Graduations are generally a good thing. Years of hard work, some work, no work, are rewarded with a twenty-second stroll across a stage and a handshake. Proud families whoop, videos and selfies abound; for the lucky grad, the event brings laughter, tears, and appreciation for opportunities well met. Graduation usually take place in the spring, and colleges and schools spruce themselves up for the event, so what’s not to love?
For reasons I can’t explore in this essay, the Greatest Shows On Earth have given out; no more circus high wire acrobatics. Where then can we find that agonizing pleasure of watching an individual wobbling to find balance, facing a calamitous fall with no safety net? Well, student graduation speeches come pretty close. The best of them soar, leaving an audience giddy with appreciation of risks taken and pitfalls avoided; the worst of them are eminently cringe-worthy, uniting an entire auditorium in shared pain.
Some student speeches may be maudlin or wax hyperbolic, but no matter how tortured the language, these are authentic attempts to capture something important before leaving a place that means many things to many people. Speaking publicly is tough; speaking before an audience of friends, enemies, teachers, parents, siblings, grandparents, sundry odd relatives in for the weekend from Iowa, past romances, romances anticipated, crying babies, and that guy who saw you walk out of the bathroom with toilet paper hanging from the back of your pants – that’s daunting.
So, we’ll cut the student speeches the slack that they deserve. The shortest are blessedly short, and the longest rarely cause an audience to slump in exhaustion.
Adults invited to speak, however, rarely escape their own worst instincts. It is gratifying to be asked to speak, I am sure; it seems folks rarely turn down the honor. As social media demonstrates, we all have strong opinions and feel obliged to share them; why should we be surprised that a speaker arrives ready to deliver those opinions to a captive crowd? The basic flaw in the whole “Every graduation needs a notable speaker” concept is that, with rare exceptions, the speaker is not attached to, aware of, interested in, the individuals attending the event; the speech, almost necessarily, has to be about the speaker, even when the speaker couches his/her remarks as confidences passed on to the fortunate few present.
Most of us can sit through a sixty minute lecture if we have any interest in the subject. Sure, an animated address is more captivating, but we can chalk up the lost hour as an opportunity to learn something we hadn’t known or understood. A sixty minute graduation speech, however, is torturous; there’s no escape without appearing rude, and under full sun or amidst the contending aromas in any gymnasium, seated on folding chairs, trapped with a faulty sound system that delivers every other word (“Is … on? Can … hear … in … back?”, every vestige of proud celebration is smothered.
The varieties of excruciating graduation speeches are many and profoundly unfortunate; there is not time nor room enough to provide the catalogue, but one arrives with grim regularity at nine graduations out of ten. The speaker waffles for a bit, the sort of pre-address throat clearing that is intended to provide the audience with the speaker’s qualification to hold the space hostage. Gaining purchase, the speaker then reveals his/her obligation to give the graduates as much good advice as possible before they lumber into the wider world.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some excellent speeches that offer advice, but … they generally land on one point of concern, maybe two at the most. An original or lightly understood insight is presented, examples follow, best wishes close it up, and the whole thing is over in about twenty minutes. On with the show!
George Saunders at Syracuse University –
“Err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”
David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College –
“Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”
Steve Jobs at Stanford University –
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Bad speeches are legion, and I can’ cite them because nobody remembers what the speaker said. The hallmarks of the forgettable speech are grotesque length and droning presentation of advice already very familiar. Think about all the advice you have been given, sort out the obviously mistaken advice (the best cure for a rash is bleach).
Without much trouble we pretty much all know the sort of advantage that reasonably good advice brings. We know that a job done poorly is less estimable than a job done well. We know that persistence often brings greater results than giving up. We know that facing challenges may take courage. We know that there is danger in following the crowd.
Doing something about any of these or the thousand other now familiar sets of instructions is the hard part, and it is unlikely that the speaker will be hanging around when we have to summon courage, or persistence, or good sense, or honesty. We’ll be there, of course, and what sustains us in the moment is not advice given in a graduation address but the example of estimable behavior we have witnessed in those around us. We know courage when we see it. We hear honesty when it arrives. We see the dignity in those who persist, and we know the value of a job done with dedication and care.
Hmmmm. That sounds like a pretty good graduation speech. Operators are standing by to take your call.