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The Fisher of Stories


I had the enormous honor of giving the commencement address to the Okay High School Class of 2015 last night, and I’ve had a couple of people ask if they could have a copy. 
Here it is, with changes I made mid-speech struck and highlighted in red. 
I only tripped up in a couple of places, thank God. I just want to say again, this was such an honor. 
Good evening.
Here I decided I probably should thank the senior class, really not sure how I didn’t get that in there, I’m basically an idiot.
In September 2014, I took a selfie with the President of the United States. Obviously I think more of you than I do President Obama, so will you take a selfie with me?
This got struck because Katey Holland decided to do it in her speech, I’m not mad at her. While on stage I decided I’d open with the fact that I’d Googled how to give a graduation speech when I first found out, and then Mariah Whiteday decided she’d use that as HER intro, and long story short, I just winged it. Seemed to go over well.
Thank you.
I first met the class that is graduating tonight in 2009. I was here as the ISS teacher, naturally a very popular job, and I was occasionally a substitute. I can remember vividly things like making Mr. Thurman run extra laps around the gym, making Mr. Thurman stand outside and count out loud to prove he could, and just in general making Mr. Thurman’s life miserable. Mr. Thurman, when you are successful in life, tell them it was Mr. Sloat who built your character.
When I started as an intern in August, I noticed a couple of things immediately about this senior class. The first was your inquisitive nature. Trying to explain a senior term paper to Mr. McVicker was near impossible, but we sewed shut all the loopholes he created, and we got through it.
The second thing I noticed was the fighting. Now, hold on, this isn’t a bad thing. You see, I was raised in a house with three younger brothers. There was rarely a moment when we WEREN’T fighting. So while some may choose to look at your arguments and see dissension, I see a family. Families fight. Families argue. Families take cheap shots at each other over the senior trip. But, most importantly, families love each other.
Fourteen years ago I stood on this same stage in this same gym and I delivered what I was sure at the time were words of inspiration to my classmates. I don’t know if they left inspired, but I left that night with two goals: The first was to one day deliver the commencement speech for a future class at Okay High School. The second was to one day become a teacher at Okay High School.
Both of those have now happened.
I realized suddenly that both of those have NOT happened, because I haven’t signed a contract for next year. I thought it would be funny to jokingly call out the administration and the school board on hiring me next year. This also seemed to go over well, everyone laughed and no one said, “You’re fired.” That’s cool.
That means I get the chance to give you a few pointers tonight that you, like my classmates all those years ago, will probably forget the minute you walk out the door. But first, I want to tell you something I’ve learned during the years in between about things that are fireproof.
Completely screwed this up with my ad-lib comment on hiring me. Completely. I then admitted that I’d lost my place, which is essentially the number one thing you should never do while giving a speech. But, the simple truth is, people screw up, even those of us who you might think have it all together. I’m not perfect, the graduates won’t be either. There’s a life lesson there. That’s how I’m spinning this.
What does fireproof mean?
When I hear “fireproof” my mind immediately flashes to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. The flames danced around them, and yet they emerged unburned, unblemished by the fire. Now, we’re not Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, but we all have something fireproof inside us. That doesn’t mean it can’t be touched by the fire, but rather that it will not be consumed. Although the outside may sustain damage, the important stuff, the stuff on the inside, can’t be burned. It’s fireproof.
So the one lesson I’ve learned, that I want to share with you, is that these three things are fireproof. You may find more on your journey, but these are the ones I know:
1. Your dreams — You will find throughout your life that people will try to set fire to your dreams. But dreams? Dreams cannot be burned by anyone but the dreamer. What do you want to do? Some of you may have your life planned out from now until the day you die. That’s fine. Some of you may not have plans that last past this evening. That’s fine too. But your dreams are fireproof.
2. You — Believe it or not, you are fireproof. In much the same way as dreams, the world will try to burn you. A toxic relationship, family that doesn’t act like family, a struggling economy, social injustice and coworkers so bent on making their own way, they’ll throw you under any and every bus they can find. These are all ways the world will try to burn you. But they can’t. You will walk away with a few scars, yes, but what makes you YOU will not be consumed.
3. This town — I know so many who’ve left this school on this night saying “I’ll never be back.” They can’t wait to burn Okay to the ground and never look back. I stand here to tell you that Okay is fireproof. Go on. As you leave tonight, flick your match, drop your napalm. Okay will survive. And when you turn around and look through the smoke to see it’s still standing, remember that some of us, some of us are still here and we’re making a difference. I’d invite you to join us.
Now, here is my advice to you as you go out into the world:
The first thing is, look around you. In the years that come, stay in touch with the people you see tonight. With today’s social media and what’s no doubt coming in the near future it seems like this wouldn’t be a problem, but I think it is. You see, we have a tendency to mistake liking a status or retweeting someone as communication. It isn’t. Before you leave tonight, get phone numbers. Get email addresses, those are far less likely to change. Send a message on Facebook instead of a comment. Don’t be silent when you see their sorrow. Call. Text. Empathize. To this day, my best friend is someone I graduated with.
Secondly, Don’t regress – I think a lot of people leave high school and actually start regressing back to their most basic educated state.  While some of the things you learned in kindergarten — be nice to your neighbors, don’t pick your nose, and sharing — are things you should never forget, you’ll also need things you learned in high school. Yes, maybe even the Pythagorean Theorem, (I spent all day pronouncing Pythagorean wrong, then asked the math teacher right before I went on if I was saying it right. She corrected me, and I spent the last 20 minutes before the speech just repeating Pythagorean over and over. Caught her eye as I said it, and she gave me a little nod, it felt good) although I’m still waiting to use that one myself. Some think the learning journey ends when they leave here, and that’s not true. Whether you go to college, start a career, or just sit at home for a couple of years trying to figure it all out, you will never stop learning. I don’t care if it’s working towards a doctorate or memorizing all of the fatalities in the latest Mortal Kombat…never. Stop. Learning.
Expected a lot more laughs at the Mortal Kombat line, I guess you live and learn.
Another very important lesson is learn how to be charming – Whether it comes down to needing a job or a spouse, you’re going to need a little charm in your lives. Some of you, like Mr. Holman, may have that figured out already. But in case you don’t, here’s how you can be charming: Listen well. Don’t be the talker in every conversation. When someone starts talking, maintain eye contact and let them speak. Don’t interrupt, no matter how much cooler your life may seem. Smile frequently. Provide non-verbal cues that convey your interest. Nod. Shake your head. Change your facial expressions appropriately. Make the person you’re listening to feel like they are the most important person in your life at that very moment. You’ll find that being charming, combined with a lack of face tattoos, will get you just as far in life as an education or a good work ethic.
Another bit of advice is to always see things through – At some point in your lives, you’re going to find yourselves at a job you don’t want to be at, in a class you don’t want to complete, or stuck on the 89th level of Candy Crush with not enough lives to finish. Here’s the advice I’d offer you. Stay focused. See it through. Wait for that next job offer to come in before throwing your computer across the office and leaving a profanity-laden letter of resignation. Take that final exam before skipping the last two weeks of class and getting an incomplete. Go spend $2 on in-game purchases to get to level 90. When you spend the time or energy on finishing something, it provides a feeling of accomplishment. That feeling is addictive, and it’s the one addiction worth cultivating.
Candy Crush line was a bit dated I think, still got a few laughs. Probably should have researched the latest and greatest app, but I didn’t think I could work a Tinder line in there.
The last token of knowledge I have for you is Take your time…if you want to — There’s a quote that goes around every teacher’s social media this time of year. It says, “We’re asking young people to make decisions about their futures and their careers, when a month ago they had to ask to go to the restroom.” There is an enormous amount of truth in that statement. If you need some time, take it. That doesn’t mean ignore your responsibilities, but if you want to work a job instead of going to college while trying to piece together what you want your future to look like, go ahead. You may realize that computer technology isn’t for you, and you may get married, drop out of college twice, adopt a few kids, then go start a degree in education and come back to where it all started. While I don’t recommend that road, I can say without hesitation that I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, because I am truly happy. The time I spent figuring out what I wanted to do with my life was not wasted. You cannot waste your time, your youth, or your potential: these are fireproof things and they are yours to spend as you choose, according to your needs.
I would be doing a disservice to you if I did not leave this stage tonight without giving you the exact same words I gave my fellow graduates 14 years ago.  Words that can be found in the Bible, in the book of Jeremiah, chapter 29 and verse 13.
My lovely wife sent me an email at 3:30 in the morning saying, “Isn’t it Jeremiah 29:11? It totally is, and I’m very glad she caught it.
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.

Go. Be great.
I really wanted to scream this last line, or at least deliver it with more authority, but I couldn’t figure out how closely to hold the microphone to my mouth without blasting everyone out of the gym. Live and learn.

Good Lord I’m a dork.

I’ve wondered about the title of this blog for four years. As it turns out, I didn’t even have to think of it. This morning, while I was getting a glass of water from the refrigerator, my son walked in and said, “Yay! Daddy’s graduating today!” 

My daughter looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Finally.” ***
Thursday night was bad.
I kept having dreams where I died. I’d drift off to sleep, and wake up gasping, having just crashed an airplane, fallen off a cliff, or having been pushed in front of a bus.
I cried Friday morning when I was watching the news before class. Someone paid off someone else’s layaway, and I got all weepy.
So of course I texted my wife and told her what was going on, and she was very succinct with her reply: “You need to calm down.”
I didn’t believe I would make it. I really didn’t. When I started college four years ago, I honestly thought I’d quit again. I mean I’d tried it twice before, and I left both times. I don’t mean I dropped out, I just left. My grade point average was abysmal.
But I started again.
And I slugged along. I took some classes I really thought I’d like at first, just to pick up the momentum. I took elementary algebra four times, and I took intermediate algebra four times. I won’t tell you how I got through college algebra.
I fell in love with literature. I decided against a journalism degree, then decided against a computer science degree, and finally settled on English Education. Teaching. Geez.
I quit my job after my second semester. I burned an enormous bridge at Connors State College, simply because their math department (certain faculty, really) is the biggest bunch of idiots God ever put on earth.
We got a couple of kids. Then we got another kid. We went through a really rough patch in our marriage, and I genuinely thought it was all over. Then I learned how to ask, “How can I help?”
I’ve worked 16-hour days for an entire semester now. I’ve gained an enormous amount of respect for high-school teachers, and not only them, but the students as well. I fell in love with those kids (totally not in a weird way), and I’m sad I only have one more week with them.
I interrupted the semester with a trip to Washington, D.C. for an amazing reason. I had a wreck my second day of my internship. I got sick for like the second time in my entire life. I yelled at my daughter for making a C when I was struggling to keep up a C in a class myself.
“You’re a Sloat. Sloats don’t make Cs. Sloats don’t make Bs. Sloats make As.” – Brian (and now Travis) Sloat
I ran out of gas halfway through the semester, then got an email from my wife that changed everything.
And, while we’re on the subject, can we just take a moment to enter my wife in the “Best Wife of the 2010s” contest. The woman is amazing. While I’ve been slugging away at my internship, then working nights at the paper, she’s been raising three kids essentially by herself, and, not only that, actually tried to sleep with me a few times too.
You know I still remember the first day I actually noticed her. I don’t remember much, I truly think I’ll have dementia in about a week, but I remember noticing Alicia for the first time. I can tell you exactly where I was, and exactly where she was, and almost exactly what she had on.
God, in His amazing and infinite wisdom, completely changed my life when He let her fall in love with me. She is a rock, and I am fully prepared to spend the rest of my life trying to thank her for these last four years in particular. I love you, Alicia.
I woke up at 7 a.m.
I rolled out of bed to get in the shower, and Alicia asked me, “What time are you leaving?” I replied, “I need to leave in about 45 minutes.”
“What? You told me it started at 9:30!”
“Yeah, but I have to be there an hour early.”
She made some sort of noise, and then I honest to goodness didn’t see her the rest of the morning. Somehow, she got all three kids ready, herself ready, and ironed my clothes in 45 minutes. Did I mention she’s amazing?
Just before we left, I remembered something. In my sock drawer, there’s an armband with some initials on it. B.R.S. Brian Ronald Sloat. I had it made for basketball after he died. I grabbed it, and slid it on under my shirt sleeve. It just seemed right dad should be there with me.
We made it to the event center. We didn’t die.
The separated us at the door, and ushered me around the building where I had a moment of sheer, unadulterated panic when the lady in charge of the cards with our names on them couldn’t find mine. It wound up being the only one in the pack stuck to the back of another one, and if that right there doesn’t prove to you that The Lord has a sense of humor (a sick one, sometimes), then I don’t know what will.
I met my friends, Krista and Katelynn, who have been with me through this whole thing, and don’t seem to find it weird that they have attached themselves to a 32-year-old man who has a penchant for being inappropriate.

I freaking love you guys.

We teamed up with Bret, another fellow English major, and we lined up.
I didn’t die. I didn’t trip. But I was sweating bullets.
My mom sent me a text. You see, she got married today in what was the biggest scheduling SNAFU of 2014, and couldn’t be at the graduation. I’m okay with that, because I like the guy she married. I think, for the first time in 14 years, I’m cool with finally calling someone my step-dad.
“Congrats on your graduation today! Sorry I’m not there to see it, just know that I’m SO proud of you! Your dad would say, ‘Good job, son.’ Love you.”
And now, typing that out, I’m crying for the first time today. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
My dad would be proud of me, just like the rest of my family is. But I honestly think he’d laugh a little, and smile at me the way he used to, the way I can see so perfectly in my mind right now, and he’d say:
I walked in that gym, and I had my chest out and my head high. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I waved to my friends and family. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I sat through a commencement speech that I can’t even come close to remembering now. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I stood up when my row was ready. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I walked to the stage. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I heard my name: “Travis Gene Sloat.” I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I shook the hands of two people and got my degree holder. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I walked out of the gym and into life as a college graduate. I didn’t trip, I didn’t die.
I found a professor I’ve really grown attached to and I shook his hand. “Thank you.” That’s all I could say.
I found some friends and hugged their necks and shook their hands. They congratulated me, and I thanked them, looking all the while for my family.
I finally got a text message from Alicia. “We’re at the truck.”
You know, I didn’t even pause. I just started walking that way. I completely missed Krista and Katelynn, and missed a couple of other professors I wanted to thank, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be with my family.
We got in the truck, and we went out for a celebratory lunch. Mexican food, because what else?
I looked at them, gathered around the table. Aven, who was of course distracted by everything; Akeeli, who is just about the cutest little girl on the face of the planet; The youngest, who we’re hoping to finally have a chance to adopt in a few short weeks; and, finally, Alicia.
I smiled and took a drink of my beer, completely satisfied with my life at that point.