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Writing your graduation speech

Think fast. Last Minute U just called and they've tapped you as the commencement speaker. In a moment of joy, gratitude, and - be honest - self-importance, you accept.

So what are you going to say?

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On pages 18 and 19, you can get some ideas of how other luminaries rose to the occasion this year. Some are funny, others hopeful. Some get pointy-headed. Still others speak from hearts seasoned by experience.

Tired platitudes can abound at graduations. But read enough good speakers' words and you start to think life can be pretty inpiring if you don't lose focus on the big picture, if you keep the volume high on the soundtrack that trumpets grand ideals and the enduring power of dreams.

So what are you going to say?

Your audience doesn't have to be the twentysomethings swarming toward The First Job. Why save the big-picture stuff till then? Why not address fifth-graders, say, heading off to middle school, or eighth-graders racing toward the final four? Even try it at home?

You can talk for 5 seconds (that's an honorary degree) or 5 minutes (you'd better keep them laughing). Or mix it up. That's the approach of Carey Jenkins, a Paterson, N.J., teacher whose story appeared in these pages recently. He takes on tough-sell kids who might not be expected to stay the course. He doesn't wait till the end of the year to tell them that each individual counts and has a purpose. Every day, he relentlessly hammers home his favorite message: "Have we got plans for you!" And before long, his students learn to believe it.

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