My Dear Graduates…

It is a near universal truth that graduation speeches are dreadful.  They are full of clichés and platitudes which actually tell the graduates and the well-wishers absolutely nothing.  All of the, “Remember the time when’s” might be good for a chuckle, but they don’t really cause the wheels of your mind to start turning.  Neither do, “seize the day,” “not an end but a beginning,” “believe in yourself,” or “follow your dreams.” You would think that a valedictorian with a weighted GPA of 6.75 would figure this out and come up with something better.  Perhaps they are too burned out by that point.  I’m not sure what the keynote speaker’s excuse is.

I recently had the privilege of attending graduation at the US Naval Academy.  Nearly 1100 of America’s best and brightest were being commissioned and sent, some of them, into harm’s way.  This was a time to celebrate their perseverance through the toughest route to a college degree and their commitment to serving their country, as well as to inspire them.  Every 3-4 years, the President speaks at the ceremony.  Lucky for us, he graced the Air Force Academy with his presence this year, and we were spared.  Instead, the class of 2012 heard from the Secretary of Defense.  He didn’t have much to tell the graduates that they didn’t already know.  After spending their summers out in the fleet experiencing various naval career paths (Marines, aviation, submarines, surface ships), they had a pretty good idea of what “A Typical Day in the US Navy” looks like without Leon Panetta spelling it out for them.  Another distinguished speaker, rather than coming up with his own material, he used the old Baz Luhrman Sunscreen routine.  I suppose it’s possible that the members of the class of 2012 are too young to be familiar with this gem.

The most valuable words I heard came in a brief statement before the swearing-in of the about-to-be military officers.  They were told to protect their integrity, since it cannot be taken from them, but it can be surrendered.  Amen to that.  I wish that little sound bite could be broadcast by every news outlet in the country.

Sadly, the speech given by the class president was embarrassingly mediocre.  I say embarrassing because he managed to shape the first half of the speech around a “Hunger Games” theme.  Very high school, in my opinion.

I think I’m probably fairly typical in that I cannot remember the speakers at either of my graduation ceremonies, let alone a word that they said.  Perhaps if I had heard a commencement address like the one given by David McCullough, an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, I might have given it my full attention.  McCullough does not rely upon clichés.  He certainly does not tell the graduates what they expect to hear.  And he uses big words and wry humor.  I leave you with some great quotes from the speech, but do read the whole thing to your graduate.

       You are not special.  You are not exceptional.    Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special…

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless…

We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans…

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds,…[r]esist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might…

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

            Because everyone is.

            Congratulations.  Good luck.  Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.





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