Marcos Bretón

A message of hope – and failure – for graduates

If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have worried so much. I wouldn’t have been so insecure and frightened during that essential period of discovery on the way to adulthood.

I would have been nicer to my parents and spent far more time appreciating all their sacrifices so that I could become the first in my family to graduate from an American university.

That was 29 years ago, in late May of 1986. It was a moment that was so significant – without that diploma, statistics show my life would have been much harder – and yet graduation day is barely a blip in my memory. It’s an irony revisited every year at this time, especially when I see published commentaries with a variation of this headline: “What I wish someone had told me on my graduation day.”

These are often lamentations of time misspent or opportunities wasted – time and opportunities that might have been redeemed had “someone” taken the tassel turner aside and said, “Here, do this and you’ll prosper.”

While reading the joyous Facebook posts of friends whose children are graduating from high school and college, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have listened back then if someone had tried to clue me into the special sauce of life.

What did I know on my graduation day except some remedial dream of a life formed in absence of perspective?

If I were to talk to a graduate today – and at 52, I guess I fit the bill of an old dude prattling on while young eyes glaze over – I would say this: I’m glad my formative dream did not come true. What actually happened to me in the last 29 years was much greater, much richer, than anything my 23-year-old brain could have imagined.

No one could have told me that on graduation day. I wouldn’t have understood it. But a less idealistic – and far more realistic – message might have registered.

What often happens as we exhort graduates to pursue their dreams is that we forget to tell them that no success is achieved without failure. We forget to tell them that it’s not a question of if they will fail at something, but when. You’re going to get disillusioned. Some people will hurt you. You may not end up in your chosen field of study. You may feel abused, underappreciated, exploited, cheated and overmatched.

I had no idea some of this was coming my way. But when it did, I felt despair.

For years, I used to recall my difficult arrival into the workforce with bitter recriminations – but not anymore. That period of time set the table for every great thing that has happened since. Life got better when I stopped trying to cover up the rough spots and instead accepted them. In our push to pump up our kids, we fill them full of platitudes too often devoid of our own hard lessons.

We try to tell young people that they can control their own destinies when – at least in my life – the truest moments of satisfaction came out of the spontaneous nowhere.

Some big dreams didn’t come true – and that was OK. Others came along quite unexpectedly.

Life is about being resourceful, yes. But it’s also about being hopeful.

A week ago, the graduation ceremonies at Sacramento State were more hopeful than they had been since the depths of the Great Recession. People attending the ceremonies noted an exuberance that in previous years had been more muted.

The Millennials tossing their caps in the air – those born in the early ’90s – are far more inspirational than the mainstream media would have us believe.

Like me, some were the first in their families to graduate from college. Tania Hernandez, 22, didn’t imagine going to a four-year college. The daughter of agricultural workers from Mexico, she remembers feeling scared during freshman orientation.

“I came here with my parents that day and we got lost on campus, it was so big,” said Hernandez, a Calistoga native. “I was terrified. What am I going to do? I didn’t know anything.”

Now, with a criminal-justice degree in hand, that once-frightened kid has the courage to pursue a career as a police officer.

“One day I want to be a voice for those who are afraid to speak up,” she said, recalling times her immigrant parents were afraid to call authorities after they had been crime victims.

Law enforcement is still – even in diverse Northern California – a profession lacking in diversity. Hernandez has been applying for jobs “everywhere.” There have been no nibbles yet, but she remains upbeat – and proud.

“I never thought I would get this far,” she said.

She hopes her dreams will take her much farther. In one generation, she’s already graduated from the fields where her parents worked to help her become her own determined person – a person at the beginning of a new life.

There were so many things I wanted to tell her, but didn’t. Perspective will come, as will success, failure – and plenty of the unexpected.