A Message for All Graduating High Schoolers
I was reluctant to make the call to Zoi’s school. What was I about to commit to? Would they even go for what I was going to ask them? Through a series of calls, I finally got ahold of Jon, the principal. Jon was new to the high school that year. He had heard of Zoi through other teachers and administrators. We talked a bit and I asked point blank if I could speak at this graduation ceremony, as it would have been Zoi’s class. My message would be relevant to not only the kids, but also the parents. Jon had to decline the actual graduation, but instead offered for me to come speak to the senior class at a pre-graduation event at the school. I got choked up and was grateful to have this first opportunity to speak. While I knew a lot of the kids that Zoi grew up with, it had been many years since I’d seen most of them. Some knew me only as Zoi’s dad, and others were closer to me because of their relationship to Zoi.
On the day of the event, I met Jon in the lobby to shake his hand. He showed me the auditorium and said that he would be introducing me before the day of events got started. As the kids started to come into the auditorium, some who knew me ran up and hugged me. They asked me what I was doing there and I told them it was a surprise.
The kids took their seats and Jon introduced me. I shared the story of how we named Zoi, like you read earlier in the book. Afterward, I asked if it would be OK if I shared three things about living their lives in case we never saw each other again. They gladly accepted this offer.Here’s what I shared with them:
1. Live your life and be passionate about it.
A former high school classmate of mine, Roby, is a world traveler. When I tell you he is like the real-life version of the Dos Equis guy, I'm not kidding. He travels all over the world, it seems everyone knows him, he enjoys meeting new people, and loves living life. Every month Roby is off again on another trip or adventure: BOOM, GONE! And a lot of these trips are at locations you usually only see in movies. He immerses himself in the experience to take it all in.
Most people don't know this, but Roby works from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days. You see my friends, the dream is free, but the journey is not. When you do find that thing you are passionate about, and some of you already have, you will never be disappointed by that decision, ever. There will be days when it will be great, and there’s going to be days when it will suck. Embrace the suck — it’s part of the process. Those struggles and failures prepare you for the success later on. You may want to give up and quit when things aren’t going well, and most people do. But that’s when you dig in, play a bigger game and work harder. Because success and the life you want to lead are on the other side of that hard work. The dreams you have today mean something to you, and it will mean the world to you when you achieve them. Don’t ever give up on that passion, and live LIFE!
2. Generosity — give all of yourself in what you do.
When most people think of generosity, they think of someone giving them some money. I’m not talking about that type of generosity. I’m talking about giving all of yourself in what you do.
Zoi received a ukulele on her thirteenth birthday. Actually, she took the $100 she got from her grandmother for school clothes and bought the ukulele because she wanted it so bad. And in a very short period of time, she learned a tremendous amount of chords and played some of her favorite songs, from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
When she played and sang, it lifted her up. She often took the opportunity to play for others: especially she played and sang for her new friends when they were feeling down, even if she herself wasn’t at 100 percent. After Zoi died, many of her new friends and even some adults wrote us, telling us how much Zoi influenced them to pick up and start learning the ukulele. Zoi saw music as her connective tissue with others. What it comes down to is that the really good gifts in life aren’t wrapped in paper and don’t come in monetary value, but rather the best gifts are wrapped in attention, connection and the value you give generously to others around you.
3. When you fall seven times, always get up eight times.
In 2015 I had the honor of meeting Billy McDonald. Billy was stabbed twice, once at 11 and at 13 years old, but learned how to defend himself. He was in 11 school systems in between first grade and 12th. He was kicked out of his house at 16, but graduated near the top of his high school class. Billy went on to serve two decades in the United States Army Special Forces as a Green Beret. Just a couple of years ago, Billy lost most of the use of right arm after a gym accident, yet he has fought to regain as much use of his arm as possible, and to this day he continues to get back up — always one more time than he gets knocked down.
After Zoi died, it took months before I started to feel somewhat normal. I was eating like crap, I stopped exercising. My head just wasn't in the right place and I let myself go. And it took a lot of time for it to sink in that Zoi would be so frigging pissed off at me if she knew I was letting all of these good memories from her past stop my life from moving forward. She would be kicking my ass! And let me tell you, you don't want to piss off a Greek woman. But I stood back up because I knew that I had a greater purpose — to help not only myself but also my family and all of Zoi’s friends find a pathway to better days.
I am so very proud of each and every one of you. You have worked hard and earned something that can never be taken away from you. This is not a participation award — your diploma is a representation of your hard work to get to this point today. You are the best. Go, live your life, find your passion and do it! Give ALL of yourself. And when life knocks you down, you get back up and kick its ass!
It was a true honor to speak on that stage that day. To see these kids whom Zoi knew so well and to connect with them. I feel as though I adopted 300 kids and became their dad as well.