Beverly’s annual Memorial Day ceremony is always quite moving, and this year was no exception. Particularly touching for me were the words of a 17-year-old from Boy Scout Troop 49, who spoke on the chilly and windy Sunday at Odell Park about what Memorial Day means to young people.
I know there have been times in my life when I’ve been guilty of accusing young people of acting “entitled” and not appreciating things. It struck me that this eloquent young man was anything but spoiled or unappreciative. He was very much aware of the opportunities he and his generation had been given, and was in fact, awed, humbled and even at a loss as to how we as citizens in this country can adequately express the debt of gratitude we owe to our veterans.
I won’t tell you his name right off the bat because he gradually revealed that in his speech, which is printed below:
“Good morning. My name is James. I’m 17, and I’ve been asked to speak about what Memorial Day means to young people. That’s all I’m going to tell you about myself, for now.
Now, what does Memorial Day mean to young people?
If you were to ask young people about that, they would probably use words like “sacrifice, thankfulness and gratitude,” which are all just big words that we can’t put any meaning behind. What I mean by that is, how can we as a generation possibly begin to comprehend the idea of being called upon by your government, to be shipped to a country you can’t confidently spell the name of, to a village you’ve never heard of before, surrounded by people you’ve never met?
What I’m saying is that we are a spoiled generation. We have no great war to fight, no draft, no saying goodbye, and no writing letters home to your mother. There is no reason for us as a generation to ever even consider the possibility that you may not be returning home again. So how could you possibly expect us to understand what it’s like to be an innocent victim of the monstrously inhumane tragedy that is war?
How could you expect us to understand that and be able to act appropriately on Memorial Day? So I’ll be honest with all of you — I myself do not understand how I should treat veterans or Memorial Day appropriately because I simply cannot comprehend the magnitude of your sacrifice.
Earlier in this speech I told you my name and age, and that was all I told you of myself. The reason for that is that if it were not for you and your sacrifices that is all I would be.
My name is James Michael St. Mark Butler and I am an adolescent citizen of the United States of America, and that’s all because of you.
I am currently receiving a world-class education at a public facility that I attend for free, and that’s all because of you.
I can travel to my heart’s content and enjoy all of the beautiful and priceless bounty and opportunity that this country has to offer, without having my religious doctrine, political views or racial history questioned, challenged or insulted, and that’s all because of you.
I have an older brother studying to become a doctor in physiology, a beautiful mother and a patriotic father, who are both home taking care of me, and that’s all because of you.
We as a generation owe you everything that we have. From the bed that we sleep on to the identities that make us who we are, and we have absolutely no way of paying you back. Absolutely no way! We cannot give you the years that you sacrificed, the friends that you may have lost or the family members that I’m sure you miss very dearly and with all of your hearts.
The only thing that we can do to repay our debt is to use the opportunities and the faculties that you have given us, to create a better world for the next generation to flourish in. And then maybe some other James Michael St. Mark Butler will stand at a podium and babble on endlessly trying to simply say thank you, because that’s all he can do.
Thank you and God Bless!
And thank you, James Butler, for your honesty and for making me cry and “think” at the ceremony because, although I’m not a young person, I feel much the same as you.
This essay is printed with permission of the author, James Michael Butler, who is a Beverly resident and a junior at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. Mary Alice Cookson is a parenting magazine editor, a mother of two teens and a Beverly-based columnist. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.