It’s coming on graduation season, but I’ve already heard the best commencement speech of the year. It wasn’t delivered in a cap and gown, over a microphone, or to the sound of applause. Instead, it came in a phone interview, with a somewhat tired high schooler who had been to his prom the night before.
Sean English has had a heck of a senior year. Thirteen months ago, he and his parents were on their way to church for a school singing event, when they spotted a Jeep on I-96 that had flipped over with six teenagers inside. They stopped to help. As English recalls, “It was a family decision to stop.” There was never a thought of driving past.
Another car stopped as well. Out stepped a woman named Cynthia Ray, a pulmonary and lung cancer doctor at Henry Ford Hospital. Both she and Sean’s family tried to help the teens.
It was a pure act of kindness. But it was not rewarded in kind. Instead, another vehicle came quickly around the curve, driven by a young man the same age as English. This young man, who would be determined to have marijuana in his system and beer cans in his vehicle, lost control of his car and slammed into the good Samaritans.
English would lose his leg.
Ray would lose her life.
There are a lot of ways you can go after an event like that. Bitterness is one. Depression is another. Anger. Self-doubt. Questioning God or the universe.
Sean English, who was a track star at U-D Jesuit, never attached to any of those. Instead, he remembers an air of positivity beginning to settle over him as he lay in the hospital, even amidst six surgeries to repair a broken pelvis, broken legs, and to amputate his right leg below the knee.
“I just remember sitting in the hospital room and hearing the news of Dr. Ray’s death,” he recalls. “Every day I just remember her name and what she gave, which was the ultimate sacrifice — her life — to do what she was doing for a living, which was helping others. I always keep that in the back of my head.
“Sure, you could say I lost my leg,” he adds, “but you could also say I didn’t lose my life.”
Instead, he reconstructed his high school existence one step at a time, with some new elements. Grueling rehab, five times a week. A prosthetic leg, which took time to get used to. A new girlfriend, who helped him on his journey.
He eventually returned to school. In April he attended the sentencing of the young man who changed his life, Keith Martin, who, a week before his sentencing, was caught drinking beer in his car outside a casino, a violation of his probation.
Despite that, despite all he had gone through, despite the six- to 12-year sentence a judge ordered for Martin, English said he forgave the young man. He said he was pulling for him. He said, “I’m in your corner…I’m really rooting for you.”
And a month later, last Wednesday, here was Sean English, whose father, he says, once qualified for the Olympic track trials, lining up for one last 400-meter race for his high school.
“I always told everyone I’d be back on the track,” he says. “But I didn’t know when.”
Wearing his father’s old high school jersey, Sean embarked on his lap. Halfway through, the pain was significant. He wasn’t sure he would make it. But with the cheers of his family and his high school teammates urging him on, he came around another curve of life, this time with a more glorious finish. He fell into his parents’ embrace, shedding tears. He told his father, “I did it.”
The next day, Sean went to his prom.
Thirteen months after nearly dying on the side of the road? A new leg? A track race? A prom?
Do we ever truly appreciate the resilience of the human spirit?
An unintended commencement speech
I said that I had heard the best commencement speech of the year. It came by accident, when I asked Sean to reflect on what had happened, and what he would say to all the people out there if given a chance.
Here is what he said. Imagine it, perhaps, being spoken before a football field’s worth of young, impressionable graduates:
“The accident I had completely reshaped my outlook on life. It strengthened my faith and me as a human being. I now cherish every moment.
“I had a metamorphous…And Dr. Cynthia Ray’s name now carries me along…
“I think about that accident often. But I never think about why did I stop? Or should I have kept driving? I think about, OK, that could have been my girlfriend in that (turned-over) car, or my grandma, or my mom, it could have been someone very important to me. And the guilt that I would have had for the rest of my life if I had just driven by when I could have done something would have outweighed any physical pain that I’ve had to deal with.
“So I would rather do what I did, and lose my leg, than to live with that guilt…
“I mean, life can always be worse. You can go to your local hospital and see people in positions much worse than what you’re experiencing. So you should always remember to be grateful for that.
“Also, life is way too short to hold grudges. That brother that you haven’t been talking to for years, or that friend that you don’t talk to anymore because you had a falling out, honestly, life is way too short and you never know when it’s going to be taken away. You should never leave a (bad) conversation with a question of ‘Was that the last conversation I’ll ever have with that person?…
“I know all this is easier said than done, but those are the kind of things that I hold onto now, and will for the rest of my life. And I hope everyone else can as well.”
That’s a speech. That’s a life lesson. Sean English will not speak at his high school graduation. (“The valedictorians do that,” he jokes. “I didn’t get one of those spots.”) But that’s OK.
Sometimes the best lessons at a high school graduation don’t come from the podium. Sometimes they are sitting in the stands, just grateful to be there.