Tuesday, August 27, 2013

more philosophical than usual

What can you tell people who already know everything?

My Uncle Michael picks up mail at my house when everyone who normally lives at my house it out of town. We have a locked mailbox, for any thieves who are reading and who actually know where I live, but those things eventually fill up, and one never knows when one will have an especially heavy mail day.  My Uncle Michael and his family came here to my Uncle Steve' s for dinner tonight, and he brought a few pieces of mail that were addressed to me. Most were credit card offers, but one was from my old high school.  It was with much curiosity that I opened it.

It was an invitation to give a brief (10-minute) address to the graduates at the 2014 commencement ceremony of my high school alma mater. Thinking back, because I attended a few ceremonies other than my own due to playing piano for the choir or playing in band or because a relative was graduating, it is neither the norm nor the exception to have a speaker besides the graduate speakers. The year I graduated, there was not one. I didn't attend commencement ceremonies my junior year because I was wheel-chair-bound and practically in a body cast. my sophomore, I believe some guy who had attended our high school and had gone to MITspoke.

Why they would want me is one of life's great mysteries. They said it's because my university reported to them that I'm definitely in the top ten of graduates for 2014 even though I'm finishing in three years. (The triple major with a minor figures into my being in the top ten graduates.) The reason may also have had to do with some of the adversity I faced at the high school. Perhaps at some point they'll comunicate to me that they want the focus of my speech to be overcoming adversity or some such thing. I hope they don't tell me that, because it is not a subject which I would choose as a theme for an address.

I didn't even speak at my own graduation even though I was the #1 valedictorian. Instead, I wrote the speech and let the #2 valedictorian, my brother, give it. I wish we could do it that way again, as I'm a decent speechwriter, and Matthew's a gifted public speaker. He's probably wasting his talents in medicine, and maybe should go into politics instead, but he says he has a chance to  accomplish something good in the world if he goes into medicine. I respect his point of view. He won't be the world's most brilliant doctor, but he will be thorough, hard-working, compassionate, and will have studied hard and will continue to update his education. I suppose the patients who have him for a doctor someday will be lucky.

I must give these people a decision. My gut reaction is to say no. My second gut reaction is to go there and to say something a bit controversial. (The speech I wrote for Matthew was controversial, but it was delivered so perfectly that it was never clear whether the occasional slam at the institution was serious or in jest.) I don't have that skill as a speaker. If I wrote the sort of speech for myself to give, I would be booed. I won't do that.

It will be at a time before my own finals, but after all recital and projects had been done. I would recommend Matthew for the job, be he'll be in the middle of a baseball season and won't be able to skip out on anything just for a measly high school commencement ceremony. It's either do it myself, or not at all.

In making the decision, I must consider what if anything I have to say to the graduates that would be of benefit to them.  Will they listen? Will it make a difference? If not, it's pointless, unless I can put it on my medical school resume far before the fact. If it would be impressive to a selection panel, it might be worth doing even if I might be mediocre. I won't be terrible, because I'm too meticulous and OCD to walk up there and have nothing to say. I'd hate to be mediocre, though.

It came to me that my words don't have to be my words alone. I have just over eight months to come up with a high school keynote address.  In that time, I can get words of wisdom from a lot of people I know. Even my own father, when he's polished off a Guinness or two, sometimes has profound things to say. My Uncle Scott is articulate and very deep, and funny as well. My Aunt Jillian is a brilliant writer. I could possibly gather material, have have Aunt Jillian write a draft, and then turn it into my own.

What do I have to say to the graduates at my old high school?  It's an extremely educated community, and 95% of the graduates are probably going off to 4-year colleges. Perhaps there's something that needs to be said to the remaining 5%.  The reasons why they're not going to 4-year institutions are, unless they really desire to pursue a trade,  probably financial. They're smart enough to graduate from a really competitive high school, but not sufficiently spectacular (or maybe didn't study quite diligently enough) to have scored any major scholarships among a graduating class that's roughly as competitive as any public high school in the nation. It's like a private school except no one pays any tuition.  Their parents  won't or more likely can't foot the bill. Their parents may make too much for them to qualify for financial assistance based on need, but not enough to help them significantly with college expenses, Those students need to know that if college is for them, that when they graduate ultimately from whatever four-year  school at which they end up, no med school or law school will care that they did time on a JC campus as long as their GPAs and MCATs or LSATs are sufficiently high.  There is no shame in having attended a community college. Anyone who would suggest otherwise is a snob whose opinion does not matter.  It goes without saying that I would never discuss during the speech why anyone is or isn't going to a four-year-college. I would merely insist that a quality education can be obtained there for a fraction of the cost of that they would've paid at a four year school for the same thing, and that if they go on to succeed at a four-year school, in the grand scheme of things, time spent on a junior or community college campus will not be a detriment to their future.

What would I tell the other 95% ?    I'd love to give the student body my opinions of frats and sororities, but they and their parents have made up their minds on that issue, and nothing I can say will sway anyone's opinions. If there is a subtle way to work in the idea that they're no longer in junior high, and that the purpose for affiliating with Greek associations should not be to make others feel inferior about themselves, I would like to find it and convey that thought.  I would also tell the students to be cautious, especially if one is a female, at parties, and especially at fraternity parties. I'd remind them about not drinking anything they didn't open themselves, and not to leave a drink unguarded for a second.  I'd tell them to go to a party with one or more other people, and not to leave or stay without all of the people with whom they arrived.  I would tell them that a close friend of mine who didn't follow that rule was drugged and raped at a fraternity party. I know it would be a buzzkill  to hear such a thing at  graduation, but were it to prevent even one future rape, it would be well worth it.

I would advise them not to take an 8:00 a.m. class their freshman year. College is hard enough without significantly damaging one's GPA as a freshman just because a person took a course that was too early when he or she didn't have mom or dad to prod him or her out of bed and on to class.  After freshman year, a student should have a decent handle on whether or not the early class is workable, but don't risk it as a freshman.

If your math or science comes with a tutorial section, TAKE IT, I would telll them.  Students may think they've been so well-prepared or are so naturally brilliant that they don't need the extra help tutorial sections offers, but they'll be surrounded by well-prepared and naturally brilliant competition. Take the tutorial whenever it's offered.

I would advise them not to miss a deadline on an assignment. Once one does it, it gets easier and easier. Don't miss class unless one is legitimately 103-degree-fever-and-contagious sick. Even if you have a note from the health center excusing you, the note is worth about as much as the paper on which it's printed, and it's probably not printed on a hundred-dollar bill.  Professors don't care. Some don't take attendance either, and a student may think he or she can get the class notes from someone else. That's certainly better than nothing, but notes from the best note-taker on campus are not as good as actually sitting through the lecture. If one is lucky enough to get that great note-taker to study or share with you even when one has been in class, go for it. Some people have uncanny instincts in terms of what's going to turn up on a test, and or what a professor wants to hear. If one of such people is willing to study with a person,  it would behoove him or her to give up the move you were going to watch and put in the time studying. Mainly, though, go to class.

Speaking of what a professor wants to hear, I've said before and will say again, in subjective courses, every professor has something he or she wants to hear.  One should learn to unlock that professor's "truth" as early in the course as possible, and be creative about restating it to him or her in as many ways possible. There are many ways, times, and places, to be true to oneself and one's beliefs. A subjective college course is not one of them.  Find out what a professor wants to hear, and tell it to him or her. That, and doing so in an articulate manner, is the secret to succeeding in subjective college courses. Don't feel that doing such is compromising one's values; a person has a whole lifetime to be true to yourself. This just isn't the time for it.

A student should not purchase any papers. Especially avoid the Internet for that purpose. A student's only chance of not getting caught is if the paper was written right in front of him or her by a close friend or relative. (At that point, why not just do it yourself?) Otherwise, that paper was turned in before and is  in a database, and the student will be caught.

How does one verbalize in a non-cliche manner the cliche yet essential truth that college can and should be fun, but one is there to study and to get an education? It's as true as ever it was, but the closer one's college is to the beach, the harder it seems to be to follow such advice.  Yet young people have heard it too many times already, don't want to hear it again, and don't think it applies to them.Would a slide presentation in that regard be effective along the vein of a picture being worth a thousand words?

The street closest to the beach in the off-campus community  here  is inhabited mostly by former students or marginal students who once had high hopes of graduating but are now going to need serious rehab and probably to return to colleges closer to home if they ever hope to complete a bachelor's degree. The street by the beach is the rough equivalent of Bourbon Street during the Mardi Gras, except that it is that way on any given weekday at 1:00 P.M.  It only gets worse on nights and weekends. Should I just walk up to the partiers along that street after snapping their pictures,  and see how many are willing to share their transcripts with me, redacting names, of course? Many are drunk enough  at any given moment  that they'd agree to just about anything. Would this convince students that fun is essential to college life, but one can have too much of a good thing? Or is that something every college or university student must learn on his own, hopefully before it's too late, and are words and even pictures futile?

What can I or anyone say to these young people that will inspire them, yet not create a false sense of hope? That will warn them, yet not paralyze them and their parents with fear? Now that I'm almost out of here, I know that both good and bad lurks around every corner; what can I possibly say that will help them navigate their way through the bad and toward the good? It seems futile. Do I even try?

In the end, I think my best bet, if I do this at all,  would be to entertain the students with a few mildly funny stories that makesome of my more essntial points, and to insert  a few truths in such a discreet way that the students don't realize they've been given advice. People who already know everything do not like to be given advice.


  1. What an honor, even though you're having trouble deciding what you would talk about. If you do decide to speak, please steer clear of the trite. I remember the valedictorian at my high school gave us a lecture on the evils of drunk driving. It was not exactly hard hitting stuff. That isn't to say that I think drunk driving is a good thing; it's just that his speech wasn't even about how it had affected him personally. It just sounded like a PSA and went in one ear and out the other.

  2. Knotty, I am flattered, honored, and humbled by he invitation. I suspect part of the motivation for the invitation had to do with substandard treatment both my mom and I received in the months following my restroom attack. (It's a long story I'll go into on another day.) still, the district di not have to extend this inviatation to m, and I appreciate the offer even if I ultimtely don't accept it.

    I undertand the importance of being neither triet nor preachy. Now they're saying they want ten to fifteen minutes. They'll be lucky if they get ten full minute from m if i do it. I will not getup there and bore the graduates or audience of parents and relatives. The graduates are there to graduate, and the audeince is there to see them graduate. Unless my mom or dad comes, absolutely no one is there to here me speak.

    IF I do it,and it's still a big if, I'll tell a few quick stories that will illustrate just litle bit of what i think they can expect tp encounter, and use amusing real-life anecdotes to warn the graduates of a potential pitfalls, and subtly get in a bit of my personal bias against (treading very lightly)the snobbery so often represented by the Greek system, subtly reminding students that bullying is still bullying whter the pertpetrators and victims ar midlle school student or college students. I have a good personal story that will make the point quite well very quickly. While I won't end with it, I will mention the need for caution nad mt friend's rape. mostly it won't be preacy but much lighter. And tht's IF if do it.

    I'm spending the next the next three nights with Aunt Jillian. Im going to tell all my stories to her. She's going to decide what's most relevant and type a tentative 10-or-so-minute speech for me. I'll look at it, adapt asI see it, and the decide if what I have to say to new graduates will either hold their attention or benefit them in any way. Ii should give me a clear yes or kich , whoch I'll pass on to the district before September has passed in it entirety. If I do it, I will be neuther preachy not trite.

  3. One of the best commencement speeches I ever heard was the one famed football coach Lou Holtz gave at my graduation from the University of South Carolina in May 2002. It was not a long speech, but it was witty, entertaining, and offered a couple of valuable pearls of wisdom. Bill Bosher, a Virginia education leader, spoke at my college graduation and his speech is still memorable to me 19 years later. It was funny, reassuring, and wise.

    If you want to speak about very serious subjects like drunk driving or the perils of date rape, you can certainly give those topics impact. I think the secret is relating them in a personal way rather than speaking about them generically. As you have a friend who has experienced something serious that you have witnessed and been affected by, you can weave that into your speech in a way that doesn't become trite or boring. The guy who spoke at my high school commencement talked about drunk driving as if he'd been watching too many psas. It wasn't personal and therefore made little impact.

    A ten minute speech is a bit on the long side. I minored in speech in college and have had to write a lot of them. It would be a challenge to come up with an engaging speech of that length. I'm sure you can do it, though, and it'll turn out great. Although I don't know you in person, I get the sense that you are in the "anything worth doing is worth doing well" camp.

  4. A friend of my mom has a duagher who was in a graduating master's class with one of Chelsea clinton's best friends several years ago. I think it was U of Texas, though I could be wrong. One of the graduates of the class was a close friend of Chelsea Clinton, so former President Clinton agreed to be the speaker. My mom said he was phenomenal, and she's not his biggest fan, although she recognizes that the country prospered under his leadership despite his moral deficits. My mom probably told me at the time what he said, but I didn't listn.