By Rich Winter
In August of 2012, then Todd County Middle School counselor Robert Critchlow marveled at the group of 6th-graders he met for the first time that fall. From the moment he saw the group sticking together, excelling at everything and carrying themselves with a different confidence, Critchlow knew this group was going to be historic.
On Saturday during commencement exercises at Ben Reifel Auditorium, the largest class in the history of Todd County (101 graduates) crossed the stage with an array of awards, honors, scholarships, and achievements unlike any TCHS class before them.
“Seven years ago, I had the privilege to serve the majority of the graduates and families sitting here today,” Robert Critchlow said. “We sensed at that time, this young sixth-grade class possessed unique gifts that were clearly evident: a depth of character, empathy of the human condition, a genuine maturity, support and encouragement towards their fellow classmates, an acceptance and celebrating their similarities, as well as their difference.”
Critchlow delivered a very personal and meaningful commencement address reminding students of the importance of human rights, respecting diversity and embracing core human values.
“Our nation is in conflict, fractured and deeply divided,” Critchlow said. “Driven by the hatred and lack of character of many of our elected leaders, we live in a world where people continue to be judged, profiled, and labeled.”
Critchlow said those in positions of power seem to view “our” diversity as a threat, to be contained rather than as a vital resource to be tapped. “We are told to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious,” Critchlow said.
Critchlow posed the question, “How do we teach our future leaders about the power of their words, and the great responsibility of not only their words but also their choices, that are made each day?”
“Social justice matters! Our words matter! Our voice matters,” Critchlow said. “As a people we are complex, layered and tangled with our own histories, beliefs and core values. People matter. Our pain matters (Heather Newman).”
Critchlow challenged the graduating class of 2019 to be the author of their own stories.
“Become the role model for the next generation,” he said. “Be the force for positive change. Become the hero your ancestors wanted and your community requires.”
Critchlow quoted from Maya Angelou as he encouraged the graduates to embrace their own diversity.
“We all know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
Critchlow challenged the graduates to acknowledge and emphasize the many gifts, traditions and languages of their ancestors.
“Don’t be clouded by the definitions of others,” Critchlow added.
Critchlow spoke of a daily test of self-examination. He encouraged the 2019 graduates to ask themselves on a daily basis a test that consists of four critical core life questions:
•Are my daily behaviors providing a purpose?
•Are my current behaviors creating my happiness?
•Are my behaviors contributing to the common good of humanity?
•Am I happy? Am I happy with my behavior?
“Tomorrow, when the celebration ends, I challenge the class of 2019 to look in the mirror as you did seven years ago and ask yourself these critical life questions,” he said.
In an ever changing world with lots of complaining and few doing the heavy lifting, Critchlow implored the Class of 2019 to be the change.
•Your past behaviors are life lessons not a life sentence.
•We choose our behavior. We are judged by our behavior, our actions and words. Our words matter. Begin to examine your behavior and to change your behavior according to whatever you want to achieve. The burden of responsibility is on you. Stop assigning blame elsewhere. Accept personal responsibility for your behavior.
•Our work is to find our happiness. Our purpose is contributing to the common good - this is hard work but worth every minute of doing.
Critchlow told the graduates, “As much as we would like to stay in the safety and comfort of our own homes it is time to turn the page.”
Pretty clear that Mr. Critchlow put a lot of time and thought into this commencement address. He spoke of his vision for today’s graduates to reach beyond material possessions and engage in high moral principles of service to family, community and our common good.
“Let your soft heart be your guiding light, teach yourself to listen to it, nurture it, and let it guide you as you start this next exciting chapter of your life,” he said. “Do not fear tomorrow’s challenges, though they may be large. Be confident in knowing your hearts are much larger.”