The graduation speech I didn’t give
Does it shock you as much as it shocks me that the class of 2020 is about to march down the aisle and no one has asked me to give a commencement address?
I mean, think about it. This week about 3.2 million seniors will graduate from some 37,000 high schools. That means they need 37,000 commencement speakers. With odds like that, you’d think someone would ring me up. No one did.
After all, commencement addresses are important. Aren’t they?
Why I was just thinking back to my own high school graduation from the class of (let’s leave that year blank, shall we?). I don’t have the foggiest notion of who gave that address or of a single thing they said. Moving on to my college graduation, the only thing I remember anyone saying is when they called out my name to pick up my diploma. I grabbed it and fled.
But I can imagine what they all said. They probably said what commencement speakers always say: that we belong to a terrific generation, that our entire lives are before us waiting to be written, that we are prepared, and that now we should march out and change the world.
I’ve always wondered whether they realize that the world is already largely being run by people who once graduated from high school, and they, too, were told to sally forth and change the world. If you think about it, if everyone is always told to change the world, doesn’t that mean that we all agree that no one has any idea how the world should be? Or something like that.
So while it may be a time-honored tradition to have commencement speakers, can we agree that we pay about as much attention to them as we do to our politicians when they drone on and on and on and on, completely oblivious to the simple fact that all we really want them to do is for- the-sake-of-all-that-is-lovely, stop talking?
But, just for an amusing musing, were I asked to speak, what would I say?
The first thing any speaker has to do is to get his crowd’s attention. I think I’d do that by smiling, thanking the faculty, the principal, the superintendent, and the entire board of education for inviting me to such an auspicious event. You already see what I’m doing here—I’m lowering the crowd’s expectations.
Then I’d use a pregnant pause, stop, look up with a Cheshire-cat grin, and say something like this:
“To the class of 2020. I’m sure that you’ve spent your entire lives being told that you are special, one-of-a-kind, bright beyond measure.
“Let me be the first to tell you: You. Are. Not. Special.” Queue the nervous laughter. I can already see the valedictorian’s grandmother’s head snap in my direction.
“Think about it. You are on a planet that isn’t the center of its solar system, in a solar system that isn’t the center of its galaxy, and in a galaxy that isn’t at the center of anything. You, too, are not the center of just about anything.
“So what if you’re the smartest kid in your class? 37,000 high schools each have a class valedictorian, a class president, a head cheerleader, and a football captain.
“And even if you go on to graduate number one from the very best college, you are still not guaranteed to be anything special. Don’t believe me? Can anyone in the crowd name anyone who graduated number one at any college ever? I don’t see any hands being raised.
“But I do have some good news for you. You can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that high school isn’t life, life isn’t grades, and how well you did in Mrs. Smith’s 11th grade trigonometry class is absolutely not a predictor of how far you will go.
“And that isn’t so bad. What graduation really means is not that you’ve done something special—look around, you know these people, how many of them do you think are special? So, special or not, you all have a lot of work to do, a lifetime of work of own kind or the other. Success if defined in a lot of places— why don’t you flip through the book of Proverbs and see what it really is. Thomas Edison (who never even made it to high school) told us that we often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work. Old Tom had a point. “No, you aren’t special. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be. Now take off those mortar boards, wipe those satisfied smiles off your faces, and get to work”.
Well. Another graduating class will walk with no commencement address from me. That’s okay; there’s always next year.
And maybe by then we will all get lucky and everyone will have forgotten that I wrote this column, and I will be—wisely, I think—overlooked yet again.