As graduation night approached, Grandma realized that we had a problem. The previous year my mother had ordered a suit for me out of the catalogue. It was a two-piece made out of off-white nubbed cotton material. Unfortunately, I never liked it because it came in the mail just when I was terribly sick with yellow jaundice. She thought it would make me feel better to see my new suit so she showed it to me when I was so sick I wanted to throw up on it—and the suit and especially putting it on reminded me of how sick I had been and made me queasy.
That was not the real problem. The problem was that I had grown so much in six months that my arms and legs stuck out of that suit two or three inches. There was no way it could be altered. Fortunately, the folks had sent money for clothes and Grandma had bought a grey worsted suit with a zippered jacket for me in the fall. The legs and sleeves were only about an inch too short. Grandma let them down as far as she could and, with a white shirt and necktie, we made that do.
I can recall graduation night in great detail because of some mementoes that Grandma Stanley saved and passed along to my mother. They are a copy of that night’s commencement program with the notes I used on the podium hand written on the back, and the little table paper original manuscript of my valedictory address in my handwriting.
How Grandma got them was that I had folded them up before I departed and left them in the secret “safe” I had made in my bedroom by cutting a hole through the wallboard and inserting a square metal can. I used a photograph if Lindberg’s Lockheed Orion float-mounted monoplane to cover it. I was embarrassed to admit to Grandpa that I had cut a hole in the wall so I left the little papers there and secured the photograph to the wall over it with gummed paper tape.
There was a total of seventeen of us in that graduating class and the church was filled with family and friends. Some had to stand up in the back. I was very sorry that my mother and father could not be present but Grandma and Grandpa were in the front row. The class was seated on the raised platform behind the lectern that was used for the pulpit during church services.
My Uncle Claud Frieze, an elder in the church, rendered the invocation, then there was a song and after that Mary Neil delivered her salutatory address without making a mistake or being prompted. I was sitting with sweaty palms hoping that I could do as well. She was followed by County School Superintendent James Becker from Walnut Grove who made the commencement address. I did not really hear a word of it as I was concentrating too hard on what I had to say. After another song, it came my turn.
I approached the lectern with my kneecaps jerking but then, as I laid my page of notes before me and looked at the upturned familiar faces, something happened. I felt good about being there and I addressed them in a clear, confident voice to deliver the following rather pontifical but sincere address that I had written.
“Friends, teachers, and classmates: We, the graduating class of ’37 of Bona High School, are standing tonight in a period of transition. It is that period in which we leave our happy pasts behind us and step out to meet our futures in whatever way may be our destiny.
“The success of the future, which is as yet unknown, depends—in a large mearuse upon the foundation we have laid for it in the past few years we have been sheltered in these halls of learning.
“We have been guided all along by our teachers to whom we owe a debt of deepest gratitude we can only attempt to repay.
“Ever since we entered the sphere of their influence we have been looking eagerly forward to this even which will be the second most important milestone in our lives. We considered we had reached the first when we sat in this place two years ago. Now that the event has come again we welcome it with the realization that it is with a definite sense of sadness we gather here tonight.
“We have paused at the turning of the way and as we look out from the shelter we have always had onto the problems of the future, we realize how very insignificant we are and how important we falsely thought we were. But still we must realize that others will drop out of the scheme of things and we must be prepared to step in and play our part—however small it may be.
“Parents and Friends: We cannot leave this stage of life’s action without thaniking you from the bottom of our hearts for the start you have given us. We realize that if it had not been for your guidance we would never have made the start we did and would not have overcome many of the obstacles we have succeeded so far in in surmounting.
“You, as well as our teachers, have guided and sheltered us from the problems of life we were incapable of meeting alone; and when we were seemingly adrift and off course, you provided the beacon that guided us safely back again.
“To our Teachers we must also extend our earnest thanks. None of us realize how very often in the years to come we will look back and then begin to really appreciate the help you gave us. Doubtless there will be times when we will wish with all our hearts that we could return to the shelter of that guiding hand. But you have started us on the road to success we long for and have pointed the way to completion of the journey of our lives with an efficiency we can only hope to attain in our works as we go on.
“And may you ever be proud to point us out as products of your workmanship. I am sure that if at last we achieve the success we long for we will not take all the credit for ourselves, but will give a large share to those to whom it belongs—our teachers.
(I turned to the class.)
“And thus, classmates, we linger at the crossroads, the parting of the ways, in that last sad parting so long looked forward to. Our race together is almost run and we are nearing the end of the course where we must go forth, each to battle for himself.
“Doubtless, while we linger in this period of our lives, we all dream of great deeds and high positions in life, but—let us not hope for too much as we all realize that it is much better to fill a small job or position to overflowing rather than to be lost in a job too big for us that someone else might fill.
“By all means we must retain our ambition and dream of those bigger things in life, but let us not ruin the life we are destined to lead by grasping for that beyond our reach. As Malloch says in his immortal poem, ‘be the best of whatever you are’: ‘If you can’t be a pine of the top of the hill, be a scrub in the valley, but be the best little scrub by the side of the rill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a bush, be a bit of grass, and some highway happier make. If you can’t be a muskie, then just be a bass, but the liveliest bass in the lake. We can’t all be captains, some have to be crew, There’s something for all of us here. There’s big work to do, and lesser to do, and the task you must do is the near. If you can’t be a highway, then just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star—it isn’t by size that you win or you fail, but the best of whatever you are.’
“I thank you all.”
I returned to my seat to gratifying applause from the audience, the faculty, and my classmates. Grandma and Grandpa were beaming proudly and Grandma folded away the written copy of my speech.
My address was followed by the presentation of diplomas by Mr. John Hembree of Stockton. The benediction was then given by my grandfather, C. B. Stanley, in that incomparable sonorous voice that he used for recitals at community gathers and to render the morning prayer at church services.
My years a Bona School were finished. Now I was finally ready to leave the Ozark hills.