How to Live a Life of Privilege

Today I’ll be speaking at the graduation for a Christian home-school group here in Tennessee. [Read more…]

Fifth Grade “Graduation” and the Sweat Suit Mafia

At our school, we celebrate fifth grade graduation, which is less pleasant than attending a “baby’s first birthday party.” Both events sometimes come off as photo ops, designed for the adults instead of the kids theoretically honored… but at least you don’t have to dress up for the birthday parties.

Nevertheless, my son Austin “graduated” from fifth grade last night, so we put him up in a starched shirt and tie and watched from the wooden church pews as they sang songs that caused the eyes of the moms around me to mist. It’s not that I’m not sentimental. Rather, my moments of nostalgia do not follow a schedule or show up on demand. They might seize me while doing laundry, when I realize the grass stained pants I’m folding are too small. (Already? Didn’t I just buy them?) Or, when I set the table, and realize that I won’t be putting five plates down forever. Or, when I take a sip of water out of a Dixie cup (the taste of childhood, right after toasted cheese sandwiches) – or get a whiff of the clothes Naomi was wearing that still hold the scent of her loving African orphanage. Or when my oldest daughter who seemed to say her first word yesterday (“lello” for the color) is now asking me to borrow my shoes.

In other words, I’m incredibly sappy, but the ceremonies – with their awards and attendance records and the camera-toting cavalcade of parents – simply don’t do it for me.

So last night, I sat there and clapped at the appropriate times. People smiled. Moms grabbed Kleenex. Teachers cried. I was supposed to feel some sort of combination of sadness about childhood slipping away and melancholy over old photos showing the same kids in kindergarten… a lot shorter and pudgier and wider-eyed. Still, I felt nothing.


My friend Tabby was one row in front of me. She’s a parent of the kid my son hated for the first day of kindergarten because he hit my son’s desk one too many times. On the second day, they discovered they both loved Legos and they’ve been best friends ever since.

Adult friendships are not easy to come by. When I’ve lived in more transient communities – like Ithaca, NY, Philadelphia, or Manhattan – adults seem to easily come and go from people’s lives, so striking up a friendship in the community was no big deal. But in small rural towns, your friend set is pretty much established by strict parameters – you’re friends with fellow church congregants, old friends with whom you attended high school, or co-workers.

I didn’t expect to be friends with Tabby. Yet, as she and a few of the other moms compared notes about fieldtrips, reminded each other about homework, and arranged countless playdates and sleepovers, a friendship was born.  In addition to Tabby, I met Kris, Monica, and Lauren. After school drop off, we’d go to a local gym and talk on the treadmill, causing one of our husbands to coin the term “Sweat Suit Mafia.” The name stuck though we didn’t wear sweat suits, our commitment to exercise waxed and waned, and we — as far as you know — haven’t killed anyone.

Also, we’d go to lunch every week. Collectively, we’ve dealt with many issues over Jack Daniels pie at Square Market. (Almost every time someone ordered that dessert, another would invariably quip, “hold the pie.”) We’ve dealt with a washing machine literally broken more than it worked; struggles with diabetes; complications related to a child with hearing loss and eyesight problems; a birth; an adoption; conversations about government more intense than anywhere in DC; a husband deployment to Iraq; an African mission trip;  job changes, financial crises, shopping excursions, hand gun purchases, and conversations about discipline, sex, money, politics, and religion.

Yes, we’re all Christians, though we attend different congregations. This may seem like a total lack of diversity, however, sometimes southern denominational differences are harder to overcome than any real religious differences. This was best typified the time a Church of Christ neighbor realized we no longer attended his brand of church. “Well,” he said, “Isn’t it nice how we can all stand here in our yards, getting along even though you are Presbyterians?”

My husband, home during leave from the war, said, “Yep, we’re just like the Sunnis and the Shiites.”

Kris moved away, which almost dissolved the group.

The Sweatsuit Mafia may not agree on free-will or the five tenets of Calvinism, but we’ve stuck together over the years… barely. When Kris moved away, we went through a dry spell. She was more spiritual and nicer than the rest of us, and the group suffered in her absence. We did fewer Bible studies and the one we did pull together ended up disintegrating when I did some home construction. My painter, when he’d see us together looking over paint samples, would ask, “How’s the Holy Spirit study going?”

Last night, the “Mafia” was spread out all over the auditorium as we sat with grandparents taking pictures of our uncomfortably dressed children commemorating a so-called “graduation.” When all of our kids got an award for having all A’s, Tabby looked at me and whispered, “It’s good parenting.” Then, Monica’s daughter read a sentimental poem that caused parents around me to sniffle. My cynicism prevented me from listening to the actual poem, but I had a lump in my throat because it was Monica’s daughter who was reading it! Was that actual emotion I felt? Then, when Lauren’s son won the most prestigious award of the year – for demonstrating Christian values — all of the Mafia members burst into tears of joy and pride.

And it struck me.

The Mafia has provided so much more than latest copy of the Restoration Hardware catalog and details of the homework my son left in his locker. These ladies have enriched my life – and the life of my three children – more than they can ever know.

And it took an overly sentimental 5th grade graduation to help me really feel that gratitude.

Thanks, Kris, Lauren, Monica, and Tabby. It’s been a good six years… and I’m sorry I never helped you with collecting boxtops or organizing fruit sales.


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Graduates, It’s Not About You

One morning not too long ago, I was doing my normal morning cruise through my favorite news websites when I came a story about a commencement speaker controversy at a Northeastern college.  There’s nothing remarkable about such controversies.  In fact, if a university doesn’t have a commencement speaker controversy, either the university chose one of the nine universally-popular people on the planet (Will Ferrell is one of them, I’ll leave it to you to figure out the other eight), or the students are just too (perpetually) hung over to care.  What caught my attention was the first line of the angry students’ Facebook page:  “Commencement was supposed to be about us.”

“About us.”  Really?

That single comment caused me to daydream… If I were ever asked to give a commencement speech, it would go something like this:

Congratulations on your important, though modest, achievement.  Your graduation is important because it is — for all too many people in this country — considered a necessary prerequisite for full participation in our nation’s economic and cultural life.  This belief is misguided for a number of reasons — we significantly over-value economic advancement, stress education over hard work, and often go deeply into student loan debt which will handcuff us for decades.  But it is widespread nonetheless.  So your graduation is important.

It’s also important for other, more virtuous reasons.  Many of you — though not all of you — worked hard during college, and I congratulate you for your hard work.  Many of you — though not all of you — made financial sacrifices to afford college, and I congratulate you for your thrift and far-sightedness.  A few of you — not many — achieved family dreams by being the first to graduate college, and I congratulate you for honoring the legacy of those who sacrificed and struggled before you.  Yes, your graduation is important.

But make no mistake.  This achievement is modest.  Millions of Americans get a degree.   Go ahead and pop those champagne corks, but not for your uniqueness or talent, but rather to commemorate a rite of passage, for your lifelong connection with your college community, and for the satisfaction of a task completed.

How should you think of yourselves on this day of important but modest achievement?  I’d propose you shouldn’t think much about yourself at all.  The richest life is not “about us” – it’s about others.  It’s about service — and not just the obvious service of volunteerism or charitable giving.  Some of the most unpleasant and self-righteous people I know give away quite a bit of money and ladle out more than their share of soup at the soup kitchen.  The best lives are lived by people who count others as better than themselves and place others’ needs above their own.  Every day.  Including this day.

Who are you here with?  A father who worked long hours to afford your tuition check?  Honor him on this day.  A mother who struggled alone to provide for you and teach you how to live as an adult?  Honor her on this day.  Start a habit of turning “your” days into days to show kindness and respect for others and choose, day by day, moment by moment, to bless others rather than drain their emotional and sometimes financial resources through your own selfish demands.

This is not a call for perfection but instead a request for a mindset — an attitude of proportionate humility that you carry with you every day of your life.

I’ll never forget my law school graduation.  It was one of the best days of my life.  Literally, a top five day.  I had worked quite hard (though not nearly as hard as I would work in my first “real job”), I was graduating from Harvard  (that’ll make a person puff up with pride), and I was eager to take on the world as an idealistic young lawyer.

My mother and father were there on a beautiful day, and so was my grandmother — a history teacher from rural Mississippi who began her career in a one-room schoolhouse.  She was widowed at a young age but picked up the pieces of her life, went to graduate school and then traveled much of the world in her quest to see and experience the places she’d long taught about. My earliest memories are of hours sitting by her side as she read from books about America’s past and present.  I love this country in no small part because she loved it so much.  I love learning because she loved learning.  And I love life because she loved life – and attacked it with courage and great joy.

But despite this deep bond between us, for the vast majority of my graduation day, I felt – and acted — as if I was the center of my little universe, moving from friend to friend, laughing, talking about the last three years, and generally behaving as if my family were much-beloved baggage.

After a whirlwind day filled with two commencement ceremonies (one university-wide, and one just for the law school), meals, and parties, we ended the day with on a boat cruise in Boston harbor.  I spent most of that cruise the same way I spent the day, hanging out with my friends.  But then, just as the night was about to end, I looked to the back of the boat and saw my grandmother, sitting alone and looking at the beautiful Boston skyline.  I was stricken by the sudden thought that I hadn’t spent time with her, and walked outside to sit beside her.

“Nana, are you doing ok?”

She was an amazing-looking woman, towering over others at almost 6 feet tall, a white head-full of hair, and enormous black glasses.  She looked at me, gave a big smile, and drawled, “David, just shoot me now, while I’m happy.”

She was happy because her grandson was graduating from Harvard.  She was happy because we were celebrating in the historic city where our nation was born.  She was happy because it was a beautiful night.  She was happy because she was seeing the fruits of her love and labor in my own education.

And I was happy because she was happy.

Nana lived for a few more years, and we spoke often of that day in Boston — Nana’s day.  One of the best days.

So, this commencement is not really “about you.”  In fact, no single day of your life will be solely “about you.”  Not even your birthday.  In 1998 my grandmother died, and a few months later, my daughter was born.  We named her Camille Ruth in honor of Nana, Ruth French, and hoped she’d have a little of Nana’s spunk and zest for life.  So far, so good.  For her ninth birthday, she showed she had Nana’s appreciation for history by asking to visit Benjamin Franklin’s print shop in Philadelphia.

In other words, your life has been made possible (and inspired) by a host of people.  So, graduates, take this occasion to honor, encourage, and bless them on this, their day.

And then prepare to do that every day, for the rest of your life.

Writer’s note:  This post originally appeared in May 2010 on (before we joined the Patheos family), and was one of SixSeeds’ most-read posts.  I slightly updated for this graduation season.

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