What a terrific honor to stand here before you today! As mentioned, my ties to Canterbury are deep and stretch over decades, back to 1982, when I was in the 6th grade. I never could have imagined this moment, addressing a graduating class as an alumna, Class of 1989...By the way, true story, that was the year the Berlin Wall came down...ancient history, indeed... but I am also here as a faculty member of twenty-one years, and the parent of a fourth grader who has enjoyed every minute of his seven years on the Hough Campus as many of you did. 

It is strange and wonderful how our paths wind through time and opportunity. I am guessing you all are old enough to have had the experience of finding yourself in a situation, like this one, and thinking, “Wow, how in the world did I get here?” Seriously, how did you truly beautiful young people get here on this Saturday morning for this auspicious occasion? There is no doubt that love and patience and support, and no small amount of money, have been lavished on you. You can probably think of dozens of times your families, friends, and teachers have lifted you up, maybe even in the past week, and there are thousands more times that you cannot recall right now.  Of course, you have worked hard and accomplished more than you ever thought you could, but the strongest reason you are here today is because each of you has a miraculously perfect, wholly individual light within you, and that light has led you to this moment and place.

I hope, by this point in your life, you have heard this spiritual. Forgive me, but it has to be sung, not read. Maybe you all will join in?

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine,

Let it shine,

Let it shine,

Let it shine!

Some say this hymn or folk song was written by Harry Dixon Loes in the early 1900s; on the other hand, it is widely known as a gospel song, arising from the call and response tradition of African American churches. It certainly played a vital role in our nation’s civil rights movement, binding together the weary and scared foot soldiers who demanded a voice and justice for all. The fact is that, at this point, the song is so beloved that it is just part of our culture; no one can really claim it as something he produced, but everyone can claim it as their anthem, a righteous anthem for a cause or simply an anthem to celebrate the fact that you are.

That’s what I want to share with you today, the gift of knowing that your light is so very sweet and powerful. Think of how many ways you shower the world with your light. Maybe you are a brilliant light, one that powers the spotlight on any stage or lights up the fans when they watch you on the field or court. Maybe you shed your light where there is darkness, lifting up those who are invisible or devalued through your advocacy and service; your light is like a nightlight that offers solace in the darkest of nights. Your light might shine through the written word, whether creative works or news stories, the kind of light that spreads through a house when the power is reconnected after a storm or as night falls. How about those of you who are easy going and fun, who never met a stranger, who take the time to sit and talk with friends? You provide a comfortable, suffusive light for our daily lives, a lot like a warm patch of sunshine. You see, there are many kinds of light, and frankly, we need all of them. Treasure whatever form your light shines naturally. Do not try to make it something it is not because we all need your light just as it is.

Do you know what the second verse is? Don’t worry; I’m not going to sing again. “Ev'rywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine.”

Since you were born, it has been the duty of your loved ones to protect and nurture your light. As a mom, I can tell you that I lie awake at night, reviewing whether or not I have done that for my son, making sure he gets to be who he was meant to be, guarding his light on the rough days and amplifying his light on the great days. You, too, have guardians of your light, including the coaches, staff, teachers, and students at Canterbury who have made our community a safe place to live into your light. Think of the many ways you have been allowed and encouraged to stretch and grow, to step out of a box, to explore….all of that was in service to your light. However, now, you are beginning your adult lives, and as you go out into the world on your own, it will be your responsibility to let your light shine. Every day, you will find yourself facing a decision that boils down to whether or not you are going to let your light shine, whether or not you are going to have the courage to be you. Will you raise your hand to contribute to a challenging discussion in your first semester college class? Will you submit your piece to an art show? Will you stand up for a stranger who is being called a hateful name that you know is wrong? Will you try a new sport or club because you are curious about it even if you have no experience with it? Will you accept a new job offer that is simultaneously promising and intimidating, or will you stay where you are comfortable and known? It’s quite simple...you have to get out of bed, say “yes” to the opportunities the universe offers you, and see where it leads you, all the while shining your light in this world that can be dark and might even try to put out your light. 

My favorite verse comes a little later in the song.

Yeager speaking at Graduation

Hide it under a bushel? No!

I’m gonna let it shine!

Hide it under a bushel? No!

I’m gonna let it shine!

Hide it under a bushel? No!

I’m gonna let it shine,

Let it shine,

Let it shine,

Let it shine!

 

Oh, I remember shouting “no!” when we sang this in Girl Scouts or church. I just knew I should let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. The fact is that my light has never been like others. There has always been a lot of pressure to fit in, be like other folks, but that’s just not me. Maybe it isn’t you either. Maybe you fit in now, but will find you do not fit in wherever you go next. Please stay true to your light. Surround yourself with people who love your light and recognize its value. For a long time, I lived in the shadow of my big brother’s light, not because he forced me into his shadow, rather because I kind of cowered there. I guess I thought his light was more important than mine. My brother is a very successful attorney, with decades as an Assistant District Attorney and now serving in the United States Department of Justice.  I have, over time, realized that who I am, a middle school history teacher, will never need that lightning-strike type of light that my brother brings to a Grand Jury, but my light is who I am. As a teacher, mine is more like a candlelight service or vigil where each person leans in and lights the next person’s candle. Now, I can look admiringly at my brother’s light, grateful for who he is and what he offers, and knowing my light is different and critically important and mine. Don’t waste your time and energy, like I did, hovering at the edge of the pool of light cast by someone else, and I beg of you, walk away from those who throw shade your way. Respect your light! Celebrate it! Add it to the light of everyone else...that is how we truly become successful and happy and fulfilled. Indeed, everywhere you go,  use your light to power your path, allowing it to unfold into unknown areas. 

Yeager speaking at Graduation

That leads me to my last point. A famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, tells us that there is a hierarchy of needs, whereby survival needs like food, safety, and sleep are paramount and must be met first. Although those survival needs are the base of his pyramid, the upper two thirds are the need to be loved, to belong, and to grow. Maslow calls that growing part “self-actualization”, the process of becoming the best version of ourselves that we can. By the way, remember that fancy word when you have changed your major ten times and still do not know what you want to be when you grow up… You are not “undecided”; you are fully committed to self-actualizing. Humans are dynamic creatures, changing in response to our surroundings, experiences, and the people around us. Frankly, few of us will actually know what we want to be when we grow up at the age of four or eighteen...or even fifty, and please, please note that you do not have to pick one thing to do with your life! Life is not an end game; that would be a pretty dreary perspective. Your path should wind and climb, switch gears, and take you places you cannot even imagine right now! Allow yourself the grace to grow and change throughout your life. In twenty five years, I hope you have that moment when you think, “Wow, how in the world did I get here?” As long as you allow your light to shine, it does not matter where the path leads you. Just keep walking, trust your light, and Godspeed!