Dear Tristan:

As graduation season draws nigh, I of course am reminded of last year at this time as we prepared to witness what we thought would merely be one more milestone in what was sure to be a life full of achievements, awards and recognition. I myself am certainly guilty of thinking more about the future than the present, and while I was focused on what you were going to do, what you were going to be, I failed to grasp the significance of the completion of the K-12 experience.

Thus, I write this knowing that this is the advice I should have given, had I been more cognizant of the present, the here and now, rather than looking to what was to come.

— Dear Graduates:

Some of you will do amazing and interesting things and will lead glamorous and exciting lives, some of you will not. The world is full of positions, and society has needs. Our community needs people to fill these roles and whether you become a gas station attendant, a cashier, a gatherer of carts, a custodian, a farmer, a stock clerk, an administrative assistant, a driver, a salesperson, a teacher, a student or any of a thousand other roles, find some pleasure in what you are doing and see the value in your place. You might look at someone and see who they are and what they do, but you may not realize their path, their pain, the experience that brings them to their current status.

It might be easy to look at me and see a lawyer or a judge. While not untrue, you would miss so much. For I did so many things along the way: I was a gas station attendant, a convenience store clerk, a custodian, I did some farm work (I hated baling hay), I was a stock clerk, I answered phones in a phone bank, I sold shoes, I have been a lifelong student, I have taught students and professionals, I have worked retail, supermarkets, manual labor, menial labor, I have cleaned houses and businesses, I have mowed lawns — throughout life I have done what needed to be done, to be able to do the things I wanted to do.

I have struggled through life. I have tried to balance, work, life and learning. I have tried to be a good person, a good husband, a good parent and have tried to be good at whatever job I was doing. Some of you may know exactly what you want to do and have a plan to achieve that. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but it took me a long, long time to make it there. If you have a plan and a path, good for you.

However, remember that life is dynamic, plans are just that — ideas on paper with real tangible goals — but life throws curveballs, plans change, sometimes forever, sometimes just for a while.

I am what I am today, but I depend on everyone else. You may need a lawyer for certain things, but you are far more likely to need the real workers that make society run. We need people to stock the shelves, to grow and harvest food, to run offices, to clean businesses, to run the checkouts, to corral carts, to inspect our vehicles, to mow lawns, to plow driveways, to drive bus, to pilot aircraft, to protect our streets and protect our country, to do all of the important tasks that a society such as ours requires.

Being a doctor, or a lawyer, or a dentist, or a manual laborer, or a mechanic, or a stock clerk, or a custodian, or a teacher, does not make someone either better or lesser than anyone else — these are simply roles we fill, and we need people that are passionate about these roles and willing to do them to the best of their abilities.

Some of you will join the workforce immediately and that is fantastic — we need workers. Some of you will go to college, that is also wonderful; learning and knowledge transfer are fundamental to the advancement of society. Some of you will travel, some of you will stay put, some of you will explore, some of you will remain in your comfort zone. I implore each of you to consider what you like to do and explore that option. Even though it may seem unattainable or difficult if there is something you like to do — pursue it. It will not always work out, you will not always get what you want on the first try.

Take some chances, love, laugh and live. Enjoy what you have, being content is not a bad thing. The world and our society needs you and what you bring to the table. It doesn’t matter if you know what you want to do, you have your entire life ahead of you. Seize today and retain hope for tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. The future is important, but we live in the present and you need to embrace what you have, in the here and now.

Life is hard, maybe they don’t teach that in school, but it’s the reality you will face. Even when you look around and you think life is easy for someone, they seem to have the perfect look, the perfect friends, the perfect path, the perfect job, the perfect … everything — know that they too have faced the struggle of life, and what looks easy from the outside, is likely not so, on the inside.

Along the way, I am sorry to say you will FAIL. I have failed in a number of endeavors. I have failed tests, I struggled my first semester at Cornell, I struggled my first year at law school. It is what it is, there will always be someone a little smarter, a little better looking, a little taller, a little more fit, a “natural” that never seems to struggle with anything.

Failure is not an end, it is a beginning. If you don’t fail then you can’t really appreciate success. You have to take things in context and you need perspective, so go ahead and fail, fail a class, get fired — learn from your mistakes. Realize that actions have consequences, take responsibility, grow, and become a better, stronger person. We each face insecurities and strife, be they internal or external. Some of us will show this, some of us will hide this, but we each face our demons and our challenges. It is how we face them, how we overcome that defines us.

My life has not been glamorous. However, I have had some incredible experiences. I have met some amazing people, I have had some true, real, lasting friendships, I have an incredible wife, and children that fill me with pride and wonderment. I have been to amazing places, seen incredible sights, traveled to 49 of the 50 states, been to foreign countries, seen and done things that I would never have dreamed of when I was a senior walking to the stage to receive my diploma. I have also experienced tragedy, I have faced days, and weeks where getting out of bed and facing the world seemed impossible, I have spent countless hours reading, studying, preparing to get through college, obtain a Bachelor’s, Master’s and my J.D., and ultimately passing the bar exam. I sacrificed a little, my family sacrificed a lot, but here I am, a real lawyer, so many years later.

It doesn’t matter how long your path is, so long as it is true, it is yours, and you seize each and every moment. There are easier ways to get through life than the steps I took. It was a long and arduous journey, but I wouldn’t trade my path for another because it is not just how I got here, but who I am. I was forged in the hell that was a summer in Parris Island, but I wouldn’t trade being a Marine for any of those experiences. So too, all the hours I spent in school, studying, reading, present yet separated from my family. That was my way, my path, a difficult, yet worthwhile experience.

So think about what you want to do but enjoy where you are. Carpé diem seniors, you will figure it out, you will determine what makes you happy and what you want to pursue. You matter because we — society — need you and what you bring. Some days will be bright, some days will be dark, but the sun will rise tomorrow. Be good to yourself, be good to others, and when you start to think you have no idea what you want to do — just take a look at me. I did a series of odd jobs, I spent years trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do, and then, late in life, I pursued a dream. You don’t need to have all the answers, you just need to know the right questions: 1) do I like where I am?; 2) do I like where I am heading?; 3) if no to #1 and #2, then rethink your choices; and 3) what makes me happy?

If there was some advice I wish I had bestowed upon Tristan when he graduated, it was simply that you are and will always be loved. We believe in you, not because of your success, or your intellect, or your innate ability, but because we know that life happens, you will figure it out, you will hit your stride, and you will pursue what makes you happy. Treat everyone with the same level of respect regardless of what their status is, what their job is, how much money they have — those things don’t matter in the end. The person that stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, the pilot that safely lands the plane, the person that corrals carts, the cashier, the doctor, the dentist, the professor — these jobs, these roles are necessary for us, and for society.

Thus, I say to you, graduates — pursue your dreams, understanding that your dreams may morph, and that is OK. You will try some things that you don’t succeed at, you may flunk out of school, you may get fired from jobs, you may have failed relationships — but there is a tomorrow, and on that day, you pick yourself up, you re-evaluate and you move on. The world needs you, whatever version of you, you decide to be. Please push forward, even when it seems tough, stick it out, stick with us, you are loved, you are necessary.

— CWF

Christopher Folk was born and raised in Upstate NY. He and his wife Tiffany raised four children in the idyllic setting of the Finger Lakes region: Chris, an active-duty Marine; Tristan, who was a college student; Trinity, a rising senior at Waterloo; and Calista, a rising junior. On Dec. 21, 2017, Tristan, took his life while on winter break from RIT. Christopher and his eldest son, Chris, found Tristan and are still reeling from that aftermath. As the family has come to grips with this tragedy, they have been supported by an entire community, and in an effort to find peace and some meaning in life, Christopher and Tiffany spearheaded the creation of a charity — The Tristan Foundation, Inc., whose primary focus is on suicide awareness and prevention efforts. The entire family is taking an active role in this important endeavor.