My graduation speech
21 May 2011
Graduates, family members, faculty, friends: congratulations to you all.
Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight, because as we enjoy this beautiful spring evening air I want us to think about moments like this: the rituals that commemorate important events, turning points, and life changes. It’s customary to mark turning points like this by remembering our pasts and looking ahead to our futures. As I stand before you, I am filled with memories of my own graduations — and I’m certain that many in the audience similarly remember those moments in their pasts as well. I think about how much these moments structure my family’s stories — the first person to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college — and I know that soon our graduates, too, will enjoy looking back to this day.
Lest we get caught up in a web of nostalgia, however, I want you to pause and breathe in the moment we are sharing together now. As with many rituals, we are here under the strictest of rules. Our graduates are dressed more or less identically in gowns that have histories stretching back to medieval times. The band knows to play Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” Number 1, because that is what we always play. For the time being our graduates obey the rules of politeness and order — and we also know that once the final speech is given, the whooping and cheering must begin, and we will throw our mortarboards in the air. These patterns are old, and they will recur next year, and the next.
You are surrounded, tonight, by family and friends; you are also surrounded by many strangers. It’s that contrast I want you to stop and consider: remember those moments that aren’t the stuff of nostalgia, but pain or embarrassment or alienation. That time you realized that you had offended someone with an unthinking comment, and you realized you had a lot to learn about racial or class sensitivity. That time you learned that you weren’t as smart as you thought you were, and you found yourself working harder than you’d ever worked in school. That time you sent an email out of anger to hurt someone, because you were too cowardly to talk about it in person — or you were hurt and offended by someone else’s words and actions. Going all the way back to that first week of college, when you didn’t know anyone and you were afraid you’d never have friends. I want you to embrace those humiliating moments in order to see, realistically, how far you’ve come.
Remember, too, the tiny victories, not just the big ones. The first time your tireless rhetoric professor complimented you on a smart paragraph; the night you spent thinking about an amazing new concept; when you learned to feel confident speaking up in class; the moment you realized you’d found a true friend who accepted for who you are, not who you wish you are. Look back with pride on the time you got a C in a class and you accepted it as exactly what you earned. Remember the internship that taught you about the experiences of people who lack the privileges you enjoy, and the moment you stopped feeling envy for someone who’d grown up with more wealth. These small victories also help to measure what kind of person you have already become.
Most of you have spent far too much time fretting about the future — how you’d do on a test, whether you’d get a scholarship or an internship, whether you’d get into grad school or a good job upon graduation. You spent too much time linking one worry to the next: if I don’t get a good grade in this class, I won’t get a good job later and my parents will be disappointed. Those patterns of thinking are not just pointless, they are destructive: they blind you to yourself, make you self-centered, lead you to hurt others.
So rather than whitewash the past and fantasize about the future, I believe graduation should be a moment to reflect on where we are right now. Rather than say that your education will allow you to accomplish large things — change the world, get rich, become famous — I want to believe that your education has accomplished something more important: it has begun. Your education here will continue next week, when you’re still living out of boxes. It will continue next year, when you’re waiting tables or Teaching For America or preparing to start a graduate program. I ask you to keep learning, to crave knowledge and self-understanding, and to set aside your selfish desires in favor of an appreciation for who, and where, you are.
I have long rejected the notion that students leave college to enter “the real world,” as if the two are wholly separate. Think, instead, about how much you’ve changed during these years — and know that your lives will continue to change. I ask you to pay attention to those changes. Pay attention when you start working for a bad boss, so you won’t repeat those patterns when you manage other people. Pay attention when you change your mind about an opinion that you have long held, because it is profoundly liberating to let yourself change. Pay attention to people different than you, because you have much to learn from them.
We live at a moment when it is fashionable to be hard-hearted. As a nation we believe so singlemindedly in the notion that success is earned that we have come to blame the poor for their poverty or to accuse the unsuccessful of laziness. As much as I hope each of you enjoys success, I also hope you have the chance to experience hardship so you can learn that sometimes the meritorious do not succeed. Given the state of the economy, I hate to say, it’s likely you will struggle. But rather than become embittered, I ask you to create a new dialogue about social mobility, success, and merit that sits more comfortably with the realities of the job market. Most important, I beg you not to lose yourself in the false belief that success is measured by your job or your career.
Instead, keep learning new things and fight to learn things that are difficult for you — and that includes your choice of work. As the next months and years pass, you will learn more about yourself and this can allow you to make smart choices about your futures. Instead of asking, how much money do I want to make? ask, can I really sit at a desk for the rest of my working life? Can I stand a life that prevents me from writing on daily basis? Do I need to work alongside others? I beg you to recognize that you do not yet know the answers to these questions. I also believe your answers may change during the course of your life.
Rather than narrow your interests and capacities, expand them. Widen your gaze. Appreciate struggle. Count your blessings when things come easily to you. Unlearn selfishness in favor of self-possession. Most of all, right now, take a close look at everything around you — your feelings of pride or gratitude to your friends and family, the brilliant colors of the flags and banners and gowns, the sweet sounds of the college band and the sweeter feeling of community amongst you and the people around you. And so, as a group, I ask you all to stand with me, each of us standing on our own feet — take your mortarboards off your heads — and let out a joyous, ecstatic cheer for us, right now.