Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An observation on graduation speeches

So it's now the silly season (one of many in our culture). People getting invited to give speeches, people getting DISINVITED (this seems to be a new thing) to give speeches, people being paid way too much to come give a speech, bla bla bla.

You know what? I wouldn't be all that troubled if they did away with the Obligatory Graduation Speech altogether. Or maybe just keep it for high schools, but limit the speakers (as most high schools do anyway) to someone who has done good locally: a doctor that does pro-bono work for the poor, a judge who set up a drug court in the hope of truly rehabilitating first-time offenders, a businessperson who has brought jobs to town....

But the whole mess of getting a high profile speaker for colleges (Where is the President going to speak this year? Where is Big Famous Movie Star going to speak? Where is Beloved Author going to speak) is kind of overdone.

And you know? Being a Big Famous Somebody doesn't mean you give good speeches. I've sat through graduations - now, granted, we mostly only get Locally Famous Somebodies but I can tell you how accomplished or famous someone is is not necessarily a guide to how good their speech will be. I've sat through some TERRIBLE speeches from Locally Famous Somebodies: either they rambled all over the place and were way too long, or they were viewed from the very limited prism of that individual's experience (I think of the businesswoman who defined Success as: "you come in before your boss, you leave after they leave, you don't take vacations"). Or it becomes All About The Person.

Here's a big big hint to would-be graduation speakers: it's not about you. It's not about what you did, or how great you are, or what injustices you personally have suffered in your life. Graduation is about the graduates. Get up, give a short speech that either contains general but helpful advice, or that congratulates them and their parents on their achievement, shut up, sit down, let 'em graduate.

I have to admit, this is something I've considered. Not that I'll ever be asked to, because I'm not a Big Famous Anybody, but I can think of three topics I could expand on for an "advice" type speech:

1. Gratitude is important. (This could also incorporate elements of "Look what you all did! One hundred or more years ago this option would not have been open to many of you. Many of the things you are going to go out and do as careers weren't even invented when your grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents, I'm old) were born)

2. Never stop learning, always have something you care about. Also maybe noting the joy of being able to read a "classic" on your own time schedule and knowing you never have to write an essay on it. I took almost a year to work my way through Middlemarch and  I think I learned more from it and enjoyed it more if I were trying to read it in two or three weeks, like the typical lit-class schedule in college. Also, the fact that I could make my own interpretations and draw what I believed to be important from it, rather than feeling like I had to suss out what my professor's prejudices and hobby-horses were, and write the essay tailored to those. (Sad but true, that's how some humanities courses work, or so I learned)

3. See the other person. By that, I mean, recognize the humanity of others around you. Other people are not merely obstacles to your happiness. They have their own lives - their own fears and hopes and dreams and problems and joys. (When I am at my best, I can tell myself that that person who is doing things that annoy me is doing them NOT to annoy me personally, but because their own personal hang-ups cause them to do those things. And that I probably do things that annoy other people too). I've seen too many people abuse cashiers or bank tellers or waiters/waitresses over stuff that was NOT under the control of the person being abused. I make a point to be polite to customer service people (being polite does NOT preclude being firm or persistent if you are not getting the help you need and they are supposed to give) because I know they get dumped on so much. And I find I often get really excellent service in places other people complain about, and I wonder if it's because I strive to be polite and friendly, and so the people are more willing to help me.

I'd pick one of those and expand on it. Do a short speech, limit it to one topic, and at the end congratulate the graduates and their families.

But I get tired of reading/hearing clips of speeches that seem to be about the person speaking, about what they've "suffered" (when they probably come from a wealthier, happier background than many of the students - and I know this because I teach and I've tried to help students with diverse problems or sadnesses). Or the self-congratulatory speech - my own college commencement speech was a guy who practically broke his arm patting himself on the back for all the good he'd done in the world.

I also tend to feel there should be a moratorium on inviting politicians who may still run for office someday (Well, maybe limit it to Federal office - people who are running for president or Senate or to be a Representative). Too much chance of it turning into a circus and being about the speaker and not about the graduates - I'd feel cheated, after working for four long years, to have the focus of my graduation shift to "Joe Blow is making a stump speech!"

(Also, the increased security with certain politicians would make it a nightmare for families going to see their kids graduate. I know during my advanced-degree graduations, as we were heading in to the arena, they made us unzip and open our gowns. I don't know if that was to be sure we were actually *dressed* under them, or to be sure we weren't carrying some kind of contraband, or what. It was weird and a little unsettling.)

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