Janet Sheridan: A graduation speech

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I scanned my competitors. Their faces glowed with inspiration and their pencils flew with confidence. If I wanted to speak during ninth-grade graduation, I had to produce a prize-winning paragraph, “How Spanish Fork Junior High School Shaped My Future,” in the next 10 minutes.

I gripped my chewed pencil, corralled my scurrying thoughts, and began.

Two days later, Mrs. Jensen, our English teacher, announced nine winners.

Her adenoidal voice called my name last — I chose to believe it was not a comment on my worthiness. She then said, based on the potential shown in our audition paragraphs, we would each prepare and deliver a five-minute speech about one of Johann Von Goethe’s nine requisites for contented living.

None of us let on that we had never heard of the German writer or his musings.

The class athlete was assigned “Strength enough to battle with difficulties.” Saintly Patricia Gilles received “Love enough to be helpful to others,” and plodding Thomas Dunn would deliver “Patience enough to toil until good is accomplished.”

Sounded like typecasting

to me.

Finally, I heard my topic: “Health enough to make work a pleasure.”

Good grief.

I had to extol the virtues of working. I pictured Goethe sitting by a window and pondering contentedly as 18th century peasants lugged sacks of potatoes to and fro.

On graduation night, I gathered with my classmates and paraded around the gymnasium floor filled with folding chairs and family members, most of whom wished they were home watching Lawrence Welk.

Seated on the stage, I nervously rehearsed my opening lines: “As teenagers, many of us look upon work as some sort of disease. We are reluctant to stick our hands in greasy dishwater, and protest that it’s not our turn when asked to mow the lawn.”

Re-reading my hand-written notes today, I realize I spoke cleverly, but with little understanding: At 14, I considered health an everlasting guarantee and work a necessary evil.

When I babysat unruly children or teetered on a ladder picking cherries, money —not enjoyment — motivated me.

My health didn’t impede me, so I gave it no thought.

During my adult years I worked at a career that interested me. While I enjoyed doing so, I didn’t set off each morning chirping happily: “What a blessing it is to be driving to work with my healthy body.”

On occasion, I experienced the difficulty of dragging a headache or complaining back through a workday, but knew I would outlast it. Deeming myself irreplaceable, I chafed when a cold or the flu kept me home, but enjoyed sleeping in, reading novels and not cooking.

I didn’t understand the co-dependent blessings of health and work until I retired and floundered like a newborn calf learning to walk, trying to find a balance between meaningful pursuits and leisurely recreation with my older body and its chronic complaints.

I believe Goethe, too, was a senior citizen when he realized the intertwined nature of health and work and the necessity of both for a contented life. I don’t think a young person could have seen with such clarity.

I know I didn’t.

When my Mom’s health failed during her last years, she insisted on working. She sat in a wheeled office chair and scooted around the kitchen to cook for Dad and any visitors. She never stopped sewing, painting, writing, teaching.

My dad did hard physical labor his entire life and depended on a strong body that never needed medication beyond an occasional aspirin.

During his final bedridden months, he missed the rewards of work. During one of his rare bleak moments, he told my brother, “I’m useless. Just a damn useless old man.”

Both my parents recognized the wisdom of Goethe’s words; words I spoke glibly about in my youth.

And I’m learning.

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