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Roads taken and not taken

Mystery novelist Margaret Maron '60x gave a thoughtful commencement speech during the May 2010 ceremony, instructing graduates to leave themselves free to explore the open roads ahead. Listen to her address and look at photos from the event.


Audio Clip: May 2010 Commencement Speech



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Audio Transcript: Margaret Maron - May 2010 Commencement Speech

Thank you, Chancellor Brady. To the faculty and distinguished guests —including Joanne Smart Drane, from my own class of 1960, and, most importantly, to the Class of 2010: I am both honored and a little stunned to stand here this morning . . . especially since I was living in Italy fifty years ago when my class graduated without me.

Back when there was compulsory military service for every able-bodied man, my husband was drafted into the Army. Or so he thought. He left home that morning thinking he was on his way to Fort Dix in New Jersey; then, while standing in line, in his underwear, waiting for his assignment, he came up before an Army sergeant and a Navy petty officer. They looked at him, then looked at each other. The sergeant said, “You want him?” The petty officer said, “Yeah, we’ll take him,” and an hour later, he was on a bus headed for the naval base in Bainbridge, Maryland. It was a major crossroads of his life.

This Robert Frost poem is one that most of you know from high school and it is usually dismissed later as a simplistic stating of the obvious:

The Road Not Taken
© 1920

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many life-determining events are not open to choice. You had no choice as to who your parents were, where you were born, the color of your eyes or your skin. And, as my husband discovered, you don’t have much choice when the military is involved. Because a man he had never seen before and would never see again said, “Yeah, we’ll take him,” my husband started down a road that eventually took him to the Pentagon, where we met.

My own road began on a farm over in Johnston County. We were very nearly dirt poor and from the age of ten, if I wanted a new coat or a new pair of shoes, I had to chop corn in the spring, work tobacco in the summer, and pick cotton in the fall.

There were thirty-five farm kids in my class. Our only clubs were 4-H, FFA, and Glee Club. That was it. No Honor Club, no science clubs, no language clubs. What it did have was a wonderful English teacher who thought I had talent and who pushed me to find a way to go to college.

I did win a scholarship, I did get accepted here, and when my road branched off to Washington where I met my husband, I did drop out to get married and wound up living in Italy where he was stationed, a college education in and of itself. For the next few years I immersed myself in reading, part-time jobs, and eventually a baby. But all the time I kept telling myself, “Someday I’m going to be a writer.”
We were back living in New York when I decided I had to get serious about it or get a fulltime job. For almost a year, I read dozens of books about writing and I wrote in every form I could think of. Yet every manuscript I mailed out came right back with a rejection slip.

Then, miraculously, there finally came a day when I wrote a short crime story and it sold the second time out.

Did I become instantly rich and famous? No. You do not get rich and famous on short stories, but rich and famous was not one my goals.

I had to come back to North Carolina to find the courage to tackle a full-length novel and after twenty-six books, I’m still not rich and famous, but I am doing the work I love.

That’s what I mean about roads taken and not taken.

Everywhere along the way, there were branching forks in the road before me and I had serious choices to make – choices some of you are facing now.

I could have gotten married in high school, I could have ignored that teacher, or I could have stayed here and graduated with my class. Each of those roads would have led me to a different life.
Instead, I took a summer job at the Pentagon after my sophomore year. If I hadn’t gone to Washington, I wouldn’t have met my husband, who was absolutely the right road for me to take. He was then and still is my best friend. (Without someone who shares your values and laughs at the same things you do, your road can get long and gloomy and ultimately very lonely.)

Early in our marriage, we realized that we could have money or we could have time but we couldn’t have both. We chose time. Instead of going off to a 9-to-5 job every day, I chose to stay home and write. My husband was an artist and he chose to teach in college so he’d have time to paint in the summers. We lived quite frugally – a tiny house, second-hand furniture, no credit cards. We raised a garden and I made most of my clothes. There were years when we had no television, no telephone, no second car, but somehow that didn’t seem important because we had time to learn our crafts.

And the roads keep on branching. Every day I am offered more choices . . . “And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,” but nobody gets it all. In this world, there are a hundred thousand things you can be and do and have, but nobody gets it all. Nobody. And you don’t get any of the things you want unless you do weigh the choices when the road forks in front of your feet. Left or right? Up the hill or down the slope?

That piece of paper you will take away with you today only certifies that you have learned how to learn, so don’t stop. If your degree is in liberal arts, get a botany book and learn how to identify trees by their leaves or twigs. If you majored in science, stretch your mind with Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

Leave yourself open to serendipity and always remember that money and things can be serious roadblocks. Things especially.

When you finally land that first real job, your paycheck may tempt you down side paths. If you think you must have a big house, a new car, the latest electronic gizmo with all the apps, you may well find yourself stuck in a job you hate, unable to walk down a more interesting road because you can’t afford to leave the one you’re on. If I could, I would make you all raise your right hands and solemnly swear to pay off your credit card every single month or make yourself do without all the toys. Debt is a road trap — a lot easier to get into than to get out of. It ties you down, limits your choices, and keeps you from exploring the roads up ahead.

I would also urge you not to be afraid of taking a hard and unfamiliar road if you can hear music coming from around a far bend and that music makes your own heart sing. I had no idea that I could ever really earn my living by writing. But writing was what I wanted to do – what I needed to do – and I could not bear to stop trying.

Don’t worry if you still don’t know what you want to be right now. If you keep your roads open, you will eventually find something that so satisfies your inner longings that you will happily do it no matter what the pay.

I once knew a brick mason who, even in his eighties, would go build a brick wall just for the sheer fun of it. He was so proud of the houses and chimneys and walls that would endure long after he was gone, that he told me, “I’d’ve paid them to let me set bricks. I’d’ve done it for free if I had to.”

May each of you feel that satisfied when you are in your eighties.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Life does not come with a GPS, so pack your bags, Class of 2010, and enjoy the trip!

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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Last updated: Tuesday, 04 October 2011
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