Graduation season rolls in each year on waves of commencement speech platitudes. Even the most inspiring remarks are quickly forgotten by graduates struggling with emotions that range from relief to melancholy.

I had toyed with the idea of giving my own advice to seniors who now must face the world and add something of value to it. But then I came across the story of Esther Kim and her friend, Kay Poe. Their example speaks far more eloquently than anything I could say.

Perhaps you missed the story. Kim and Poe are friends. Actually, they are more like sisters, as Kim explained to the New York Times. They also are athletes. Both were competing for the right to represent the United States in the sport of tae kwon do at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. It is the first time the sport will be a medal event. They had trained hard, spending countless grueling hours sacrificing for the cause, honing their skills in a sport in which competitors battle primarily with kicking maneuvers.

At the Olympic trials recently in Colorado Springs, both athletes qualified for the final round, but there was a problem. Poe had dislocated her left knee in the semifinal match. She could barely stand, let alone kick, but her competitive spirit wasn't going to let her quit. She would somehow muster the courage, as Olympic athletes have through the ages, and do her best.

Her friend, Kim, faced a difficult decision. She had lost to Poe in an earlier round. Now she probably could win without much effort and earn herself a trip to Sydney. But it didn't feel right, somehow.

With tears streaming down her delicate face, Kim announced to the judges she was forfeiting. Her friend, who had beaten her before, would heal in time for the Olympics and should go instead. Poe protested, but it was no use. Kim and her father helped Poe to the mat, where the decision was announced to a stunned crowd. By now, both competitors were in tears.

"It felt like the only right thing to do," Kim told the Times. "It did hurt, but winning a gold medal isn't everything. There are other ways to be a champion. If I don't have a gold medal around my neck, it's in my heart."

Forty-five years ago, at a commencement speech at La Salle College, Henry B. du Pont, vice president of the Du Pont Co., told graduates, "Education is what we have left when we have forgotten everything we have ever learned at school."

It was one of those pithy commencement-speech comments that most of the bright young graduates probably forgot quickly, if they were paying attention in the first place. But it probably summed up as cogently as anything I've heard what the essence of success is all about.

Education has less to do with knowledge than with acquiring the skills to make intelligent choices long after the words "multiple choice," "blue book" and "No. 2 pencil" have lost their urgency. A person can memorize answers, pass tests and earn a degree, but that doesn't guarantee success, nor does it even guarantee the student will be able to define success.

For the Class of 2000, choices are going to be flying in faster than alien fighters in a video game. It is true that the decisions you make in the coming months will set you on paths that define the rest of your lives. But the biggest decision you make is the same one your ancestors had to make in simpler times. It is between right and wrong.

Life is a series of choices and adjustments. Always, we must decide whether to place one thing ahead of another, to rearrange what we once thought were such clear-cut priorities. Today, for example, you may have grand career ambitions. Tomorrow you may look in the face of a tiny baby and decide that his or her needs outweigh these. If you have truly gained an education, you will see what Kim saw, that this is not called sacrifice. It is called responsibility. And it doesn't mean your life will be any less full or satisfying. It means you have learned that the gold medal that fits in your heart is much more shiny and long-lasting than one that goes around your neck.

Those who saw what Kim did that day in Colorado Springs were stunned. A world where winning and glory seem to transcend all other aims has trouble dealing with the joy that can come from helping a friend to succeed. Some critics have focused on how unfair it was for the rules of the tournament to put Kim in such a difficult position. Others have wondered whether this story simply reinforces old stereotypes about women not having the same competitive spirit as men.

They miss the point entirely. Life transcends sports. It transcends careers and personal possessions. To the Class of 2000, it may seem hard to believe, but life will end some day. The trick is to end it with the gold in the right place.


Deseret News editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached at even@desnews.com