A year ago I had the honor of returning to my alma mater to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class of Catawba College, Class of 2013. Since then, parts of that speech have been shared in various forms over the Internet , so I am officially posting it here in it’s entirety on my website.
It has been exactly 10 years since I sat in the very seats you are sitting in now, and I remember everything about this day, from what I wore, to where my family sat, to who I hung out with at the parties I went to later that evening. What stands out for me most about my graduation day however was not a sense of accomplishment, as I had anticipated, but rather a sense of disconnectedness. I felt like I was outside of my body, watching everything that was happening to me, but not really taking part in any of it. I had been prepared to feel overwhelmed with happiness and excitement on this special day, and I did feel those things, to a certain extent, but I also felt disengaged. I never examined why until I was asked to be here today to give this commencement speech.
This day, the one you are living now and the one I lived a decade ago, marks a very extraordinary time in a person’s life, in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate until now. We spend our entire childhoods waiting to graduate to the next level. We start off in diapers and then we graduate to big boy or big girl underwear. We start off eating mushy foods and then we move on to solids. We all know what is supposed to come next- it’s taught to us, like a story. Once we master one thing, we get to graduate to another thing that is a little more challenging, and so on and so on. We start off looking at books with pictures and then we move on to reading books with words. We graduate middle school and then we graduate high school and then we graduate college. But see, that’s where my story stopped. Ten years ago I was graduating. I was sitting on this very campus with some of these very same professors who supported me and cared for me for 4 years, and I realized that my college graduation was as far as I had been taught to go. I didn’t know what came next, and my parents and professors couldn’t tell me, either. Everything felt bizarre to me on my graduation day because I no longer had any guidelines to follow, and I felt really lost.
Some of you will be able to relate to this and others will not. Your plans might be set already to go to grad school right after Catawba, or to look for a job, or to plan an engagement and start a family. But to all of you that think you have your stories figured out, I want to assure you that you do not. Your story cannot be figured out yet, and you don’t want it to be. At my own graduation I was frozen with fear and unable to fully take part in what was happening because of it; the end of my 4 years at Catawba had suddenly brought me more freedom than I knew what to do with, because it was now MY turn to map out how I wanted my story to go. It was my turn to write it. I got to decide what I was graduating to next. It’s one thing to tell everyone that your story is about moving to New York City to be on Broadway, but it is quite another thing to make that story a reality, to believe in it with all your heart and to make it come true.
For a while after I graduated, my story was to work at Chili’s selling baby back ribs to newly married, pregnant girls that I had gone to high school with. My dad is a postal worker and my mom is a property manager. They both have strong work ethics and weak bank accounts, so though they always supported my dreams of becoming a professional actor, I knew that it was going to be all MY responsibility to make it happen. Which meant moving back to Birmingham and working three jobs to save as much money in as short a time as I could. I was miserable having to live back home in a city I no longer felt comfortable in, working at jobs that I hated, but I knew that writing my own story would not come without its’ sacrifices. Eventually I saved up enough money for two month’s rent and a UHaul, and, along with fellow Catawba grad Amy Stran, we both graduated from living at home to living on our own in Manhattan.
I continued to write my story, to lay out all the things I wanted to do so that, one by one, I could conquer them and move on to the next level. Everything went smoothly for a while- it was a miracle that we found an affordable place to live that didn’t have a bathtub sitting in the middle of the living room, but we did. Within our first month in the city, Amy met her future husband and I got cast as a lead in an unimpressive (but paying) Off Broadway musical. The next chapters I planned to put in my story were to get an agent, to join the actor’s unions, to become a Broadway star, and then, I guess be happy forever and ever. But it did not happen that way. Here, my story started writing itself without my help at all. After 6 months, the Off Broadway show I was in closed unexpectedly, and just like that, I was jobless and having to scrounge in our desk drawers for change so that I could have enough money to eat. I survived on peanut butter and Wendy’s Dollar menus for weeks.
I was auditioning all the time but not getting cast in anything, and eventually I knew I had to either get a “regular” job or move back home to Birmingham, which I could not bear to do. So. I started temping as a receptionist at a high end fashion house that makes VERY expensive gowns for celebrities to wear at red carpet events. Every once in a while I would get to the studio early to walk into the show room before the designers had come into work, and I would run my fingers over the silks and sequins on the dresses, imagining myself wearing them as I received one Tony award after another. If I stayed at this place, I knew I would have job security and benefits and a steady paycheck for the first time in my young life, but I also knew that working there would ensure that I’d never write the story I originally wanted for myself. It was a tough decision, some might even say a stupid one, but I trusted my gut, and within a week of quitting my receptionist job, I was hired as a waitress and cast in the chorus of a tiny production called “Believe In Me, A BigFoot Musical” in which I had two lines. I had no idea at the time, but Bigfoot was going to change everything I knew about where my story was going.
I spent my first few years in NYC trying to manage everything that I wanted to happen to me, mapping out exactly how I wanted to succeed. Some of it happened and some of it got derailed, but at one point I realized that the trick was not to get so caught up in the writing of my story, but to get caught up in the living of it. To recognize that there was power not only in changing the things I was unhappy with, but also in relinquishing control and letting myself get swept up in this beautiful life I was making for myself, the good AND the bad parts. Any normal person probably would have said no to accepting such a small role in a show like Bigfoot the Musical, but I had just spent several months behind a desk answering phones all day, so there was comfort for me in returning to what I had spent so much time nurturing at Catawba; a passion for storytelling onstage, sharing a rehearsal space and harmonizing with beautiful voices. On our final night of performance, there was a man in the audience named Frank who for some reason was riveted by the delivery of my two lines I had in the show, (more proof for all you theatre majors out there that there really are no small parts!). Frank was friends with a producer who was looking to recast the title role in a musical he was working on, and within a week I had auditioned and been cast.
I graduated from chorus member of Bigfoot the Musical to my very first starring role at a prestigious theatre in Philadelphia, and over the course of the next several years I joined the actors unions, got an agent and a manager, and started working regularly in commercials, film, and television. This is how my story has gone. I never anticipated that film or tv was something that I would be a part of, was something that I would even enjoy, but it is, and I do. I graduated from steady employment in the entertainment industry to falling in love with Claire, my partner, who has supported and loved me courageously, and who has become an even bigger part of my story than I ever imagined another individual would. I graduated from falling in love to feeling brave enough to take my art seriously, starting my own web comic and freelancing as an illustrator. As of last week, I am officially a published author and artist, having contributed a comic I wrote and drew to an anthology called “The Letter Q”, which is a book about queer writers penning letters to themselves as young adults. Of all that I have accomplished in the 10 years since I have graduated from Catawba, this is the thing of which I am most proud, sharing my story with the LGBTQ community in support, in love, and in solidarity. It turns out that my story isn’t about one trajectory at all. My story bounces around; it has highs and lows, it veers off in one direction and then reverses and revisits areas it passed by in other years. So far, I still have not made it to Broadway; instead I have found immense joy in crafting my own story-telling technique, connecting with other people who may not have a voice of their own, and I cherish this more than anything my 22 year old self could have ever conjured.
My hope for you, class of 2012, is that you embrace the responsibility of drafting your own stories with gratitude and grace, that you allow yourselves to get swept up in the beautiful, unexpected moments of your life without losing sight of what makes you feel both happy and whole. I urge you to write your stories with vigor and commitment. To allow yourself to make mistakes. To relish in the journey of your story, and to remember to always write in pencil.