Lani Tierney’s 2017 SPASH Commencement Address

Note: On May 28, 2017, my mother, Lani Tierney, was the keynote speaker at Stevens Point Area Senior High’s 2017 Commencement ceremony. Her remarks are below.

Principal Jon Vollendorf, SPASH administrators, SPASH faculty representatives, School District administrators, members of the School Board, family and friends of the members of the class of 2017 and, most importantly, members of the SPASH class of 2017: greetings.

First, I’d like to sincerely thank Carol Colby and the senior class officers for inviting me here today to give this address.

For those of you I haven’t met, my name is Lani Tierney. I taught English at SPASH from 1972 to 2007. While I didn’t have the pleasure of having any of those graduating today as students, based on my experience teaching nearly four decades of SPASH students–including, I suspect, some of your parents, and possibly even some of your grandparents–I figure I’ve only got enough time to make two points before most of you, understandably, start tuning me out.

Here are my two points:

First, never stop going.

Second, never stop growing.

Regarding my first point, I suspect I wasn’t invited here today because of my exceedingly long tenure in SPASH’s English department. Rather, I’m guessing it’s because about two years ago, I got it into my head to visit 100 countries before I would turn 75. (By the way, there was a 27-year-old woman who recently visited all 196 internationally recognized countries and I’m thankful she lives in Connecticut and not closer to Stevens Point, otherwise I may not have been given the honor of addressing you!)

I’ve been fortunate to give presentations on my trips in some of your classes, and I hope I conveyed how much traveling has enriched my life. I’ve been surrounded by elephants on a recent trip to South Africa, slept in a “yurt” while traveling across Mongolia, and sailed through both the Suez and Panama Canals.

Frankly, when I was your age, about 55 years ago as a young woman growing up on the south side of Milwaukee, I could have never imagined the things I’d get to see.

It hasn’t always been easy: my luggage has been lost, my flights have been delayed or canceled, and I can recall at least one hotel that was cockroach-infested.

I’ve found numerous occasions to laugh at myself. For example, about fifteen years ago, my son and I were visiting Venice, Italy. We were scheduled to take a water taxi through the city’s famous canals and out to a neighboring island and were late arriving to the dock for our departure. I ran up ahead to see if we could still catch the ferry. When I saw it had already left, I turned back toward my son with a look of dismay.

“Dan,” I said, “I think I missed the boat.”

My son stared back at me with a grin and said, “Mom, let’s face it, you missed the boat a long time ago.”

With that in mind, I want to say this to all of you: don’t miss the boat! Don’t be like me; I waited until I was about 40 to make travel a significant part of my life. If you have the chance to explore new places, especially when you are young, take it. Those visits will enhance the rest of your long, long lives.

I’ve come to realize two main benefits from the trips I’ve taken. I’ve gained a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for people who are different than I am. Traveling has opened my eyes to diverse perspectives, opposing opinions, and ideas. At the same time, however, the more of the world I see, the more I realize how similar we all are.

Traveling has also caused me to appreciate our extraordinary community. I’ve told many people that I don’t travel to escape where I live, I travel because it enhances my life here.

While it’s true that SPASH has produced graduates who have played in the National Hockey League or performed in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, what makes this community special is the compassion we show one another. It’s the many little things we do for each other. For example, if I travel during the winter months, I know my neighbors, Jim and Sue Ostrowski, will plow my driveway without me asking. If you’re from this area and you don’t think that act of kindness is unusual, that’s exactly my point!

Stevens Point is a wonderful place; if you disagree with me, I challenge you to leave for a while, and then come back. And if you still think I’m wrong, then I further challenge you to make it better.

I realize, of course, it’s easy for a 73 year old woman to tell a room full of mostly young people to pack their bags for exotic, foreign adventures. It’s not always cheap; I also recognize it’s often difficult to find the time to take a meaningful trip.

But here’s the good news, and it relates to my second point: you can get many of the benefits of travel without ever leaving Portage County, so long as you never stop growing.

Here’s what I mean. Before and including today, every single one of you has probably been lectured to by older people in your lives. (Perhaps even an English teacher!) And, maybe they acted as though they had a lot of the answers.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: they didn’t. I certainly don’t.

So what’s the impact of this revelation? It means that the point of life–the point of living–is for you to ask questions. And for you to come up with the answers to those questions that work for you. Traveling certainly can prompt those questions, but so can reading, listening, talking to one another, and learning.

We’re all so interconnected now that you can follow the news from halfway around the world from your living room in the greater Junction City area.

It’s your obligation to stay informed, to challenge your own beliefs and, throughout the course of your life and at any age, to improve yourself.

For example, I’m sure some of you have heard of Betty Sweeney from Plover who, in 2011 and at age 71, held a plank position for over 36 minutes. At the time, that set a new Guinness World Record . . . maybe someone in this room will go on to break that!

While you must never stop growing, when you accomplish something, acquire a new skill, or maybe even set a Guinness World Record, you should joyfully acknowledge your achievement, just as you have today. But this is just one of many celebrations on your journey through life.

Today you are a work-in-progress. Regardless of our age, we’re all works-in progress. Remember that you can always become better, and rejoice when you do.

I’ll leave you with this: there is no question our national conversations have become more strained recently. So do me a favor: when you encounter someone you disagree with, be respectful. Let kindness, the sort that reverberates throughout this community, be your default.

I’m going to repeat that: let kindness be your default.

And know that we need a variety of perspectives, from across an entire spectrum of opinions, to find solutions to our problems.

As graduates of Stevens Point Area Senior High School, you are equipped with the tools to make the world better than you found it. That’s both a privilege and a responsibility; I hope you’ll work hard to apply all that you have learned.

On behalf of your teachers, your family, and your friends, thank you for your hard work. We’re all so very proud of you.

Congratulations again, and safe travels.