Friday, June 17, 2011

A speech I’ll never give

GraduationThis entry is prompted by three things. First, it’s graduation time, and millions of high school and college graduates are moving on to the next phase of their lives. Second, I watched highlights of Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech at Dartmouth, and was very impressed by what he had to say. Finally, I read an article in Time last night about the impact that high school has on us as we continue on with our lives. (I had planned to link to the article here, but it seems that Time is no longer allowing me to do that, despite over ten years of continuous subscription. Perturbed email has been sent.)

The gist of the article was that people are really not defined by the narrow roles assigned to them in high school. Based on a long-term study of more than 10,000 members of the graduating class of 1957 in various Wisconsin high schools, with additional information from shorter-term studies of what happens to high school graduates, it found that we are not bound by the stereotypes we are slapped with in high school. Good news for me, or else I’d still be a dateless, book-reading geek...okay, I’ll cop to the latter two, but at least I’ve got the first one covered! The writer of the article, a woman who achieved success as a journalist and author, was surprised when she received a phone call from her high school asking her to give the commencement address to this year’s graduates.

I’m never going to get that phone call, but as someone who didn’t have an entirely positive high school experience, it made me think about what I would say to high school graduates. (Most college graduates would have figured this out by the time they graduate. I’m thinking of my own high school, and its conservative views and tendency to pigeonhole. I’m sorry to say that I still see those same attitudes thirty years later.) Conan’s speech was funny and irreverent, but with a wonderful nugget of truth about life’s failures and how we deal with them. If I ever got a chance to speak to the graduates of my high school (or any other high school), it would go something like this:

It’s a big world out there. I know that on at least some level, you realize that; you know that there is more to life than what you have experienced here for the past few years. I’m here to tell you that the immensity of the world is beyond your wildest imaginings. Perhaps some of you have traveled to other countries in order to immerse yourself in their language and culture; some of you have done volunteer work right here in our own country that has shown you that many of our own citizens struggle in ways that you can’t imagine. There aren’t just starving children in Africa; there are starving children right here in your own country. You might have an inkling of what is out there, and what is to come.

Perhaps some of you have struggled to make it through your time here. Maybe it was because of academics; maybe it was because you were bullied because of who you are or who you love; maybe it was because you didn’t fit into any particular group, and always felt like an outsider. In all honesty, I can’t tell you that those things won’t happen when you get into the workplace, or that leaving the confines of these walls will somehow grant you immunity to such prejudices and daily trials and tribulations. However, as you meet people in your life, whether it’s in college or the military or if you immediately enter the workforce, you will find that you’re not as alone as you were in the insular world of high school. It’s a strange atmosphere...designed to categorize and label and sort into convenient sections. Life is not that way.

If I can give you any advice, it would be two things. First: learn as much as you can about the world around you. Search beyond what you know, what you take for granted as truth. Seek out other opinions, make an effort to find and engage people who are beyond the sphere of what you’ve learned up to this point. Learn about other cultures, other ethnicities, other religions, those with NO religion, those who hold differing opinions from yours or those of your parents.

Second: QUESTION. Question everything. Question why things are done a certain way. Question why YOU are expected to do things a certain way. Question your politicians, question your religious leaders, and yes, question your parents. If any of them are worth their salt, they will honestly answer your questions rather than ignore them or brush them off as the ramblings of foolish youth. Question authority. Don’t ignore authority, but question it. There will always be those who abuse their power, and it is up to each of us as citizens to keep them in check and make them answer to those of us who question them. [Note: if you subscribe to this philosophy and method, the military probably isn’t for you. Such an attitude will not go over very well. I would also advise you to question why you want to join the military, and to answer honestly.]

When someone is questioned about why they feel or think or believe a certain thing, the worst thing to hear is that it’s always been done that way, or that that is what they were taught to believe. This is a copout. Stop and think, examine your reasons for feeling that way, and if someone questions you on it, be prepared to give a reasoned and logical answer; anything less is simply following that same drummer, the same party line, the same old song and dance that has been done so many times before.

Learn, discuss, question. Be a force for good, and understand your reasons for doing so.

Find your voice. Use it, and use it wisely.


  1. OMG! You are my hero! But if you ever actually gave that address, you would probably be stoned and quartered! I feel so sorry for the people whose lives stop after high school- there are SO MANY where I grew up! How many of them have never lived anywhere- for any period of time- other than that small town! No wonder they are so narrow-minded! It's like mental inbreeding!

  2. beautifully said. life began after high school for me.


  3. I think the last line is one of those "All you ever need to know" things.

  4. Great speech, Beth. And truthful advice that will be useful to anyone, too.
    The best speech I ever heard was from the valedictorian at an eight grade graduation. She compared life to her middle school experiences (we all know how horrible those are) and prepared her classmates for high school by providing rules of engagement which she derived, and provided examples of, from their middle school experiences. It was really wonderful and very deep. I often wonder if she knew just how good her speech was. I wish I had a copy of it.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  5. I'd have applauded that speech if I was a student or a parent.

  6. Well, here in NH I'm giving you a standing ovation for that speech Beth. It would have helped me to hear those words on the eve of my next big step in life.


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?