Just before they received their diplomas, the Rev. Steve Miller of the United Church of Christ told the Vermillion High School class of 2012 to approach their goals as if they were eating an elephant.
"One small bite at a time."
Miller said the African proverb usually is offered at the beginning of a big project, rather than the end, as it was Saturday afternoon during the graduation ceremony in the DakotaDome.
"Sometimes the great things we do in life look so big that we're so overwhelmed by them that we don't even know how to start," he said. "But this proverb reminds us that any big project can only be done in tiny little bites."
In order for the graduates to really understand what they had accomplished, Miller told them they would have to look back to their first day of kindergarten.
"I'm guessing the little kid in you … wouldn't have understood the proverb, and if you would have, you might have stopped right then and said, 'Too much work ahead of me. I quit already,'" he said.
Instead, they went to school, and continued going for more than 2,000 mornings, he said.
"That's a lot of small bites," Miller said. "How many homework assignments turned in, how many bells did you hear, how many Web sites, how many tests, how many games did you participate in? All of those small bites in order to get you to this moment."
Miller invited the audience to give the graduates a standing ovation, telling the students, "I want you to take that in."
"Pride is sometimes an emotion that makes people nervous, but this is one of those days where you have the right and the privilege to be proud, to feel the sense of accomplishment for all those small bites you've taken for 13 years that have gotten you to this moment," he said. "I want you to feel accomplishment because there are more elephants for you to eat, and in order to do the next great thing, you need to feel what it feels like to have accomplished this great thing."
Above all, Miller said he wanted the graduates to remember three things.
First, nobody "eats an elephant" alone.
"When you think back to all of those small bites over the last 13 years … there were bus drivers and custodians and teachers and principals who didn't want to get up either," Miller said. "But they got up to help you continue your education.
"Besides being proud today I'd like to invite you to be grateful, and I don't mean in some generic way, I really want to ask all of you to find somebody today who helped you out, and look them in the eye and say, 'Thank you.'"
Second, Miller told the graduates that although they had learned a lot, they needed to remember that they don't know everything.
"So, besides being proud today, I want you to be restless, eager to learn more," he said. "Whether it's in school, work or family, keep learning."
Finally, Miller informed the students that "any time you eat an elephant, occasionally you throw up."
Everyone makes mistakes, has failures and plans that don't work out, he said.
"But guess what – over the last 13 years, despite your failures, and despite all those places where you fell down, you still did it," he said. "You got back up and got up the next day and went back to school. So besides being proud today, I'd like you to continue to be courageous.
"This world has lots of struggles and problems, and it's time for us to use your help," Miller said. "There are a lot of elephants to eat, and today be proud, be grateful, be restless and be courageous, and come join us."