I was the guest speaker at my high school’s commencement last week. I know, God help us all. I’ve had a couple people ask what on earth I would talk about. I decided to just blab on about my story. (Note: writers aren’t orators).

by RYAN BOLTON

Let’s start here—congratulations. You’ve had the past few months to let this sentiment sink in I hope. This whole graduating business; you should be proud. I know all your parents, visibly beaming away in the audience, are proud. And let’s be honest, graduates, part of our job is to make our parents proud. I’m still trying every day myself.

I stand in front of you all, humbled. You see, I’m not an outstanding, remarkable individual. I’m sorry if I just dashed your hopes of having a Nobel Laureate address you this evening. My apologies. It was a mere eight years ago that I, myself, walked across this exact stage and received my certificate. (My parents were beaming away in the audience then, too.) It was during this time that I was best known for ollieing the 8-set staircase out front that you all walked up to enter the high school this evening. It was even captured on the front page of the high school paper at the time, and if my memory serves, it was below the headline, “Skateboarding is not a crime!” exclamation mark and all. Heavy hitting stuff, I know. I was also the kid with blonde dreadlocks, which awarded me the honour of “most changed” from Grade 9 to graduation in my high school yearbook.

Oh, the fond memories.

As you can see, I’m just a normal guy, like all of you sitting there, patiently waiting for me to get off the stage so we can get the show on the road and you can make Mom and Dad proud. But before this, allow me to tell you a brief story. As I’m now paid to tell stories for a living, let me tell you a story. My story.

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In high school, I joked around. Skateboarding was most important to me. In school, I did enough to get by and keep my marks at a respectable level. I didn’t want to be marked a browner by any means. Upon graduation, I knew I wanted to tell stories. And that was pretty much it. So, spread out on my kitchen table, with my mom leaning over my shoulder, I perused seven university acceptance packages for English and a couple for creative writing. I went with the package that offered me the best scholarship. Bad move.

I left that fall, my car bursting with miscellaneous objects like skateboards and bed sheets, for the University of Windsor. I studied creative writing, which was cool, but you don’t just become an author, I quickly learned, being naïve and all. In the middle of second year, the house that I was living in with close friends burned down. (It’s a story that involves cooking with grease and using water as a fire extinguisher. Also a bad move.) That was the last straw for me living in the armpit of Ontario. I was out.

After transferring to Wilfrid Laurier University (in part for chasing a girl as we are wont to do; I am still with her, so that sojourn paid off), I completed my English degree. More than the education, I worked as an editor for the school’s magazine, Blueprint, in my last year. I also contributed to the award-winning school newspaper, The Cord Weekly. I was hooked. Like a depraved drug addiction, I wanted more. To see your name in print with a story below is intoxicating. The throes of publication addiction had taken hold.

I decided if writing was the route I was going to take, I would do an authentic test run. Following graduation, I boarded a commercial plane for the first time and headed to Ghana, Africa. For three months I was a journalist trainer and foreign correspondent for Journalists for Human Rights in a Liberian refugee camp. Having had their lives uprooted from a brutal civil war about diamonds, wasn’t always easy. But they were more than proud and resilient. Hearing their stories and living with these refugees as friends in this haphazard, 30,000-strong refugee camp cemented my desire to relay stories that had a purpose.

I enrolled in journalism school that fall.

Once again—although, sure, my education was enlightening—I started to work as a writer with Sheridan’s campus magazine, TRAVIS. After eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of TRAVIS and working with a team that oozed talent, we won a couple awards. I got published in some national publications and got serious about writing. I worked for the Burlington Post as a feature writer, at Dose.ca as a writer, freelanced for Adbusters and Spacing magazine and even chatted with the Jonas brothers about metaphors. (Oh, the perks of magazine writing!)

I now work as a book editor and writer with Me to We, a social enterprise that supports Free The Children, the international charity based in Toronto. I get to tell stories about a young woman that left her American suburban life behind to live with the Maasai people in rural Kenya. Or stories about a young man without legs that walks on his hands and is armed with an impenetrable smile. Or to try and encourage a friend, a former child soldier from the Congo, to tell his story, too.

During my almost three years with Free The Children, I have traveled to Africa numerous times where I continually get my butt kicked at soccer, built a school in rural Ecuador surrounded by rolling mountains and learned some basic Mandarin in Chichang, China, a city rocked by the devastating Earthquake in 2008. It was there, in rural China, that I learned the story of Abing, a 10-year-old girl that had her chest cracked open two years ago for open-heart surgery. It was a needed surgery that almost didn’t happen, until an angel donor from America sponsored her. But it didn’t stop her from walking 10 kilometers each way to school every day. It was in Abing’s village that we were building a new school alongside the villagers after hers collapsed in the earthquake. We were breaking ground on a school that would eliminate Abing’s 10-kilometer walk. Her new school opened up this fall, I’m proud to say.

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Now, out of all this, there’s one thing I want you to take away. Well, hopefully a couple things—like always brush your teeth and continue to make your parents proud—but to also have no regrets.

I love Hanover. This is my home, where I was raised and where my parents and my two best friends, Josh and Chris, still live. This is home. Hanover was a great place to be raised, to learn how to ride a skateboard, to drive a car (well, somewhat—my beloved lipstick-red Nissan 240sx is taking a time out in my friends garage here in town after a slight indiscretion), learn how to write an essay in this very school, and attempt to woo girls as a lifeguard-in-training at the indoor pool just a block away.

Now, I know that it’s a big, scary world out there. And friendly Hanover has a way of keeping us warm, a place we all know intimately and are always welcome. It’s where our families reside. Where some of our first and best memories were formed. But if you have ever had the urge, the slightest yearning to travel overseas, to pursue secondary education elsewhere, to take a chance, allow this to be your gentle push. Go for it. Go explore. Pursue higher education. Learn as you live out of a suitcase in Udaipur, India. Learn as you help build a school in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Take risks. Learn from your mistakes. I can ensure you it will be worth it. What’s your story going to be? Write your own story. And write it well, graduates.

In preparing this speech, if you want to call it that, I stumbled upon JDSS’s fall newsletter. At the very end of the newsletter there was a simple headline that read “final thoughts” with the following quote scratched below: “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” – Anonymous. Allow me to read that again: “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” I couldn’t agree any more.

So, graduates, what’s your story? Write it well. Thank you.

Written by Ryan Bolton

Ryan is a Toronto-based writer and photographer that likes to break the rules. His work has taken him around the world to do what he truly loves—storytelling. And drinking cold beer.