Mr. L, or Robb Lenardson, has been serving as the high school math teacher at Cookson Hills for thirteen years. He’s known around the school for his kindness, gentleness, math puns, love of trains, and love for his students as though they were his children. The class of 2023 invited Robb to deliver the commencement speech this year, and it’s too good not to share. So here it is! It may just change the way you look at life.
“Time is a funny thing. Speeding up, slowing down. Seemingly never-ending and faster than we want it to go. Not too long ago, I was contemplating the age of my mother-in-law, who at the time was 90 years old and almost 40 years older than me. I remember thinking, “40 years! What? Forty years ago, I was 13!” And suddenly, I felt like I’ve got another lifetime ahead of me.
So I want to thank you, senior class, because, by inviting me to share with you today, you made me stop and ask myself again: “Whether I only have one more day or 40 more years on this earth, how do I want to use my time?” This question led me to the next one: “What is the one thing I want to pass on to you today that, hopefully, maybe you’ll remember?”
In order to answer these questions, I’m going to start by telling you about two of the most important men in my life.
First, there is Bob. Bob’s childhood was filled with difficulties and challenges, some of his own making. And when Bob grew up, he became my dad.
At the age of 8, there was a bit of upheaval at home, and Bob’s dad moved out of the house, leaving his mom to deal with their five kids on her own. Bob soon had the run of the town even at such a young age, sometimes straying miles from home, hopping freight trains, and making a playground of the steam engines in the local rail yard. His trespassing often resulted in him being chased by rail policemen, which became part of the game. He seemed a little proud that he was never actually caught.
Eventually, trouble did catch up with him, and he was taken to the juvenile detention center to live for a time. He got regular parole, walking to school each day, so I guess he wasn’t considered a total menace to society.
At 11, Bob and his siblings were removed from their home and split up by child protection services. The kids had been largely fending for themselves. He was happy that at least he and his younger brother got to stay together. They went to live on a farm with their new foster parents, who I would come to know as Grandpa and Grandma.
At the age of 16, Bob left his foster home at the farm in rebellion, finishing high school on his own and finding work where he could. He managed to graduate high school and began working as a carpenter journeyman.
One of the things my dad loved the most was trains. His passion began at the age of 6, seeing those big steam locomotives, and his love never waned.
When I was a kid, we took almost daily trips down to the local train yard to see what was coming or going. He taught me all the ins and outs of trainspotting.
We took weekend trips and whole-week-long vacations around the country for the express purpose of literally chasing trains to take pictures of them. In the days before PowerPoint existed, he would create multi-media presentations of these photo journeys (complete with music and narration) to share at the monthly meetings of the local railroad fans.
He built a model railroad empire that filled our basement. This was not a toy train or train set. It was serious business. He invited other railfans to make up full train crews to switch yards, run trains, and deliver goods. He even custom-built a train dispatcher board, complete with signals and phones for communication.
Later in life, he built a house, purposely purchasing land that had a busy rail line running along the back of the property. He added a porch overlooking the rail line so he could sit and watch the trains go by.
I could go on, but suffice it to say, my dad loved trains, maybe not as much as he loved Jesus, but I think they were a very close second.
And now that you have a little insight into my Dad, I’m hoping you can appreciate a moment in my life that otherwise might seem insignificant.
One day on a visit to the local train yard (I was probably 4 or 5 years old at the time), an engineer on one of the switch engines, seeing this adorable, handsome young boy, stopped his engine right beside us and asked if we’d like to ride along for awhile. I don’t know why I suddenly was so fearful, whether it was the crusty old engineer, the rumbling behemoth of a locomotive, or what, but I did not want to go for a ride along.
From my dad’s perspective, this was an extremely rare opportunity. To ride a locomotive, to talk to an engineer, and to share the experience with your son was almost too good to be true. I can imagine him thinking, “How could my boy be saying no? Oh, we’re getting on that train.” He could have said this to me. But that’s not what he did. There was nothing but gentle words for me and a quick word to the engineer, “Thank you, maybe next time.” My dad thought of me first and put himself second.
I could tell you many stories that all end the same way: my dad being gentle and thinking of others. He did not let his difficult past define his present or his future. He had the freedom to choose how he would live. And he used that freedom not simply for his own benefit but also to treat those around him in the same way he would like to be treated. He used his freedom to serve others in love.
When I became an adult, I came face-to-face with my own son, Isaac, who is now 30 years old. His life has been filled with struggles since his first moments in this world.
A couple of weeks before his expected arrival date, Isaac was born via emergency C-section, which was performed because he was in distress and not getting enough oxygen.
This was followed by nine days in the intensive care ward, with my wife Anna and the nurses trying to get him to breastfeed so we could “just go home already.”
Then we got his diagnosis: Isaac has cerebral palsy. We didn’t really know what this meant for him or for us. In time we would learn that Isaac would be unable to do almost anything for himself and would need constant care for the rest of his life.
He lived in our home with us for his first 21 years: there were the doctor appointments, the physical therapy sessions, the leg and torso braces, the special school meetings, the wheelchairs, the surgeries on his hips and feet, and the specially-refitted vans. All this in addition to his constant care (think: all the things a baby needs, but 100 pounds heavier).
In addition to all of Isaac’s physical needs, he is not able to communicate in words what he is thinking. More than once his inability to talk became a real problem.
On one particular day, he came home from school visibly upset and uncomfortable. As usual, I got him out of his wheelchair, put him in his bed, and took off his leg braces so he could relax and stretch out a bit. This only seemed to make the situation worse for him, and with his distress increasing, we tried desperately to figure out what the problem was. He could not tell us, of course, but we narrowed it down to physical pain that seemed to be coming from one of his legs. At the hospital, an X-ray revealed Isaac had, in fact, broken his leg.
How does a kid in a wheelchair break his leg? And if he can’t tell us where it hurts or even that it hurts, how are we supposed to know? It turned out that earlier in the day, in the school gym, he had broken his leg when his wheelchair crashed into a wall. He had gone for hours without being able to tell anyone that his leg hurt.
It’s hard not to think of all of Isaac’s challenges and difficulties from my own perspective. That’s what people do. But I want to stop and take a moment to consider Isaac’s perspective. It’s impossible to get his thoughts on this, but I can try to put myself in his shoes. And when I do consider his perspective, the challenges Anna and I faced caring for Isaac suddenly seem trivial.
Can you imagine not being able to do anything for yourself, ever? Need to eat? Wait for someone to feed you. Need to go to the bathroom? Wait for someone to take you. Need to sleep? Wait for someone to put you in bed. Want to read? Wait for someone to read to you. Want to __________, fill in the blank? Wait for someone to do it for you. Oh, and you can’t ask for anything, you just have to wait until someone figures it out. As his father, the thought of it is hard to bear. I desperately want him to be free.
What would Isaac do with freedom? I’m sure there are lots of things he could think of doing and saying and being. The possibilities seem limitless. But I have to believe that Isaac would literally jump at getting the chance to be the one getting to take care of someone else, of serving someone else, of showing love to someone else.
And now your long-awaited, long-anticipated moment of freedom has arrived; freedom from having to attend school (if you so choose), freedom from parental authority, and freedom from Cookson Hills. Freedom to eat what you want, sleep when you want, and go where you want (within some limits, of course).
So here comes your assignment. School’s not over just yet. (Sorry, that was very close to cliche.) Here’s what I want you to do: Stop and think for a moment and answer this question to yourself: “What is the best way to use my freedom?”
As you might imagine, the Bible has something to say about freedom. The book of Galatians says,
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.Galations 5:13-14
If serving others leads to more freedom, sign me up! How do I get this done? How do I love others as I love myself? What is the best way to use my freedom?
I’ve had more time than you to work on this assignment. The teacher always does. So I decided to help you with your assignment and put together some ideas for you:
Be the first to say yes when someone asks for help
Pay attention to those around you, recognize their needs, then meet those needs
You could meet physical needs:
- Mow a lawn
- Help someone move
- Clean someone’s gutters
- Provide transportation to someone who can’t drive
- Give someone else time for rest by babysitting or watching their dog or watching their chickens
You could meet emotional needs:
- Take time to sit and listen
- Spread joy, not complaints
- Visit someone who can’t go out
- Be gracious, merciful, and forgiving
You could use your skills:
- Are you an auto mechanic? Help someone fix their car
- Are you an accountant? Help someone file their taxes
- Are you a carpenter? Build a wheelchair ramp
- Are you a good organizer? Bring others together to meet a need
- Are you an athlete? Volunteer to coach little league
You could use your finances:
- Give to those in need of food, shelter, or clothes
- Give to causes that are important to you: clean water, education, missions, etc.
Reflecting on my own life experiences, many of the things I remember with joy and satisfaction are the moments when I helped someone else. I was there for them, lifted them up, took time with them, or spent my hard-earned money for them.
You may never know how much it means to the one you help, but sometimes you get an unexpected insight. When I was a senior in high school, I used to pick up a couple of kids every Wednesday to go with me to youth group, because they had no other way to get there. They lived a bit out of my way, but I was happy to do it. Twenty-five years later, I got an email from one of those kids (now an adult) thanking me for all those trips. I didn’t know it when we were young, but she was having a very difficult time at home and she felt like those Wednesday night meetings saved her life. Like my dad putting me first, not his trains, something so small had a huge impact.
When we leave this room today, we will all be called again by God to a free life. Every day is a new day to live out our freedom. How will you use your freedom? May God bless you and make freedom grow in your life as you love and serve others in the truest act of freedom. Thank you.”