I am not speaking at any commencement ceremonies this year. That’s a good thing.
I once wrote commencement speaking engagements are “speaker’s hell,” and I meant it. No one in the audience wants to hear a speech. The graduates just want to get their diplomas and get on with the party. The parents just want to hear their child’s name called.
About 25 years ago I was invited to speak at commencement at Keystone Job Corps in Drums. Aware no one would care about what I had to say, I prepared a speech that was only 8 minutes. The ceremony was outside and it was about 85 degrees. As soon as I began I knew my speech was about 7 minutes too long. I left most of it out, cut to the closing and sat down. They all looked relieved. But not as relieved as I was.
If I were called upon to speak at a commencement, however, I know exactly what I would talk about. I’d just tell the grads about “The Bear.”
It would be easy, too. I’m always telling young people about “The Bear.” I’ve been telling young people about “The Bear” for close to 30 years.
“The Bear” was Jim “The Bear” LaNunziata.
Picture someone who would be nicknamed “The Bear” and you have a pretty good idea of what Jim looked like. Some might say he was more a bear than a real bear.
This bear was as kind as he was powerful, however, and that’s what made him really special. One might not suspect it at first glance, but Jim actually was a “Teddy” of a “Bear.”
Everyone should have a friend like “The Bear” and I was sure glad I did. I was in my early 20s in those days and that meant you might find me in a bar most any night of the week. I learned quickly that a guy who smiles as much as I do runs a good chance of ticking off someone in a bar. It seems happy people really annoy unhappy people. And when you throw several beers into the mix, well, things can get testy.
Like this one night at McDermott’s, a little place on South Main in Wilkes-Barre, when, as the lights went on at 2 a.m. signaling it was closing time, a surly guy walked up to me and slurred, “I been telling my buddy all night I’m gonna go over there and wipe the smile off that guy’s face.”
Well, that’s what he attempted to say. He did not get the whole sentence out. It was hard to talk with The Bear’s hand around his throat.
There’s a good chance his feet were off the ground, too.
“I’ll take care of this, Eddie,” The Bear said. “See you at The Main.”
“The Main” was The Main Diner on Wyoming Avenue in Exeter. We all gathered there after the bars closed to eat fried eggs and french fries with gravy and pretty much guarantee we’d be facing by-pass surgery 30 years later.
The Bear earned his living running a pool room but as his customers got younger and younger while he grew older and older, he decided to convert the pool room to a lunch room. And that’s where a lesson for graduates begins.
The Bear sought me out to do advertising for his new venture. I was only too happy to oblige. I did owe him a favor or two.
When I asked if he was going to serve breakfast, he kinda yelled at me. “Heck no,’ he said. “No way I’m getting up early in the morning.”
And how about dinner? “Nope, no dinner,” he said more calmly. “It’s a lunch room, get it? Lunch. I’m not tying up my evenings.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “What are you going to serve in your lunch room?”
“The usual lunch stuff,” The Bear answered. “Sandwiches, hoagies, burgers, footlong hot dogs …”
“Stop right there,” I said. “I’ve got your angle: Jim’s Lunch, The Best Footlong in the Valley.”
I was thinking about The New Yorker magazine, which used to call itself “the world’s best magazine,” and all those diners in New York City that claim to serve “the world’s best cup of coffee.”
“I can’t say that,” the Bear said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“How do I know I have the best footlong in the Valley?”
“How do you know you don’t?”
“What if someone else says they have the best footlong in the Valley?”
“Then you’ll make a fortune,” I said. “People will be coming from all over to see who’s right.”
“I’m not sure,” the Bear said.
“Trust me,” I answered.
“Eddie, you’re a genius,” The Bear boomed at me a few days after his grand opening. “People were lined up down the sidewalk even before I unlocked the doors. They all wanted ‘the best footlong in the Valley.’ I sold out.”
The Bear was thrilled.
For a week or two.
“Thanks a lot, Buddy,” he grumbled at me one day. “You’ve ruined my life.”
“What’s the problem, Bear?”
“You’re the problem,” he barked. “I couldn’t just have a simple little lunch room. No, I had to serve ‘the best footlong in the Valley.’ Well, you know what ‘the best footlong in the Valley’ has to have? It has to have fresh buns. So now I’m at the bakery early in the morning. And it has to have freshly chopped onions. So when I get back from the bakery, I start chopping onions. And you know what I’m not doing? I’m not sleeping late. All because of you.”
A week or so went by and The Bear showed up again.
“Thanks a lot, Buddy. You’ve ruined my life.”
“The ‘best footlong in the Valley,’ that’s what. I started thinking about how my mother used to sauté hot peppers in olive oil. So I figured I’d make a few for the hot dogs. Who knew they’d be such a hit. So, am I going our with my friends at night? No. I’m in the kitchen sautéing hot peppers.”
So, here’s the lesson, graduates. It has two parts.
First, just as with The Bear and his ‘best footlong in the Valley,’ if you say you are the best at something, a lot of people are going to believe you. And second, when a lot of people believe you are the best at something, then you have to be the best.
Now, I am not saying you should open a lunch room and start grilling hot dogs. What I am saying is you should start saying you’re the best at something, even if you only say it to yourself.
That something can be anything: best student, best son or daughter, best brother or sister, best boyfriend or girlfriend, best guitar player, best counter person at Burger King, best human being.
Start saying you’re the best and someone is going to believe you’re the best. Even if it’s only you.
And when someone believes you are the best, then you have to be the best.
You probably won’t be picking up rolls at 6 a.m. or simmering peppers late at night, but just like The Bear, you’ll be bounding our of bed early and putting every minute of your day (and night) to good use. And before long you won’t be just saying you’re the best. You’ll be the best.
You’ll be the best you you can be.
You owe yourself nothing less.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.