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Commentary: Class of '06 - Get ready for the really important stuff

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Commentary: Class of '06 - Get ready for the really important stuff
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

I interviewed a group of this year's graduates for the Star-Observer this week and, as always, it forced me to revisit my own high school graduation back in 1970.

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There are lots of ways these kids have it over on me as 18-year-olds. Of course, I went to an all-girls boarding school. There were 22 young women in my graduating class, and most everything I had learned to date I had learned from nuns. That's not to say the sisters didn't know a lot about a lot of things. It's just that we didn't exactly know what questions to ask and, even if we did, asking them might get us expelled.

But it goes beyond nuns and a smaller than small school. It was the end of the 1960s. As Catholic girl school graduates, we didn't know whether to stay put and wait for the sexual revolution to be over or to run at it full force and confess our sins later. All I recall is that it felt like I was on the brink of something, and I wasn't sure whether to forge ahead or enter a cloister. What actually happened is probably the one thing I have in common with today's grads -- things happened, one day at a time, and for all you learn in high school, it's nothing compared to what lies ahead. I've written about this before, but I think it bears repeating every five years or so.

Life really is what happens when we aren't paying attention. If I have any advice for this week's grads, it would be to pay closer attention because you will be tested along the way.

There are some "things I know for sure," to borrow a page from Oprah. A sense of humor is your best friend, no matter what the world has in store for you. And the ability to make others laugh and laugh yourself isn't just good for the psyche, it's good for your body, and your soul and the muscles in your face. It relieves stress, brings people together and breaks down barriers. When people laugh together they are on common ground. It's tougher to judge someone you laugh with.

Since I wrote about this in 2001, a lot of what passes for humor has changed. Unfortunately a lot of it seems to be meaner and angrier. Try to remember that laughing with somebody generally means everyone is having a good time. When you laugh at someone, the benefits of humor go down the drain.

Take risks and don't be afraid to fail. I grew up being afraid of failure, and I know I'm not the only one. You may never have gotten any grade less than an A or B. Or you may have never gotten close to those grades. You may have always been successful, or did what I did and never attempt anything if there was even the slightest possibility I wouldn't do well or I would fail at it. I didn't learn that lesson until I was in my 30s and I was a dismal failure at owning my own business. It was the first real risk I ever took in my life and I could have saved myself a lot of sleepless nights in the blackest hole I've ever been in, not to mention a whole lot of money, if I had only been able to admit it was a mistake and that it didn't mean I was a failure as a person, just not a very good business woman.

My sister told me something that I've never forgotten since those days: "Money is a renewable resource." It isn't a measure of who or what you are. It has to do with what you do. You might be bad at something but it doesn't mean you are a bad person. And this is when that ability to laugh, that sense of humor is so important. If you can laugh, you are breathing and thinking, and in the long run that's all you really need to go on and to be happy, no matter what you stink at.

Don't focus too much on what you are not. I did that for a long time too. I wasn't thin. But you know what, I didn't think I was thin when I was 130 pounds at age 16. I wasn't fat then, I just had friends who were too thin. The problem was that I focused on that and I grew into that fat mentality. The truth is this is who I am. It isn't the healthiest way to be, but there are worse things. And since I can now buy clothes that don't have little flowers embroidered across a smocked top, I feel I can dress better. A healthy weight and lifestyle are good things to go for, just don't leave yourself behind trying to get to some ideal.

I am also a terrible procrastinator. For years I beat up on myself for that. I would agonize and worry for all the weeks leading up to a deadline about how I wasn't getting it done and then I'd get it done in the last 24 hours. Around 35 or 40 I realized that I was never going to be the kind of person who plans her time well and does a little bit every day. So I decided to stop spending all that time before a project worrying and do something I liked. Some of us work better under pressure. When I went to work for a newspaper, I remember thinking this was the worst possible career choice for me. Turns out it is the best kind of job for me. Every week I have this little gun at my head. I usually write right up to the deadline but I rarely miss one.

Learn to listen. This hasn't always been easy for a woman who likes to talk as much as I do. But this job has been a good trainer. As children and students, you have gotten used to listening to your parents and teachers and bosses. But the trick is to listen to people you might not ordinarily pay attention to -- people who look different, act differently and think differently than you do. Listen not to come up with the right answer but the next good question. That's the best way to navigate what's to come.

In 2001 I said not to sweat the small stuff. In 2006, graduates, along with the rest of us, seem to have much bigger things to worry about. But my Aunt Mernie said it best regarding issues large and small: "If worrying made anything better, it might be worth it. But since it never does, get on with it."

And you are about to do just that. Getting on with it is both exciting and frightening. These last four years have been fun and hard and important but they are a drop in the bucket when it comes to what is ahead. Along with all the good things that will happen, know that you are going to make mistakes. You are going to be disappointed by people and events, jobs, even good friends. Your feelings about what you want and need will change. The trick is to take everything you have earned and learned right up to now and be ready for the rest of it. There is an old kind of cult movie that I don't remember well except for the title, which has always seemed to me to say it all: "Just play it as it lays."

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Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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