The more than 3,600 people gathered Sunday afternoon, May 1, under a sea of colorful umbrellas at Eastern Mennonite University learned some lessons from bears, but not just any bears.
Michael Berenstain, author and illustrator of the popular Berenstain Bears children’s book series created by his parents, Stan and Jan Berenstain, addressed the graduating seniors parents, friends, faculty and staff at
EMU’s 93rd annual commencement exercises held on the front lawn of campus.
Light rain was falling as the two-hour ceremony began, but it stopped by the time Berenstain finished his talk and the graduates prepared to receive their diplomas. Berenstain’s son, Samuel A. Berenstain, was a member of the undergraduate class of 2011. He received a bachelor of arts degree in environmental sustainability.
“My family’s special contribution to the literary bear clan has come to be universally identified with what are loosely called family values,” Berenstain said. “It was never our intention to take on this role of do-it-yourself family counselors, but people are always telling us that they like our books not because ‘they teach good lessons’ but because ‘they teach lessons, good.’”
“The ethical messages of our books are not very original,” he continued. “They lean heavily on such standbys as the Golden Rule and Love Your Neighbor – scarcely an innovation. Their appeal comes, rather, in the way in which the material is presented. We work hard to make our books funny and visually engaging, to make our characters full-dimensional and we try to tell good stories.”
The speaker drew from a number of short poems that introduce the subjects of many of the Berenstain Bears books in presenting markers, or guideposts, to the graduating class:
Small bears get big eyes
when they take off and roam,
and sometimes forget
all the good stuff at home.
“Don’t forget your roots and the basic values of home and family as you venture forth into the brave new world of post-graduate existence,” he advised.
When peer pressure
rears its ugly head,
it’s easy for most cubs
to be misled.
Berenstain contined: “When your summer fling is over and it’s time to buckle down at a job, because to stay true to your underlying beliefs and ethical standards – don’t let an amoral corporate culture lead you astray”:
One’s sense of self-worth
is often undone
the first time one feels
left out of the fun.
“Learn to reach out to others to help you on your way – after all, no man, or bear, is an island,” Berenstain counseled. “But, don’t submerge your own identity to the interests of the group or go against your conscience just to fit in”:
When bears are angry
and don’t get along
a hug makes up
for what went wrong.
“Conflict is inevitable,” he continued. “Always be quick to make up after a quarrel. Bearing a grudge never did anyone any good.” And further, “Always adhere to truthfulness as a bedrock ideal, because:
No matter how you hope
no matter how you try,
you can’t make truth
out of a lie.
“In going out and finding the work that is meant for you to do may be daunting, [but] it will give you a profound sense of achievement and self-worth”:
We all have something
we do the best –
a little bit better
than the rest.
“You are about to move on with your lives both physically and spiritually,” Berenstain told the graduates. “You will face many challenges, trials and tribulations – but many more joys and triumphs, successes and satisfactions.
“May the best wishes of the Berenstain Bears go with you.”
EMU President Loren Swartzendruber conferred 451 degrees and certificates: 320 undergraduate (including 119 Adult Degree Completion Program recipients), 120 graduate degrees, five graduate certificates in conflict transformation and six certificates in pastoral ministry studies.
Students who walked the platform wearing green ribbons indicated they had voluntarily signed a “Graduation Commitment,” a nationwide initiative with the language of the pledge tailored to fit EMU’s mission:
“I commit myself to a lifestyle of social and environmental integrity and will seek to improve these aspects of the community in which I work.”
The undergraduate class had 107 people who graduated with honors, finishing with cumulative grade point averages between 3.6 and 4.0, including three who earned a perfect 4.0 GPA.