I woke up this morning and realized that in just a few years, I will celebrate my 25th college reunion. I remember the day when I graduated because that was the moment when I felt invincible. I felt that the world was mine and that I could bend it and shape it to meet my will. I felt brilliant as if I was going to change the world, cure cancer, and end world poverty. I felt like I was special and that I was the one that the world had been waiting for to solve the hard problems. I was told that I was smart and given multiple opportunities to prove it. It has been almost twenty-five years and I realized this morning that I have yet to change the world. I also realized, in that same moment, that I am no longer interested in trying to do so. I no longer even think that is possible to change the entire world; instead, I now believe that the best that I can do is try to change myself and focus on making the people and the situations around me a little bit better. I realized this morning that despite what I was told twenty-five years ago, I am not special; in fact, I am pretty ordinary. As I have gotten older and I have watched my parents’ age and I have worked to help you to make the best choices in your life, I have come to understand that this experiment that we call life is special but the everyday living is not. Life is hard and it is full of challenges and disappointments, extraordinary moments and ordinary days. It is full of paying bills, going to work, and working hard to find meaning in your own reality. It is about standing up for what you believe in and walking away from situations that are damaging to your spirit. It is about learning how to see beyond your own life so that you can help those who have a greater more pressing need at that moment. The hardest part of life is realizing that even if you do not actively participate in making it better, it is going to continue; and, even if you are the next Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Jr., or Patrice Lumumba—life is going to and can continue even without you. Your graduation ceremony is special but you are not.
In the same way that David McCullough, Jr. challenged the 2012 graduating class of Wellesley High School, I challenge you to think about what it means to be ordinary because ordinary people are the ones who push us to be better than what we are. I challenge you to actively reject being defined as special and instead, be you, be ordinary, and be an active participant in this experiment. Pay your taxes, look both ways before you cross the street, and speak up when you see someone being bullied. Be ordinary and volunteer at the local shelter, help kids learn how to read, and root for the underdog. You, more than any other generation, are a part of a generation of young people who have been coddled and loved, protected and pampered, you have been caught before you have fallen and shown how to fly before you were taught how to crawl. You have learned, through social media, how to document every aspect of your life and how to be a star in your own eyes. I blame myself (and my generation) for this, as we have done this to you. I told you that you were special and then I put every piece of technology in your hands and helped you to project your “specialness” onto the world. I have not allowed you to fail or to even make decisions on your own. I have micromanaged every part of your life so that I could feel special through you. I now challenge you to adopt the same spirit that Martin Luther had when he wrote and posted his Ninety-Five Theses or that Ida Bell Wells-Barnett had when she was forcibly removed from a train and sued the railroad company and consciously reject this label and instead seek to be ordinary.
Find moments when you can be introspective, writing in a journal instead of posting on Facebook or losing yourself in a moment instead of taking a picture of the moment to share with the world. Be ordinary, try something new and if you fail at it, laugh and start something else. Being ordinary is similar to having grit, which means that you are committed to getting back up every time you fall, you work hard to learn from both your successes and your failures, you are not consumed with your own life, and you are an active participant in making your little piece of forever better. Special people want to but can never change the world; ordinary people are the ones who keep the world moving forward and hopefully, moving forward in the right direction. I look forward to being there on that day when you embrace who you are and you discover what it is that you are meant to do to make the world a better place.
Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director at The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. Her most recent work, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America, was published by Apprentice House in January 2015. This blog was originally posted on her website on July 2, 2015.