Nearly every address begins with some variation on that statement, and, often, speakers joke what a dubious honor—slash—anxious burden the invitation is.
If I were speaking (I’m not) I’d sidestep the cliché and say,
“Thanks… I mean it.”
However, given my late-May exhaustion, it’d likely be the last sidestepping I’d do. I might remind graduates to double-space their papers and put the punctuation inside the quotation marks. I might threaten them with another year of high school if they can’t recite, “’I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” and seven exceptions.
Though teachers stand in front of classes every day, opportunities for uninterrupted public commentary are rare. It makes news when graduation speakers succumb to the temptation to critique the current generation, but I understand. One sign of love, after all, is sincerity. Students should want honesty. They’re a captive audience—what better time to say, “Yes, you’re wonderful, but…”?
When I was a young parent, I attended a number of junior versions of graduation with kindergarteners or lower schoolers or camp attendees or participants in a rainbow of other activities. These graduation parodies are cute—like making a dog wear a snood and sunglasses. Yet, sometimes, so are our solemn and serious commencements. The elevation of the occasion insists on congratulatory platitudes and sugared inspiration, and graduation slips into bombast or, worse, announces its artifice by stepping gingerly around realities.
How courageous then are people who can mine their own post-grad experience to speak plainly about students’ future. “Life will be dull and only an active mind will relieve it” they say, or “If you really want to succeed, don’t believe your own press,” or “Everyone says you are the hope for the future and barely mean it, but, sorry, it’s true. Don’t screw up.”
Three times I’ve stood at that podium and said something less than I might have. I could have offered subtler, more insightful advice, confessed more doubt, and grappled more vigorously with the troublesome inevitability of disappointment.
So I’ve written the speech I never will (and never would) deliver:
Graduates, it’s an honor to speak today. Thank you… I mean it. I’m humbled standing here, overwhelmed by your faith I have a valuable message to impart. I’m not so sure, however, and this address will be shorter than you imagined. It requires attention perhaps impossible on such an exciting day. Nonetheless, here I go.
You should be proud of the accomplishment we’re celebrating today… but don’t be too proud. Ambition and personal progress aren’t everything. Watching you these four years has inspired hope… but also frustration. Sometimes I worry you don’t see this beautiful world as clearly as you should, and that, if you don’t lift your eyes from screens and start looking soon, you may spend a lifetime wandering among the clutter of possessions, degrees, school names, and job titles you laud as life’s treasure. I worry you may look up from amusements and discover the world spoiled… or gone.
I’ve heard you use the expression “Being real.” In our time, nothing is harder. I’ve lost my way enough to believe landmarks proffered by society are unreliable. Marketers advertise days like this as milestones when, really, your ordinary hours count more. With every petty triumph and mishap you fashion the internal compass to guide you. You are your habits.
My colleagues and I have such deep hopes for you. You may have cursed us at times, but our affection explains why we’ve asked so much of you. We wanted to teach you to think, and some of you have learned well. Others act the part, swinging between doing what looks good and what’s sincere and earnest. That’s okay. I act too. We have to sometimes, and, in dark moments, everyone wonders what’s real and true.
Everything real and meaningful to me started with asking, “What matters?” I’ve occasionally wanted to hand you the list I’ve compiled, but you will create your own.
I request just one more thing before you leave. Make your list deliberately and thoughtfully and with the highest purpose. The world doesn’t need more lazy opinion, more pretense, more snarky irony, more secret contempt, more misanthropy, more hollow love or name-only friendship. It doesn’t need more aloofness, more consumption for consumption’s sake, more self-absorption or self-congratulation.
It needs us awake and alive, grateful and caring, modest and sensitive. It needs real attention, affection, and aspiration. Graduates, what’s ahead isn’t easy, but, if you lift your head and open your eyes, I promise life will be more glorious than you can imagine even on this, a most glorious day.
I know one of our graduates really well—my daughter. I’m sure she’s happy I won’t be troubling her class with my worries. And I’m happy to leave the day to her… generally. I feel only the slightest twinge of regret, the usual fed-up end-of-the-year urge to issue one last challenge.
But instead I’ll just say, “Godspeed, all.”