Sunday, May 22, 2011
The Trouble with Commencement Speeches
Well, to put it succinctly: they are boring and cliched, by definition.
I myself learned this firsthand when asked to deliver the graduation speech at my former elementary school when my younger brother was "graduating" from 6th grade. (Side note: I really think graduation ceremonies should be saved for high school and college. I am attending another brother's graduation from middle school next week and while I'm thrilled to be able to visit him and happy that he passed 8th grade and can start high school next year, I don't know, it just seems like a gimmick to get the parents all mushy and proud so they'll give more money.)
At any rate, in 1999 I was a high school senior. As I was not valedictorian of my class (far from it), I was not the speaker at my graduation. But as a "distinguished" alum from the elementary school where my brother Richard was graduating, I was invited to speak at his ceremony. Thus I was faced with writing a speech to inspire 6th graders and their parents. My first issue was that it felt disingenuous to tell them about what they had to look forward to, namely middle school. Which almost all survivors agree constitute a dark time of early adolescence. Bye bye, recess; hello, 4 hours of Spanish homework. Also hello body odor, pubic hair, awkward growth spurts, and pimples. We can't all look like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, folks.
But of course I couldn't talk about any of that in my speech. I had to be positive, congratulatory, and assure these young adults that the years ahead of them would be exciting and wonderful. I think "challenging" was about the only adjective I used to hint at the vortex of unpleasantness they were about to be unknowingly sucked into. So I felt like a charlatan. I quoted someone predictable, told them they were ready to reach for the stars or some shit and the parents ate it up. They even reprinted my speech in the next school newsletter.
This past Monday, I graduated from Emerson College's Creative Writing Master's program. Some of my peers chose not to participate in commencement, but hell, I spent the dough and felt like I deserved some fucking fanfare. Mainly, I wanted to see if anyone speaking could convince that my $60,000 was well-spent. Let's just say I was a tough crowd.
The main speaker was some Communication Ethics guy who was being awarded an honorary degree. And boy, did his speech suck. It had nothing to do with anything remotely related to Emerson or graduation or life. I think I might actually have preferred a conventional address. But what are the conventions of a commencement speech? Allow me to provide some handy guidelines:
-- a quote from Mark Twain and/or Gandhi
-- an inside joke about the institution so not inside that even the parents will chuckle/"get it", i.e. reference to terrible dining hall food
-- A Lincoln anecdote
-- sobering mention of recent tragic event/disaster (tsunami, tornado, ABC's Private Practice renewed for another season)
-- vague references to the future, leadership, dreams, tomorrow, change, endings, beginnings
and voila! Commencement speech. Next time I attend a graduation, I think I'll make up a bingo card with all of the above on it. I bet I get bingo several times over.
Man, I am getting grouchy and cynical in my old age.