Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

He told my brother to treat people like you can only break them once.


My older brother graduated high school the year that the school’s longest serving employee, the janitor, was retiring.  He’d been with the district since the building was built, knew everything about it.  None of the students even knew his name, but Principal Paddock asked him to give the graduation address … maybe it was a going away present, I don’t know.

The guy gets up there wearing a suit and tie:  it would have been impossible to recognize him if his face hadn’t been so weather beaten, and if he hadn’t had a scar across his forehead from where a falling blackboard hit him 20 years ago.  Watching from the auditorium with mom and dad, I got the impression that he hadn’t given a speech in his life.  Most of the parents weren’t happy with the decision, but Principal Paddock was real popular … “receptive” was the word I kept hearing adults use about him … so he could get away with this.

The janitor adjusted the microphone for a while, and then began his speech.  “Listen,” he said, “you think you know what life is like, but you don’t.  Not because you’re not smart, but because it’s different, every decade.  It’s different in ways nobody tells you about.  Time moves different.  Loneliness means something different.  Hopes and dreams are completely different when you see their other sides.  And we try to explain it to you.  I swear we do.  When you’re 40, you’re going to want to say ‘why did nobody tell me about this?’ and we tried, I swear.  But, it just didn’t do any good because you honestly can’t understand what life is like with only 18 years under your belt.  You don’t got the right perspective.  So, I’m not going to tell you any of that.  But here’s what I’ve got, and I hope it’s helpful.”

He cleared his throat.

“Bob Adams:  people would like you more if you just didn’t try to be so funny.  Let it go, stop trying too hard.”

“Amy Bellico:  you don’t have anything to prove, so don’t let people take advantage of you, okay?”

“Jennifer Brown:  you’re going to be smarter than most of the people around you for the rest of your life, and it’s not going to get any easier until you learn to forgive them for disappointing you.  So, start now.  Really, you’ll want to spend decades fighting it, but you’ll be a lot happier a lot quicker if you start now.  Do yourself a favor.”

That’s when we realized he knew all of us.  He knew us the way our teachers did crossed with our best friends.  He’d been watching, and we were that obvious, and … I don’t know.  He told my brother that his mean streak would turn him into an ugly drunk if he wasn’t careful, so treat people like you can only break them once.  It really made a difference;  he was better by the time he graduated from college.

Two years later, my class got the president of a local bank, who told us that anything is possible if we follow our dreams and that we should try to find a way to be of service to humanity.  He quoted Thomas Mann.

Today, I’m not going to tell you any of that stuff, because the only good advice is the kind that’s best whispered in your ear by someone who’s been to the other side and watched you struggling to get up that hill.  I was invited to give this address by people who don’t know that … nobody really seems to get that … so I’m going to tell you: there must be somebody here who’s the right person to give you advice, somebody who’s been here the whole time.  Somebody who you know has been watching, and seen you when you were off guard.  Get out of formation, walk around, and find that person.   None of you will be here tomorrow, and we don’t have much time.  Take 15 minutes, hurry, and then get your pieces of paper, and don’t look back.

Good luck.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media,, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at

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