
I wish you all much success in your next phase of learning and life