Every year, high school and college graduates gather in a big stuffy room, wearing silly-looking outfits, hear the same once-inspiring, but now worn-out songs, and listen to a somewhat notable person try to offer encouraging – and hopefully, original – words about the future.

Every year, we writers and columnists share similar advice. A lot of that advice is good, even if too much of it consists of clichés we recyle every single year.

Today’s column, however, is going to be a lot different (I hope).

Here goes….

To the Vinton-Shellsburg Class of 2016 (and anyone else graduating from anywhere else):

Most of the people at your graduation party will ask you “Now What?”

By this, they mean: Where do you plan to work? What college will you attend? How far away from home will you move?

Those are all valuable questions — questions you have been pondering for years. Although you may get tired of answering them over and over, they come from friends and relatives who wish for you the very best.

From me — who also wishes you the very best — comes a very similar-sounding, but a very, very different question:

“Then what?”

Let me explain:

Someday, in the near future, you may meet a roommate or other peer whose behavior distracts you from your attempt to succeed at college.

Then what? What will you do?

Someday, you may have to choose between no job, and a job that is not quite — or not at all — what you dreamed of.

Then what?

Someday, you may have a boss who seems like a complete idiot.

Then what?

How will you handle this? Will you try to change jobs, or careers? Will you try to work it out? Will you begin hiding every time you hear him coming?

Someday, powers far beyond your control will bring sudden and unexpected changes to your life, changes you feel completely unprepared to face.

Then what?

At some time or another, just about everyone who matters in your life will let you down.

Then what?

One day, you will realize that you did the same to them.

Then what?

Someday, you will hear a question that challenges what you think you believe. There’s a very good chance that question will come from yourself.

Then what?

Someday, you will mess up something so badly, that saying “I am sorry” can’t fix it.

Then what?

Someday, you will look in the mirror and see that you are not the same person you thought you were on Graduation Day. Yeah, you may see the difference in your hair or eye color, but what will shock you most is that even in your soul, you see someone you do not recognize.

Then what?

Someday, life will throw you a big hanging curve ball that you smack over the fence in the bottom of the ninth, and everyone around you will cheer as you round the bases, with your teammates waiting to pile on you at home plate.

Then what?

Someday — perhaps the day after the day mentioned in the previous paragraph — life will aim a bean ball at your left ear, and your teammates will stand in the dugout, waiting for you go lift yourself from the dirt, watching to see if you will shake off the pain and trot to first, or charge the mound and start a bench-clearing brawl.

Then what?

Someday, with the game on the line, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, you will strike out, and your teammates will stare at the dugout floor as you walk away from the plate.

Then what?

Some days, your hard work, intelligent planning and patience will pay off in spectacular ways that you had never dreamed of.

Then what?

Some days, the very same efforts will produce –or so it will seem at the time — nothing but failure and exasperation.

Then what?

Someday, your 8-month-old will keep you up all night, just before you have a one of your biggest projects ever at work.

Then what?

Someday, you may have to tell your 8-year-old that his or her grandma is dead.

Then what?

Someday, you will get a call or see a news report, and learn that a friend, or a hero, is gone forever.

Then what?

Some day, you will whisper in a corner but then quickly realize that you have the attention of everyone in the room. On other days, you will shout from the mountains, but realize that nobody is listening to any of the echoes.

Then what?

Some day, someone will respond to your words — words that you believe deep in your soul should matter to them as much as they matter to you — by saying, “So what?”

Then what?

Someday, it will occur to you that only your own misguided expectations made life seem less rewarding.

Then what?

One day, you may realize that something that had seemed like a very good idea just a few minutes, hours, days or years earlier was actually a detour from where you really wanted to go.

Then what?

Someday, you will be standing someplace, waiting for something, when you realize it’s time for you to initiate some big changes, even if you don’t know exactly how.

Then what?

I don’t know.

You don’t know. You probably won’t know, at first.

And you know what? You don’t need to know, at least not now.

But if you hang on to your faith, your wisdom, your understanding that you need a hand from above and maybe a few from around you to guide you, you will be as ready as you can when those “Then what?” moments become “Now what?” moments.