To 2021, with love, from 2001

— Photo from Jesse Sommer

Salutatorian Brendan Shields and Prom Queen Nicole McMahon on Graduation Day, 2001. Nicole currently lives just down the street from Jesse Sommer in North Carolina, while Brendan is about to be Jesse’s neighbor when they both move back to the Capital District in the fall.

Just over 20 years ago, a little past 7 p.m. on June 22, 2001 — after Brendan had concluded his salutatorian speech — I delivered a commencement address as the Class of 2001’s “student speaker” at my Voorheesville high school graduation. I presumed its text lost to history until I came across a wrinkled copy while cleaning out my parents’ attic the summer before last.

And here in the Altamont Enterprise’s “Keepsake Graduation Edition,” I’m letting this artifact from the twilight of my adolescence see the light of day once more. Because while I wouldn’t expect the Class of 2021 to heed whatever advice I might dispense now, maybe insights from back when I was cool will have some value.

Or maybe not. Back then, I had urged my fellow graduates to live each day like it was their last; now I wish I’d begged them to live each day like they’re about to be 40. Life hits different when you reach your late thirties, and it turns out that aging entails going to sleep each night healthy and sober only to wake up each morning inexplicably injured and progressively more hungover.

Yet if “be kind to your knees and liver” is insufficiently inspiring, then the speech I gave before any of you 2021 graduates were even alive is probably a better fit. At the very least, what follows might equip you to extrapolate a bit — to discern a snapshot of future selves that have been similarly ground through the gears of time.

A few preliminary admin notes, as facets of my two-decade-old remarks warrant disclaimer:

First, certain sentiments in my address suggest either that the censors were asleep at the switch, or that our diplomas had already been distributed. Take my nuggets of wisdom with a grain of salt. You wouldn’t heed life advice from the attention-seeking miscreant who sat behind you in math class, and that guy is a lot like the 18-year-old who wrote this speech. Periodt, no cap.

Second, rather than indict the cringey privilege that my speech radiates as a function of its pre-social media ignorance of other people and places, celebrate how unwittingly insulated from life’s most dire struggles my classmates and I were within our cocoon of woods and wildlife, friends and family, and a caring community.

Yes, I’ve met fascinating people and learned so much since my moment at that podium, but there’s also a lot about the world beyond New Scotland that I’ll never unsee, try as I might. So graduates, before you set off to greener pastures, organize your photos and journals to more efficiently look back at what you may yet come to realize was the unparalleled blessing of a youth in New Scotland.

Finally, my speech betrays signs of a creeping chronophobia that now cements every facet of my personality. But consider how justified was that anxiety about time’s passage. My speech was delivered in a world just after Columbine but just before September 11th, in a world after Challenger but before Columbia, after AOL but before Google, after pagers but before any device denoted with a lowercase “i.”  All those dates and devices materialized before your Class of 2021 identity came into being, as so much trivial grist for your U.S. History homework assignments.

But it was all real to me, once. And so, too, will you Gen Zetas conceive, experience, devise, and reinvent a reality that exists between now and your own address to the Class of 2041. The reality you inhabit now will someday seem only distantly familiar — an ephemeral moment in time memorialized only on dusty old wrinkled papers in your parents’ attic.  

Assuming, of course, that paper is even still a thing. Without further ado:


One of the tragedies of life is that time doesn’t stop. It’s hard to believe that once, a long time ago, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the very people now behind me, a kazoo in my mouth, eyes staring intently at Mrs. Fiddler, as I joined the newly designated Class of 2001 in singing “Mairzy Doats” and “Zip Up Your Zipper” at our kindergarten graduation.

Back then, I must not have realized that one day I would be leaving the people with whom over that past year I had become friends, and with whom over the next decade I would share my greatest childhood experiences. Back then, learning Mr. M’s theme song was the most important thing to me. Sometimes, I wish it still were.

I can’t remember why I wanted to grow up so fast. The world didn’t look so bleak when I was younger. I watch the news, I listen to my parents talk, I discuss current events with my teachers, and I realize that this is not the world I want to be a part of. I don’t understand school shootings, price wars, political correctness, economic concerns, or the AIDS virus. I never want to understand these things. I’d do high school all over again, exactly the same, if it meant I could be carefree and without the responsibility of making serious decisions just one more time.

Here we are, the Class of 2001, graduating again, before the very people who watched us take our first steps towards the big yellow limousine on that first day of school, and who must now watch us take our first steps towards the real world, and all that lies ahead. My kindergarten graduation was filled with a sense of anticipation, serving as a stepping stone for all that I would learn in the Voorheesville school district. Time passed at breakneck speed, and now, here I am today, at my high school graduation, watching one of the most significant chapters in the book of life come to a close.

Look to the sunrise with anticipation, look to the sunset with a sense of reflection, but don’t look at the midday sun; bright light is damaging to the retina. In other words, between the beginning and the end, think of neither; just enjoy all that the middle of your journey has to offer.

And that is my message today to all the underclassmen who’ve heard over and over that high school will be over before you know it. Although true, I won’t repeat the message, since it did nothing for me when I first heard it. The end will come soon enough, and when it does, you’ll realize that high school was just four years out of a life that may last 20 times as long. On the contrary, I urge you not to heed the ending of high school, for if you live [grades] 9 through 12 anxiously awaiting this final day, you’ll miss the countless beginnings that characterize every second of your life.

High school isn’t just your teachers, your books, your sports teams, your clubs, your family, or your friends. High school is you, at a certain point in time, when the world was still new to you, and every September brought a change in faces and a score of new questions waiting to be answered. Your schoolwork is not the aspect of high school you’ll remember when you’re behind the counter, or building someone’s house, or cramped in your office staring at paperwork. It is that age you will remember, and all the defining moments that went with it. Your first kiss, your senior prank, the independence that came with a driver’s license, the special friends you were with when trying to buy booze illegally for Friday’s party, and the discussions about a world that you had yet to fully understand around the cafeteria lunch table.

Underclassmen, here’s what little insight I can offer with some authority: Voorheesville is a great place to grow up if you know how to take advantage of the benefits. You have a sheltered community surrounding you, and parents who, ideally, will support you as you journey through adolescence. This is your time to make mistakes. This is the time to experience what being a teen is all about, while you still have people to care for you right around the corner if you get in too far over your head. At this age, you’re not only allowed to be stupid and ignorant, it’s expected! You have precious little time to enjoy this age, so I beg of you not to sweat the small stuff, to take the risks today that you might not tomorrow, to go after the things that bring you joy, and to not get hooked on any one source of pleasure since, when you’re young, there’s something new and magical at every turn.

Do the right thing. The right thing may not always be the popular thing, the legal thing, or the accepted thing, but it is the moral thing, the important thing, the thing you’ll smile about at the reunions when the only thing all you old people share is the common bond of prior youth. Please be safe, and relatively smart. Otherwise, you might not make it to that reunion at all. Parents, be understanding, but kids, give your parents a break. While you’re deciding what shirt goes with which shoes, they’re paying the bills and wistfully remembering their own childhood exploits that, let’s face it, are probably twice as “heroic” as yours.

Now, fellow graduates, we’re about to be those nagging, bill-paying parents. I have no idea how I’m going to cope with that. Here’s some advice that at least sounds right.

Every time you think life couldn’t get any better, take a moment to reflect that you’re being watched as you enjoy yourself, by the future you that longs again to be carefree and rebellious in a manner that’s wonderfully innocent and pure. Live for the moments you’ll carry with you into a future you can worry about tomorrow. Have something to look back on when you’re thrust into this odd world. If you have fun in the present, you’ll have fun in the future, reliving the past through memories that bring you joy.

High school was nothing but a quest to find out who we were. Whether we discovered the answer was not as important as the voyage itself. And to the students here today who will walk across this very stage in years to come, don’t ever close your eyes to yourself or all that’s around you. Except when you’re sleeping. Definitely get enough rest. Life passes you by when you can’t stay awake. Savor the fact that, for just a couple more years, 99 percent of the time there won’t be anything so important that we should lose sleep over it.

Today we see black and white. We know everything. We may be dead wrong about our assertions, but at least we’ve taken a stand about something. Along that road of life, we’ll begin to see gray, and understand less and less about the world and the 6 billion people with whom we share it. We must embrace this uncertainty. However, now is a time when the most stressful inquiry about our existence could be answered with a “whatever.” Let’s enjoy that. It’s fleeting.

If you look at the future in any way but as a dream, you’re taking your life for granted. What if there is no tomorrow? Life is a commodity, and every day you wake up, you should say to yourself: “I’ve been given another chance to live life to the fullest, and so I’ll live today as though it were my last day on Earth.” Unlike your parents and teachers, you have your whole life ahead of you. Don’t rush it. You’ll be in their shoes before you know it. Think about how fast high school went. The years will really start flying when we get older, when we don’t progress to the next grade level, when there are no summers off, when every day feels like the day before it.

If you live your life for the future, you’ll never live at all. You’ll only be a teen once, but may the experience you extract from this age be one you enjoy so much that you’d live it all over again. Once and forever: a teen.


I finished my address with a flourish, throwing two roses into the audience, one in honor of a beloved teacher, the other in honor of an adolescent crush. As I returned to my seat, I remember taking a second to feel my future self looking back at me. Here I am now, doing precisely that.

Yet as I write this, I’m suddenly less interested in what “future me” has to say, and instead listening to that “past me.” Life isn’t as certain as I thought it would be; hearing past me’s passionate insistence that I live for the present and surrender any entitlement to some unpromised future is phenomenal advice that, along the way, I somehow forgot to take.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2021, take a second to meet the gaze of “2041 you.”  Do you recognize what you see? He or she boasts the lingering influence of classmates who will very soon recede into your past, but who were nonetheless instrumental in shaping the 38-year-old you’ll soon become. Yet rather than straining to hear what he or she has to say, maybe now is the time to whisper the innate guidance that, someday, you’ll finally be wise enough to take.

Go forth and find out where you belong. For me, a wild 20-year odyssey is finally taking me back to Albany County. Word to Dorothy: What I set out in search of was right where I left it, back home. Sometimes it be like that. No cap.