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Minnesota 2020 Journal: My Hometown Commencement Address

May 27, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Graduating Westbrook-Walnut Grove High School Class of 2011, congratulations. Thirteen years of formal education lay behind you. But, a great deal more lies ahead.

Thirty years ago, I shared the gym stage with 29 members of the Walnut Grove High School Class of 1981. I sat, alphabetically assigned, between Laurie Van De Wiele and David Vogel in the third of three rows, facing the community. Being in the back, we didn’t have to worry about keeping our knees together or bear the front row’s burden of appearing interested.

I delivered my class’ student address. It involved slicing and reassembling an apple as a life metaphor. I recall this mainly because I was worried that I’d drop the knife—yes, I brought a knife to school; those were different times—or the apple. It was one of those “life is possibility” speeches. And, I still believe that. But, you face very different challenges, entering your adult world at a particularly challenging moment.

Thirty years ago, I had no clear understanding of what the Minnesota State Legislature and Governor Al Quie had banged out in the 1981 legislative session. Today, I’m sorry to report, that Minnesota has, apart from an agriculture bill, no budget deal. A month from now, Minnesota’s state government will quite likely shutdown. That’s a heckuva welcome to the post-secondary school world and, on behalf of most “grown-ups”, I’m sorry.

I don’t want to dwell on the State Legislature’s failure. I want to explain why you must expect that education will be a regular, on-going part of your lives; why that’s important; and why it makes our lives better and our communities stronger.

Growing up in the middle of a fast changing world, it’s easy to assimilate an accelerating pace without considering its impact. Looking back over my thirty post-high school years, combined with looking forward to the next thirty, I see that life can, indeed, feel like a sprint. We do not have to live it at that frenetic, anxious tempo.

Life’s joy is found in learning, experience and revelation. Sometimes, we learn to better pursue an avocational interest like following the Twins or exploring deer habitat in the off-season, studying movement patterns in anticipation of the fall hunt. Sometimes we learn unexpected things, gleaned from parenting or partner relationships. And, sometimes we learn new stuff because it’s part of our job to learn it.

Whatever you choose to do, the chances are excellent that your job will be substantially different ten years later. Our world is mostly populated with people who will work harder, longer, and for dramatically lower pay in profoundly unsafe working conditions because they have little choice. In our state and nation, therefore, we must expect to work smarter, betting that our public investments in schools, healthcare, jobs and transportation create opportunity. Doing that requires regular, on-going financial commitment.

Your WWGHS education is a starting point. It’s a platform for life-long learning. And, it’s inseparable from this community. Your education isn’t something given grudgingly; its tangible proof of this community’s on-going investment in itself.

Despite the big graduation celebration with the nifty robes and funny hats, your graduation really isn’t about you so much as it’s about us. Graduation is an annual reminder that community is important, that it requires our best, most diligent efforts to continuing growing. That it yields opportunity, regularly renewing itself.

I really wish that Minnesota’s legislative policymakers shared the Westbrook and Walnut Grove Schools community faith in you. If that were the case, we’d have a state budget compromise, resolving Minnesota’s $5.2 billion budget deficit through tough program cutting decisions but paired with tax increases on Minnesota’s richest 2%.

In Cottonwood County, that tax increase would only affect 75 people. In Redwood County, it’s 83 people. Cottonwood has 5,410 taxpayers and Redwood has 7,728. Governor Dayton’s 4th tier tax proposal affects exactly 1.4% and 1.1% of each county’s taxpayers respectively. You’re a graduating class of 50. Minnesota state legislators are willing to shutdown Minnesota’s entire state government to protect the interests of roughly 100 more people than your class is large, over two counties.

But, I mean to congratulate you, not rain on your parade. My life growing up in rural Minnesota forged me; everything that has come after is just polishing. I trust that you’ll learn the same. Work hard, do your best, be a good neighbor, ask smart questions and don’t be cowed by adversity. If you do those things, we’ll all be fine. And again, sorry about the budget mess.

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