Congratulations to the Class of 2018. You did it! I realize some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Well… it’s not that big of a deal. I mean, I always expected to graduate from high school.” But even if it is just momentarily- take it in. Hold your head high. Give a classmate or a fellow teammate or a teacher or parent a big high five or a fist bump or a hug. It is a big accomplishment and I hope you’ll take time to enjoy it. You put in a lot of late nights and hard work. You made sacrifices and tough choices along the way.
And to parents, the same. Lots of late nights, hard work, sacrifices and tough choices. Not to mention carpool lines, endless days at practices or games or recitals. You have basically earned an advanced degree in logistics by helping this day come to fruition. You purchased copious amounts of food, exercised extreme patience, listened, intervened, questioned yourself, literally and figuratively pulled your hair out, and yet from the first day of kindergarten, when the halls were filled with artwork and children with book bags hanging down to their ankles, until now, you never wavered in your love and support. You also deserve a huge congratulations. Enjoy those hugs!
You know, they say that high school graduation speakers are among the top five most influential voices in a person’s life, and you may be waiting with baited breath for yours this spring. But just in case you do doze off or go down some social media rabbit trail on your phone or have classmate next to you insisting that you play a best of 17 game of hangman or tick-tack-toe, I wanted to provide you an alternative.
This, my friends, is not a graduation speech. It is a graduation story. Because it’s longer than our normal blogs, we have also provided the audio version here.
I am from Atlanta originally, and after my first year in college, I came home for the summer to take advantage of a meaningful internship… delivering Chinese food. Actually, as the only American working at this all- family, all- cash run restaurant, it was quite an education. But that is a different story for a different day.
A friend of mine from high school, and for the purposes of this story, we’ll call him Gene…actually, that is his real name (really no need to disguise his identity), had gotten really into kayaking that year. He was excited to share his newfound passion with me and another good friend of ours, Jeff (also his real name).
Before we went to a river, however, Gene wanted to help us learn some basics. So one Tuesday night after work, we loaded the boats up onto his old Volvo and headed to Stone Mountain Lake. Now, if you are not from Georgia, there is really nothing you need to know specifically about this lake, except that it is like almost every other inland lake in the world—completely calm.
On the bank of the lake, we put on our helmets, life jackets, and skirts- a tight fitting piece of waterproof equipment that you stretch around the hole of the boat to insure no water comes in. He threw us our paddles and we shoved off into the water.
Skillfully, Gene showed us how to “roll.” Rolling is a maneuver paddlers use to right themselves when their boat tips over in the water. Admittedly, I did hear him twice say “inevitably tip,” but whether it was ego or wishful thinking, I thought he was directing that at Jeff. In order to roll, you stab your paddle into the water, flip your hips, and then allow your torso, shoulders, and ultimately your head to come out of the water (which, of course, is the absolute first thing you want out). For about 45 solid minutes, Jeff and I attempted to emulate this move. Unfortunately, all we were able to accomplish was scaring away all of the ducks and drawing a small crowd of onlookers who were taking great pleasure in our awkward attempts.
Finally, Gene had seen enough. We paddled back to the shore and sat down to eat the sandwiches and chips we’d brought along. Tired, wet, and cold, we sat for a few minutes just looking back out at the still lake. Gene stood up, arched his back, and said, “Yep. I think you’re ready for the river.”
Ready for the River….
So after work that Friday night, we loaded up our boats and gear, packed some healthy snacks like Fritos, Pop Tarts, and Gatorade, and headed to the Nantahala River in North Carolina. We arrived around 1 a.m., camped out, and had a hearty breakfast of granola bars and coffee before heading to the river.
On the way down the mountain, Gene explained that the Nantahala has Class II, III, and IV rapids. My loose translation of what he told us was essentially people can die here. Perfect. Well, I at least I could fall back on my solid lake training and nutritious breakfast. Wait…
We found a parking spot, unloaded our kayaks from the roof, and headed to the river bank. I think it was at that point Gene considered, potentially for the first time, that we may be in over our heads- both literally and figuratively. So, in a final ditch effort, he got into his kayak on the shore and asked us to do the same. As guys were walking past, he starts emulating the roll–showing us how to jam the paddle into the water (although he was doing this into the sandy bank) and flip our hips simultaneously.
It seemed ridiculous. I felt ridiculous. And based on the bearded, shaggy looking guys with tattoos of kayak paddles on their biceps who were walking by and audibly scoffing, I figured my assessment was correct. I am pretty sure I heard one tandem put money on one of us dying that day, and to be honest, if it were me, I would have been in on that action. (Side Note- I later learned there is a direct correlation between kayaking ability and facial hair, but that is merely tertiary in this story).
In what proved to be the smoothest part of the day by far, we pushed off and headed down river. After that, it got ugly fast. Within 20 minutes both Jeff and I flipped twice and were unable to roll back over. And I’m not going to lie. This happened to both of us at least once in pretty still water. We just flipped for no apparent reason.
The pain about flipping over when you can’t roll is that you have to pull the skirt off the ridge of the boat, grab the kayak, find your paddle, and swim to the shore. Along the way, you are inevitably hitting idle rocks, or continuing to go down pseudo-rapids. Oh… and it’s cold. This water has just been released from a mountain dam. I’m not saying its Vermont but water in that part of North Carolina in late May is chilly. You get to the side, dump out the water, regain the breath you lost between the effort and the temps, and head back in. After about the sixth time, it’s pretty miserable.
Into the Washing Machine
Miraculously, after several hours, we made it to the final rapid of that section. This was a beast affectionately known as “The Washing Machine.” Gene called it a “hydraulic,” which loosely translated means “death trap.” Essentially, this is just a furious, whirling mess of water, rocks, and debris at the bottom of a several foot drop.
We pulled our boats over to a sandy beach and climbed up to a rickety old observation deck (Note: I was there recently and saw that they have installed a paved path and picnic tables. I think they somehow made the rapid smaller too). We ate some beef jerky and watched other boats go down.
“See that rock,” Gene said, pointing to a big boulder a few yards ahead of the precipitous drop-off. “You have to get to the left of it. Go right and… Well, don’t go right. Check out that log.”
I saw it enter, spin, disappear, and then come shooting out splintered into a thousand pieces.
“Yea. That’ll be you if you go right.” Terrifying.
At the bottom of the rapid I saw these really skilled kayakers playing in the rapid. Basically, once they had gone down, they would turn their boat back upriver and intentionally put the nose of their boat back into the rapid. They would spin, sometimes flip, but then immediately right themselves and “surf” along the rocks. Then they would be pushed out by the force of the water and go back in for more. It did look cool, but with only had 45 minutes of preparation, five hours of sleep, and a few Pop Tarts in my belly, I was thinking survival at this point.
Then, Gene’s voice interrupted. “All right. Let’s do it.” I picked up my helmet and headed back down towards the water. Right as we get back to the kayaks, Gene says (almost off-handedly), “You know. If you don’t want to do this, you could portage.”Like so many of the terms associated with this God-forsaken sport, I’d never heard this one either, but I rightly inferred that it meant “carry your boat around.”
“Yep,” he explained. “If you don’t want to tackle The Washing Machine, you can portage down the road, and I’ll meet you on the other side.” Now, let’s be honest. No self-respecting, red-blooded, eighteen-year-old is going to do that. Far better to die in a hydraulic, right?!
Gene went first. Naturally, he adeptly navigated to the left of the rapid, momentarily disappeared from view as he went over the rocks, and then came out upright in the waters on the other side. Then, he turned, pumps his fist, and waved at us to come down.
I remember doing rock-paper-scissors with Jeff to see who was to go second. Technically, he lost and was up next. I watched him go slowly toward the rock. Now, I’m not saying I wanted to see him go right, but there was a part of me hoping for a slightly rough ride so I could finish on top. One upping each other was what this was all about after all.
But it was not to be. In the run of his life he not only went left, but somehow managed to stay upright. I saw him and Gene high five. And even at a 30-yard distance I could see Jeff’s smug smirk.
Now it was my turn. I took a deep breath, said the only part of a Hail Mary I remembered, and headed down river. I saw the rock clearly and I had a good line, but at the most pivotal moment, with the final key stroke I needed to go left… Honestly, I still cannot explain what happened, but I completely whiffed. I got no water at all with my paddle. Only air.
My boat hit the rock square on. A complete T-bone, which gives you a 50/50 shot of going either way. Well, I would not be telling this story today if I had gone left. Instead, the impact spun me around backwards.I am not sure if it was the water, the rocks, or my utter and complete panic, but I flipped over. So now I’m backwards, upside down, and hurtling into the hydraulic. I’m guessing it was the force of the fall that shot my paddle from my hands, and it was definitely the ferocity of the water that caused my helmet to spin around backwards and completely cover my face. In that moment, backwards, upside down, to the right, with no paddle, no vision and water surging through orifices in my body that I did not even know existed, I remember thinking, “Well… it’s been a good ride. At least I didn’t portage.”
But then I recalled two things Gene said just as we left the observation deck. One, of course, was don’t go right. Definitely remembered that. But the other was, “If you do end up in the hydraulic, you are going to want to fight it and swim out. That’s the last thing you should do. The water is too strong and you’ll exhaust yourself. You have to relax. Let your body go.” So I did. I put my hands down and went completely limp.
In doing so, I got utterly catapulted into the air. I had to have gotten about two or three feet of air. I I am not sure if this was the water slapping across my face or the momentum and torque, but my helmet totally whipped back around.
Fresh air. Light. And then, Bam! I land on the water hard and then bounced once. Then, an absolute eruption. At first I thought it was thunder. Then I looked up at the observation deck. It was pandemonium. Guys were hugging, screaming, chest bumping, high fiving, slamming their kayak paddles together in a tribe like celebration. They were going absolutely nuts.
And so were the really skilled kayakers all around me who were playing in the rapid. They were yelling and pointing at me in congratulations, pumping their fists with approval. Elated.
As I’m taking in this absurd scene someone taps me on the shoulder. I look back and this other kayaker is holding my paddle. He has this look of absolute awe as he says, “Dude. That. Was. Awesome! I have been trying to hand roll for like six years. Can you teach me?” I’d never heard that term either, but I was able to gather myself enough to grab the paddle, spin around and say, “Man. I haven’t got time for that today.”
Then I paddled down to where Gene and Jeff were literally crying they were laughing so hard.
So why do I share this with you today? I think it’s pretty obvious really. God’s speed. No, in all seriousness, there are three points to share with you.
First, you are READY!
You are ready for college. You are ready for the challenges it will bring. You have a helmet. You can do the work. You have a life-jacket in the tremendous support system around you: your family, friends, teachers, and all of those folks who have and will always be there for you. You are prepared. You are not coming onto the river from a still lake without proper training or practices. You’re not heading to a campus on a terrible diet of Fritos and Pop Tarts. You have a boat and a paddle. You are ready for the adventure the next four years will bring. And my hope is you see it that way- as a great river to endeavor out into. I hope that you will play in it and surf”in it. Take a class that sounds interesting just because you want to. Learn to unicycle, try an instrument, eat some food you can’t spell or pronounce. Go on a 10 hour road trip to a state you’ve never been in before. Enjoy. Use your skills and talents and all of the ways you’ve been equipped to thrive and have fun! You. Are. Ready!
Didn’t you listen to the story? There are rocks, rapids, hydraulics, and currents beneath the surface that you will never see coming. This is no joke. You are going to get bumped around. Some of you have never seen a B except on an eye chart. Prepare for a C. Things are not going to completely go your way. You are going to get spun around. You may not make the team or be elected into a club you are hoping for. Your first choice internship is going to fall through, and even worse, your best friend is going to get it. You are going to feel like there is water rushing across your face. That major is going to turn out to be a bad fit. And that’s all before the big break up at Thanksgiving. Sickness, bankruptcy, divorce… What? Am I going to far?
But you see my point, right? You cannot totally prepare for all of what is coming. You are not prepared for all of what is coming! Not on your own. So in those hydraulic moments, I hope you will remember what you see around you today. Remember those faces. Look at those smiles. They are here to hand you your paddle when you emerge. The truth is we all have those times when it feels like our paddle has been ripped away and we are backwards and upside down. We all question if we are up for certain challenges. But your family and friends- they are your boat and life jacket. And no hydraulic of life is going to take them away. In college, at some point or another, you will have some dark days. You will wonder if you can keep it all together. In those times, you have to relax and stop fighting. You have to stop trying to do it all yourself and reach out. Let them cheer for you, high five you, fist bump or paddle slam or simply celebrate you as you navigate your way through.
Lastly, DON’T PORTAGE!
Please don’t waste your college days, or your days beyond those, by taking the easy way out. Regrets come from moments when we see an opportunity and we let it pass.
Every good graduation speech has at least on quote. Since this is not a graduation speech, and its quality is debatable, I’m going to give you two.
1 – “A ship at harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” John A. Shedd
We are created to endure, to live fully, to live not out of fear but love and adventure. Don’t be too scared to risk. Don’t be too concerned with how you will look to try something new or different. Don’t stay in a major you know is not right for you. Don’t avoid a class or bypass a trip or stay in a relationship simply because it’s the safest path. This is your run on the river. Point the nose of your boat directly into it and go!
2 – “Most live lives of quiet desperation & go to their graves with their songs still in them.” Henry David Thoreau
Don’t let that be your college career or your life beyond it. I hope you’ll take advantage of all that awaits you in college. Study abroad, take tough classes, hang out with people from places you’ve never been. KNOW THAT when you are in the hydraulics life throws at you that ultimately you’ll come out down river, in calm waters, and with friends and family around you–just like they are today.
Congratulations, Class of 2018! I’m excited to see where the waters lead you.
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