2021 Graduation Speech to Hope High School [full text]

Steven Walden
11 min readMay 15, 2021


Wow. Thank you, Bill for that amazing introduction. It was humbling and too kind. You read it exactly as I wrote it for you. You totally earned that twenty bucks.

Just kidding.

It was five.

Graduates, family members, and staff, it is more than an honor to be part of this celebration, the 2021 graduation ceremony at Hope High School, my home town, on this very field where I both played and practiced football as a Bobkitten and a Bobcat and where I marched alongside the Superband as a member of Midget Squad.

That my contributions to the world would be deemed notable enough to be asked to stand before you to deliver this commencement address is a supreme honor.

When Mr. Hoglund presented me with the opportunity to speak, it called forth tears of joy, and I could not accept his offer quickly enough. When my tears dried, Mr. Hoglund told me the most important thing in preparing my words: “Keep it short. I wanna be home by 7.”

Bill, I will do my best, but please know that when timing this speech, I simply could not account for audience laughter and the multiple standing ovations.

I am not one given to shameless self-promotion, which you could easily tell by visiting stevenwalden.com, where all purchases include free shipping and handling.

I am not one to celebrate my success or point out celebrities I’ve stood alongside such as Chris Hemsworth, Tom Holland, or Ozzie Smith. As I once said to NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, “Name dropping’s not cool, man.”

I am hesitant to talk about my own personal accolades as a professional artist, I’m not here to celebrate me. That’s for my ten thousand followers on Instagram. Username @stevenwalden.

No, graduates, I’m here to celebrate you.

Because yes, although speaking to my hometown high school for their graduation is a lifelong dream, and as someone who has attended multiple graduation ceremonies both as a recipient of degrees as well as an audience member, I know the inescapable truth about graduation ceremonies:

They all suck.

I don’t mean your accomplishment of graduating is not important, but the ceremony itself is historically awful.

Your entire academic life has been building to this one moment, yet I know it has already been a disappointment. You’re asked to go through the effort of dressing nicely. And then you have to put on a giant red Hefty bag on top of your Sunday clothes — a Hefty bag YOU had to pay for — and then you get a silly square hat that you will wear just as many times as you will throw it.

But before the throwing, there’s the sitting and the waiting. And the waiting. And the waiting.

It’s like being forced to sit through an end credits of a movie looking for one name. But not even the cool movie credits with a bonus of Samuel L. Jackson teasing scenes from your next graduation.

But before you even hear your name called, you have to sit through the speeches.

Sweet Sassy Molassey. The speeches.

Graduations have too. Many. Speeches.

Especially from people you don’t even know. The worst is when they have some speaker who comes in from out of town, and all they want to do is talk about themselves.

And the speeches aren’t even that good! They almost always use these horrible clichés that they think are inspirational like, “Dance like no one’s watching!” or “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” These aren’t speeches. These are things that divorced white women paint on the walls of their new apartments.

Even worse is when they start their speech with “Webster’s defines commencement as” yadiyadiyadi. As a former English professor, if you learn one thing from me today, never start your paper or speech with “Webster’s defines,” because all it means is that the speaker probably spent the week before getting blackout drunk and then waited until the last minute to write it.


Webster’s defines “graduation” as “a mark on an instrument or vessel indicating degrees or quantity.”

Well, you have received your marks and you are waiting on your degree. But I refuse to give you an awful speech to reach for your dreams and to fly as high as the eagles…nest? Or do whatever eagles do. I don’t know. I’m not a bird guy.

See, I graduated on this very field in 1993. If you’re trying to do the mental math to figure out how old I am, I’ll help you out here. I’m 28.

Although the class of ’93 was fortunate enough to have White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty as its speaker, I cannot tell you one thing that he said that night.

So I will do my best to get real with you and tell you things I wish Mack had told us.

When it comes to your future career, know that there will be people less qualified than you doing the things that you want to do only because they decided to believe in themselves. It takes zero talent to hustle, to listen, and to show up on time.

Life is too short to spend 40 or more hours per week doing crap you hate.

Find a way to make a living to support yourself. Then find a partner who makes you laugh.

And give yourself time and space to find the right partner. The world has 7.7 billion people, so it’s okay if you don’t find your soulmate in a town with only nine thousand of them.

It takes time to find quality people, much less a quality person as a partner. This one is true for everyone, but especially those of you seeking men as partners.

Speaking on behalf of my gender, here’s a hard truth: there are a lot of trash men out there. Fellas, we can do better. And doing better is not the same thing as asking to be rewarded for doing the bare minimum.

Regardless of your gender, figure out what you love to do. Then figure out how to get someone else to pay you to do it. But remember: slightly underpaid is so much better than being vastly overworked.

Graduation is the last stop for milestones before you hit adulthood. Then there’s 21. And then there’s nothing but birthdays ending in zero that make you feel older than you actually are.

And something funny is going to happen. You’re going to start feeling like you’re too old to start new things, to make changes. Yes, the best time to plant a tree is yesterday. The second best time is today.

If plan A didn’t work, that’s cool. There’s 25 whole other letters in the alphabet

Because when life closes a door, open it again. That’s how doors work.

When you’re good at something, you’ll tell everyone. But when you’re great, they’ll tell you.

Confidence is silent. Insecurities are loud. If soft-spoken Winnie the Pooh can eat his favorite food and love himself and wear a crop top with no underwear, you can too.

When you are feeling stressed or upset about a certain situation, ask yourself “Is this really going to matter to me in 10 years?”

Often, our problems are blown out of proportion, distorted by the fact that they’re happening right now. Sometimes, our biggest problems aren’t that big. Sometimes, our biggest problems have the simplest answers. And sometimes, our biggest problems get a new job in Searcy.

I wish that Mack had told me that if it’s a belief worth having, it’s a belief worth challenging. I wish he would have said to never take criticism from anyone we also wouldn’t take advice. To say “yes” to any new opportunity that doesn’t require a moral compromise because no one has ever been on their deathbed and thought, “I’m so glad of all the chances I didn’t take”

The world is changed by our example, not by our opinions. Or our Facebook posts.

Because no one has also been on their deathbed and thought, “I really wish I’d spent more time getting into arguments with strangers in the comments section of my local news.”

And I wish Mack would have said that the worst lie we can tell ourselves is, “No, it’s okay. I’ll just gas up my car in the morning.”

I wish he had told me secrets to adulting. That being an adult is eating the crust not because you like it but because you paid for it.

Being an adult is telling yourself “No we ain’t goin to Taco Bell tonight we got food at home!”

Being an adult means knowing that good judgment comes from experience. And a whole lot of that comes from bad judgment.

Speaking of bad judgment, never shop for groceries when you’re hungry. And never get on Tinder when you’re thirsty. Neither allow for returns of decisions you will later regret.

Don’t be afraid to cut toxic people out of your life. And don’t worry if people don’t like you. Most people are struggling to like themselves. Because no matter how open, peaceful, and loving you choose to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they have met themselves.

Every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was being redirected towards something better. Often, that something was Popeyes chicken.

Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing hurts more than staying stuck in a place where you don’t belong. Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a really long time making it. There will always be someone who can’t see your worth. Never let that person be you.

You are not obligated to give anyone your time or attention, and do yourself a favor and take mixed signals as a no.

Never let your loneliness drive you back to toxic people. You’re better than that. You can’t please everyone. You’re not Popeyes chicken.

See, scientifically speaking, the part of your brain that plays a major role in your decision making and how you behave socially, the prefrontal cortex, will still be developing well until you’re 25 years old.


Ask anyone you respect who is older than 25, and they will tell you that when they were 18, they were a total idiot. I’m not saying that you guys are idiots. I’m saying that when you’re 25, you’ll look back on your 18 year old self and you’ll say you’re idiots.

Your future self is currently talking trash about you. But here’s the good news: the goal is not to feel superior to other people. It’s to feel superior to your younger self.

Give yourself permission to outgrow people and relationships and to find new friends and connections who understand you as you grow. People who you better connect with as you better understand yourself. Because, again, you’re not there yet. Unless there are any 25 year old seniors out there. I mean…it’s not like this is Spring Hill.

No, this is Hope.

And Hope, in spite of its imperfections, is a special place that has made many special people.

Remember that. Remember that when you feel stuck. Remember that when you think that a life outside of this town does not exist. It does. Hope has been home to far too many special people for us to believe otherwise.

If you have a desire to fight for justice, remember. Hope has been home to a number of inspiring women who have gone on to make the world a better place.

Senior Counsel Trudie McAdams is a trial attorney in Cincinnati who represents Fortune 500 companies.

Julie DeWoody Greathouse has been named one of the best Lawyers in America every year since 2013 by Thomson Reuters.

Doris Pryor (formerly Doris Clark) is a US Federal Judge.

And if you slept through social studies, let me remind you that is a really big damn deal, and even moreso that Doris is an amazing role model for all women, but especially for all women of color.

I went to school with all of these amazing women. And Hope has been home to them all.

It doesn’t stop there.

If you love to create and perform, remember. Hope has been home to Country Music Hall of Famer Patsy Montana and actress Melinda Dillon — Ralphie’s mom in A Christmas Story.

If you want to innovate in technology, remember. Hope has been home to Paul Klipsch.

If you are a naturally gifted leader with charisma that uplifts others, remember. Hope has been home to Bill Clinton.

If you have an ability to defy reality and generate fantastic worlds of fiction from thin air, remember. Hope has been home to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

I met former Arkansas Razorback and Chicago Bear Dan Hampton at a charity event a few years ago in Chicago. Dan was one of my dad’s favorite NFL pros, and so Dan was one of my favorites, too.

For the event, I’d done a painting of Dan from when he recovered a fumble in Super Bowl 20 for the Super Bowl Shufflin’ Bears. Dan loved the piece, and I mentioned that he and I were both from the same state.

He asked where I was from. When I told him Hope, his eyes lit up and he gestured at my painting and said, “Hope’s a special place. Lots of talented folks came from that part of the state.”

“Why do you think that is?” he asked me.

I shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s in the water.”

Dan shook his massive head and said, “I bet it has something to do with the Gurdon Light.”

No, I don’t think that there’s something in the water that makes people from Hope special. But I do think there’s something in you. And I don’t even know you. But I think it’s there.

I think it’s there because it’s written in the stories of how many people from this tiny patch of land buried in the southwestern corner of a small state that rarely gets any positive national attention — yet its people have written so many passages in the story of this country and this world.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s because other folks from Hope have done it. And maybe that makes us think, hey, maybe I can do that too. Maybe it’s because we have little to lose or we don’t fear failure. And I could stand before you and give you a list of all the ways that I have failed personally and professionally.

But I persevere. And you will too. Because in spite of the challenges and heartbreak that we face in the world, there’s something about Hope that gives us…well, hope.

Tonight, my wish for you is that you go forth, go out in the world, and yes, go outside of Hope. Not because of the town’s imperfections, but that in this comfort zone of home…

…it’s like leaning up against a big oak tree on a hot summer day, letting the breeze of the shade soothe us.

But that’s the thing about comfort zones: nothing grows in the shade.

So take chances. Take risks. Bet on yourself. Throw your hat over the wall. Leave home. Light out for the territory ahead of the rest. And if life gives you lemons, sure, make lemonade, but you reach over the bar and say, gimme some Jack Daniels to go with it. When you’re 21. But for now — I don’t know — iced tea. Make it an Arnold Palmer. But make your own choices.

Grow into a better version of yourself and never let anyone else write the story of you. Who you are. And who you decide you will be.

And when you’ve gone out in the world and figured out what it is that you want to do and you’ve made yourself a better person?

Come back.

Come back home.

Come back and let’s make Hope better together.

Because Hope, to me, is like family. I love it and I’m frustrated by it. I’m grateful for what it gave me, and I ache for the things I wish it had been able to give more of.

That’s what I am working to change as my adult self — to help make Hope better. I see it honestly for its kindnesses and its generational baggage — because like all families, it’s not perfect. But it’s mine. And I will always love it.

And if you remember nothing else from what I’ve told you this evening, remember this: I want to see you on this stage in twenty-eight years. Inspiring others. Telling them the stories of you. Making your own graduation speeches. Challenging the class of 2049 to do better, to be better. Because you know they can do it.

Because just like you, you didn’t just live in hope.

Hope lives in you.

Thank you.



Steven Walden

Cat-obsessed St. Louis therapist-turned-artist specializing in sports, pop culture, & charity. [he/him]