Monday, June 6, 2016

I should have just taken the easy way out and read OH THE PLACES YOU'LL GO.

Did I ever share that speaking in public is, for me, about as high on my list of Things I Want to Do as is transporting a hornet's nest from California to Utah with my bare hands? If I didn't, it's just something that slipped my mind, because it's the absolute truth.

I  mentioned about a year ago that the high school from which I graduated had asked me to speak at its commencement ceremony  this year. It's a tradition for my alma mater to pick a student from the graduating class of five years earlier who would seem five years after graduation to embody the qualities for which the high school's administration would wish for its current crop of graduates to strive. The choice of a graduate speaker is tough at best, as we're at a point at which most of us are either barely embarking on careers or even still in school of some sort. The choice can be political. For whatever  reason, local community leaders are competitive in regards to whose offspring has been invited to speak at graduation and whose hasn't. 

To the high school's credit, the administrative panel who makes the choice as to whom to extend the privilege of speaking at the commencement ceremony hasn't been overly exclusive. Two years ago, the guy who spoke was a community college graduate who had founded and funded a nonprofit organization that filled in some of the gaps of social services in existence for foster children aging out of the foster care system. Higher education isn't something at which to be scoffed, but in all seriousness, I could join my father's foundation, and we might someday achieve our ultimate dream of finding a cure for lymphocytic leukemia, yet I'm not at all certain that what we would have accomplished in doing such would have been greater than or even equal to what the guy who helps foster children in transitioning to adulthood does on a daily basis.

One of the very last things I really want to do with my free time is to deliver a speech of any kind anywhere. Yet there is a concept  known as obligation.  I received a quality education from my high school, and perhaps I owed it to them to show up and to say a few words on behalf of the graduating class, not that it mattered to any of the graduating seniors in the least if I did or didn't. Someone else would have shown up to speak had I not done so. In the end, I did what I thought was the right thing to do, and I showed up. I suppose maybe it did matter to the graduates that it was i who  came because I used up only five of the ten minutes allotted for my speech, so the grads escaped the confines of their ceremony and were free to party five minutes earlier than they otherwise would have been.

To me, the very idea if choosing someone just five years out of high school to speak to graduates is a ludicrous idea. People of my age and experience level little of substance to share with kids just leaving high school. And, for that matter, the administrators could end up making themselves look foolish, as they did four years ago, when the person they invited to be the alumni speaker less than a year later ended up in federal prison for having used his computer and printer to manufacture counterfeit cash. 

I tried to get Matthew to deliver the speech for me. He said he'd go there with me, but that  he was not giving the speech this time. If they had wanted him, he said, he would have been the one they invited.

I could have told funny stories about high school, but the stories I might have told would probably have been no more or less funny than the ones the with which graduates themselves could have come up. (For those of you who are grammar purists who have a nearly anaphylactic allergy to ending sentences with prepositions, I wish to ease your minds by reminding you that "come up with" is not technically a prepositional phrase, but, rather a phrasal verb.) i could have preached at them about everything people in their age group were doing wrong, but I'm only five years ahead of them in school and only three years older than most of them; my age group is guilty of the very same sins.

I chose to tell the graduates just a very little bit about college and university that they might not yet have considered. I asked for those who planned to become preschool, elementary, or high school teachers to raise their hands. Out of the eight-hundred or so graduates, probably ten raised their hands. Then I asked that the two people on either side of those had just raised their hands to raise their hands along with those of the prospective teachers, then shared that, statistically, odds were that the actual number of teachers would be closer to the number of hands raised the second time than the first.  I mentioned that not everyone who goes to college, or even everyone who completes his or her originally planned degree program, will end up working in that field. For whatever reason, when life doesn't work out as it has been planned, many people end up as teachers. If life works itself out in such a way that one finds himself or herself doing the very last thing many people ever thought they would do, which is to teach, one has the obligation to be the very best teacher he or she can possibly be. The fact that it may not be a career choice but instead may happen by default  will not be the fault of the future students, who deserve and need the very best teachers they can possibly have.

I condensed everything else into five bullet points, some longer than others but all relatively brief. (I'm mildly hyper-thyroid; those of us who have thyroid functions in the high ranges tend to talk fast.) In the end, I wrapped it up in four minutes and fifty-four seconds from the first word to the last. I received a standing ovation, more because of the brevity of my speech than because of anything else, i'm quite sure. Last year's speaker exceeded his allotted ten minutes by an additional six.

Bullet Point #1 consisted of my opinion that the guy I would consider to have achieved more than any other graduate in the history of our high school (and we have Nobel prize winners among our alumnae) only went as far as junior college. We can all earn PHDs, but ultimately someone has to remove trash from the streets and repair broken  refrigerators. Education is a good and noble thing, but neither should any of us be education snobs.

Bullet Point #2 was that that while college is supposed to be a time of broadening one's horizons and exposing oneself to new and different ideas, college or university success is also about a series of hoops through which one must successfully jump if one wants to earn the piece of paper conferring a degree. In each course of somewhat subjective subject matter, every professor has something he or she wants to hear. The job of the student is to figure out what it is that professor wishes to hear and to tell it back to him  or her in every paper and on every test. A student can make every course a battle ground and can butt his or her head against a wall in a twice-weekly basis and  can walk away with a C at best in every course, or can make the system work for himself or herself. It's a personal choice, but an easy one for anyone with common sense  One will have a whole lifetime to practice the Shakespearean principle of being true to thine own self. For now, take the grade.

Bullet Point #3 was  that conversate is not a word that is even spoken, much less written, by educated people. Its popular usage sprang from the clientele of Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, and Judge Alex. 

Bullet Point #4 was that anyone who planned to attend college had the option of affiliating with a Greek system or not doing so. To pledge or not to pledge is another  entirely personal choice, but one should not be so foolish as to operate under any delusion  that fraternity or sorority membership would in any way make a person better than he or she was without fraternity or sorority affiliation or superior to anyone who did not have such an affiliation. 

Bullet Point#5 was that however rough a day, week, or year anyone is having, chances that are someone else is having it even rougher. Sometimes you don't know who that person is, but if you open your eyes just a bit, you will see. Offer a kind word. Offer a granola bar or a meal if a fellow student is hungry and still waiting on funds. No one expects anyone to empty his or her bank account for anyone else's benefit, but a piece of fruit or a package of ramen noodles won't set a person back very far. Sit by the person in class that no one else usually sits near. Help to explain a difficult concept to a struggling student. Don't be the asshole (I didn't actually say asshole, BTW) who asks deliberately confusing questions in class just to show off when others in the class are doing everything they can to understand even the basic subject matter. Above all, be kind to others whenever one can. I've never once regretted any act of kindness I've committed.

I'm just hoping now that I don't end up on Youtube. I didn't say anything profound enough really to merit such a posting, but then, I've seen a whole lot of stuff on Youtube that wasn't particularly profound.


  1. Sounds like your speech was very successful. Bravo!

  2. I think they were happier with my brevity than anything else, but at least I wasn't booed of the dais.

  3. Sounds like you also combined pithy comments and humor; adding in the brevity guaranteed a satisfied audience. I wasn't aware of the focus of your Dad's research until this post.
    Many thanks to him and his group,from the aunt of an ALL survivor.

    1. Thank goodness she's a survivor, and thanks for reading.

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