"And there I was, former president of the United States of America, with a plastic bag on my hand," he told a group of graduating high school students in New Mexico on Thursday. "Life is returning back to normal."
Mr. Bush, in one of his few public appearances since leaving office in January, told the students that leaving office lifted a heavy burden.
"I no longer feel that great sense of responsibility that I had when I was in the Oval Office. And frankly, it's a liberating feeling," he told seniors from Artesia High School.
He received a warm welcome in the southeastern New Mexico community, the Roswell Daily Record reported. Mr. Bush declined interviews and no video cameras were allowed inside.
The crowd gave him multiple standing ovations and after his speech he was presented with a sculpture of an eagle taking flight from a torch. The sculpture will be dedicated at City Hall on Memorial Day in honor of Bush and America's veterans.
Mr. Bush invoked an Iraq veteran's story to motivate the students to continue their educations. He described visiting Army Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge, a soldier from Oregon who lost both legs in combat.
When he visited Bagge at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Mr. Bush told him that someday Bagge would get out of his bed and run.
Then, one day, an aide went into Mr. Bush's office and said Bagge was waiting on the South Lawn and wanted to go running with the president.
If Bagge could do that, Mr. Bush told the students: "You can go to college."
Mr. Bush said he hoped President Barack Obama's administration would be successful. He also said he was writing a book about some of the difficult decisions he made while in office.