Washington Post Writer Laura Meckler invites graduates to write their next chapter
Laura Meckler felt a little cheated that it wasn’t as cold as everyone warned her Wisconsin in December would be. Lesson learned. Over her career, she’s learned much more: That it’s a healthy choice to stop caring about professional football (especially if you’re a Cleveland fan!) and that wisdom can be found in listening to unlikely philosophers like Kermit the Frog and in the daily practice of offering gratitude.
UW-Green Bay was honored to welcome national education writer for the Washington Post to Green Bay on Saturday, December 16, 2023 to deliver a commencement speech during UW-Green Bay’s Fall 2023 morning ceremony. Her heartfelt invitation to graduates and their families to “write your next chapter” follows:
“Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here with you today.
Graduating from college is a seminal event in any person’s life because of just how hard you had to work to get to this day. So it’s really a moment to stop and think and appreciate your own hard work, the late nights, the mornings that came too early, the bad food you scarfed down because you had no time or money for something better – your refusal to quit and your determination to succeed. Not everyone gets to this place. Not everyone makes it to the cap and gown. You did!
At important moments like this, I sometimes think about great philosophers– people like Plato and Socretes – and Kermit the Frog. I believe it was Kermit who said, as he and his buddy Fozzie Bear drove across country in the Muppet Movie: “Movin’ right along, footloose and fancy-free. Getting there is half the fun, come share it with me.”
I hope for you that getting here was half the fun! And now you get to share it with the people you love, and who love you back.
Because of course none of us achieves great things like graduating from college by ourselves. No one walks the hard paths all alone. So I’d like you to stop for a moment and think about a person who helped you make it to this day, to this moment. Someone who believed in you. It can be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a teacher – somebody who really means something to you. Think of this person and just for a moment I’d like you to let a sense of gratitude wash over you. I’ll wait for a moment or two.
I will confess– I took this idea– the idea of thinking about someone special at a moment like this, from Fred Rogers, who was the host of a children’s television show when I was growing up called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers was known for telling – and even singing – to people, “I like you just the way you are.” He’s someone who just radiated goodness. And in his speeches, he sometimes asked listeners to do what we just did– to think of someone who believed in them. And then he would say, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about: just imagine how grateful they must be that at this extra special moment in your life, you’re remembering them.” What a gift to know you have made a difference for someone you care about.
They call this commencement because it’s the beginning, not the end. And you all have so much ahead of you. One thing I suspect you will learn as you walk down this path of life– one thing I’ve learned – is that there are rarely situations that are purely right or purely wrong, all good or all bad. Most of life is lived in a messy middle. The world is more complicated than it seems. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know– about world events, about other cultures, about one another, about ourselves.
My job as a reporter is to listen and look and try and see and really understand all sides of an issue or a person or a situation, and one of the things I’ve learned– over and over again – is that the world is more complicated than it seems.
This came through so strongly as I was working on the biggest project of my professional life– a book about the place I grew up. I was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shaker Heights is a suburb right next to the city of Cleveland, and I grew up feeling enormous pride in my community. That’s because Shaker had a national reputation as a place that celebrated racial integration and diversity. This was a place that actively worked to maintain racially balanced neighborhoods and schools.
So I grew up feeling pretty good about where I was from. I kind of had an attitude that said: well you out there, you other people, you have problems with race, but us– we here in Shaker – we’ve got this. If you were to show up in Shaker Heights tomorrow and randomly stop someone on the street, and if you were to ask them why they live in Shaker, it’s very likely that they’ll say they live there because they want to part of a diverse community.
In working on my book, I discovered that things were a lot more complicated than I thought they were when I was growing up. I found stories of imperfect people, striving to do the right thing, falling short, trying again, making progress and making mistakes. It was a story that lives in the messy middle– the messy middle, the place where most of us live most days.
I’ll share one example. There was a visionary school superintendent who arrived in Shaker Heights in the mid-1960s. He soon saw that the schools were racially segregated– some were overwhelmingly white while 88 percent of the students at one elementary school called Moreland were Black. In 1970, he proposed a plan: the Black students at Moreland would be bused to the majority white schools and they would use the space at Moreland for some special new enrichment programs that would benefit the whole district.
This was forward looking. Very very few school systems were voluntarily desegregating their schools in 1970. In fact, many were fighting court orders that they do so. Shaker Heights was acting all on its own, trying to do the right thing.
So Jack Lawson’s leadership here was really striking.
And yet, both before he released his proposal and after, the Black parents in Moreland made it clear that they did not want a one-way busing plan. It wasn’t fair. Why were their children the only ones who had to change schools? But Lawson pushed ahead with his plan.
Then something unexpected happened. White parents in Shaker Heights spoke up. They said the same thing that Black parents were saying: it wasn’t fair for a busing plan to be one-way. The white schools, they noted, were just as segregated as Moreland Elementary School was. And even more striking perhaps, these parents volunteered their own kids to be bused into Moreland. Today they’d be called allies, and they made a difference.
Because after that, the plan changed. It became a two-way busing plan– voluntary in both directions. And that helped Shaker Heights as it developed a national reputation as a place that was embracing racial integration at a time when others were fighting against it.
It probably never would have happened without Jack Lawson’s leadership. And yet he made this serious error along the way. He was willing to roll over the objections of the Black parents. It was only after white parents spoke up that the plan changed.
Looking back on this now, it’s messy. People aren’t 100% heroic or 100% horrible. They are real human beings, making progress and making mistakes. Jack Lawson was a real human being– he made progress and he made mistakes.
Perfection is not the standard. Progress, intentions, trying, advancing, pushing– these are better measures.
And no matter what we face – whether we are flying high or struggling to get by – I’ve learned that it’s important to be grateful for all we have. It’s easy to feel gratitude on a day like this– a day you worked hard for. It can be harder to do it on a regular day.
One November a few years ago, I challenged myself to post one thing each day that I was grateful for. It turned out to be an amazing exercise. The notion of stopping for just a few minutes each day to appreciate the life around me was powerful.
I wrote about the wonderful caregivers who helped look after my children, enabling me to have a career that I love. I voiced appreciation for the people who gathered around our table at Thanksgiving. I wrote about my son’s deep caring for other people, about how he had been assigned to be a buddy for a child with profound special needs in his school, and about how much he loved that job. On Election Day, I wrote of my gratitude of living in a democracy where my vote would be counted.
I wrote about my yoga class and my book club and our local independent bookstore and the fact that my other son was still– at that point – letting me sing to him before he went to sleep… he is actually the only person who has ever let me sing to them on a regular basis!
Incidentally the song he liked most was also sung by Kermit the Frog– it’s called Rainbow Connection and I promise I won’t sing it– but it’s all about chasing a dream. My favorite part asks a hard question and gives a hopeful answer: “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing? And what do we think we might see? Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers and me.”
Finding something to be grateful for every day was good for my soul. To be honest, though, it wasn’t always easy to think of something to be grateful for. One day I wrote about being grateful for my phone. I really actually am grateful for my phone! I mean not to be like an old person, but you should see the phones we had when I was a kid. On another day, I wrote about being grateful that I no longer cared about professional football– I realize that’s probably blasphemous to say here in Green Bay, but you have to remember I grew up in Cleveland, so football is really mostly associated with sadness and not caring is a very emotionally healthy choice!
Beyond the people in my life, the thing I might be most grateful for is the work that I get to do. Journalism has given me a ticket into so many other lives, the chance to see the world from new and different perspectives. So often, I wind up learning from the people I write about– and while the world has a lot of terrible things going on, I often encounter people who leave me more optimistic.
There was the pastor of a church in Cincinnati. His church was on the cutting edge of a new trend– a place trying to create multiracial congregations. And I learned from him how hard that work is. That even when you have a room full of people who all want the same thing, it’s hard.
It’s easy to say you want to be together, but what sort of music are you going to play during Sunday services? What does the pastor do when a longtime white member says it’s ok to talk about racial equity, but does it have to be the topic of discussion every week? How about when a girl hosts a birthday party and only invites other girls from her neighborhood– and of her own race?
How are Black parishioners supposed to react when, during a group discussion on race and Christianity, one white man confessed he had grown distant from his daughter after she started dating a black student. The response of one Black man was to hug the white dad while the group prayed.
They were operating in that messy middle.
Another story gave me the chance to hang out with a guy nearly everyone calls Coach Mac. John McCarthy is the leader of Homerun Baseball Camp, a program my own kids went to in Washington, D.C. I first got interested in writing about Coach Mac when I saw how he ran the morning meetings that began camp each day.
My son was just four years old when he went to this camp, and he was already baseball crazy. He climbed up onto the bleachers and took his place with the other young kids. Coach Mac began pacing in front of them, a dozen or so coaches behind him. He then asked all of the coaches—mostly high school and college students—what they were reading. The next day, Coach Mac came back with a pile of books and handed them out to his coaches. The next day, he talked about the benefits of kale. I swear to God, he did.
I soon learned more about Coach Mac’s philosophy, which he summed up this way: “You will hustle, you will be on time, you will give 100% to the team today and we’ll see how the game comes out.” He argued that developing skills was way more important for young players than competing in elite leagues. As for coaching, his goal was to support his players’ emotional and physical development. “Good coaches are gardeners,” he says, “and they grow human beings.”
But John McCarthy was also a lesson in how we are all so human. He told me about his father. When John was 22, he was playing pro ball for a team in Utica, N.Y., and having a terrific summer. His dad flew up one day to see him play. As it turns out, he had a bad game that day. Afterwards he found his father outside in the parking lot, sobbing. His father was on a roller coaster – up when his son did well, devastated when he didn’t.
It was different with Coach Mac’s mother. If he was cut from a team, his mom would say, “They just don’t see what I see. There will be another team for you.” When she visited the towns where he played, she would say, “It’s so beautiful here…and your teammates are so interesting.” Her son thought, “Really?” But he understood where his mom was coming from. “She would find the joy,” he said.
And I want to tell you about one more person. Erick Nielsen is a history teacher at a San Francisco high school filled with kids struggling to make it. Most of them come from low-income families. Many are first generation Americans. When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, he was teaching Advanced Placement World History, and was determined to get his students prepared for a very challenging AP test just a couple months later.
School was remote. Every kid in his class, it seems, was struggling. Some didn’t have reliable WiFi and some didn’t have a quiet space to study and some were simply longing to be with their friends – to be with anyone who wasn’t in their immediate family. Nielsen, the teacher, was struggling, too, teaching from his small home, with a baby needing to be held and a toddler wandering into the Zoom screen. Mostly, he missed being able to teach how he was used to teaching– raising his voice, lowering his voice, moving around the room – putting on a show. Now, he lamented, “it’s just me and a Power Point.”
It was an impossible spring. They all did the best they could. On the morning of the test he gathered his students one last time for an online pep talk.
“You’re about to take a test that is very hard in the most ridiculous and impossible of circumstances, so give yourselves a break, no matter how it turns,” he says. “It is going to be okay. The fact that you take the test, that’s the big deal.”
He then made a confession: When he took this test as a high school sophomore, he said, he didn’t pass. “That test was too hard for me, but I learned a lot from that class. So this test does not define who you are or the work you have done.”
I bet a few of you can relate to that feeling that came a few years ago, during the pandemic. It wasn’t easy – not for any of us – but especially not easy during your first year or two of college. But you did it. You made it. And now, here you are. And that’s a big deal!
As the Muppet Movie ends, Kermit and his friends have found success in Hollywood and are singing proudly about it. I absolutely love the last song they sing. It goes: “Life’s like a movie, write your ending. Keep believing, keep pretending. We did just what we set out to do.”
The credits are rolling on this movie called college. But the movie of life is just beginning. So go out, and write your own ending! As for college, you did just what you set out to do.
Laura Meckler is national education writer for the Washington Post, where she covers the news, politics and people shaping American schools. She previously reported on the White House, presidential politics, immigration, and health care for the Wall Street Journal, as well as on health and social policy for the Associated Press. Before going to Washington, Laura covered state government in Columbus, Ohio. She got her start covering everything from schools and cops to the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame festival at The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Her honors include a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. She received the Livingston Award for National Reporting for her coverage of organ transplantation, and she was part of a team that won the George Polk Award for Justice Reporting for a series on the life of George Floyd. She is the author of DREAM TOWN: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity, about her hometown. She now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two sons.