Tony Woodlief | Author

On Graduation and All The Rest of It

This time of year always brings to mind my own graduation experiences, which are paltry. I was valedictorian of my high-school class, but several teachers, administrators, and other denizens of public-school officialdom felt it best that I not speak. My Latin-conscious friends pointed out that this made me a “valetorian.” They thought it was funny to declare out loud which syllable I was missing. I did not find this funny.

Not raised to think much of ceremony, I skipped my undergraduate commencement at the University of North Carolina. To this day I don’t know who delivered the address. I skipped my University of Michigan graduation too. I can only imagine what sort of nut they let talk.

I have attended other people’s graduations, however. They are usually stuffy, tiresome affairs, which is exactly the sort of thing we need more of in civic life. If you think about it, if you consider that greater attention to ceremony might spare us all the spectacle of perfectly normal schoolchildren dressing like fools and whores and mumbling when they speak to their elders, then you might agree about the importance of ceremony. A few more stuffy, dressy social occasions would be a small price to pay if in return every boy in America would pull up his pants and start wearing his baseball cap straight.

So I have attended graduations, but until recently I had never spoken at one. A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to speak at a graduation of sorts, a final lecture in a program for super-sharp young people in which I have played a small teaching role for the past year. When I sat down to compose my notes, it hit me how little wisdom I have to share, and further, how little any of us retains from a speech. I nearly gave up the task altogether. Let’s face it: most commencement speeches could be profitably replaced with a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’s I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew.

I was close to packing Eli’s big Dr. Seuss book for my trip and calling it good, but I dug a little deeper and dredged up a speech. All of the foregoing, you now realize, perhaps regretfully, is simply a lead-in to this excerpt from my first-ever (and likely last) commencement (sort of) address (if you can call it that):

So here we are: you wondering what I’m going to say next, and me wondering what I can possibly say that you’ll remember as far as the bathroom, let alone next week or next month or on the day that you might actually need it. This whole enterprise of talking, when you consider it from that perspective — not what we can say, but what they will remember — seems so hopeless that I wonder why we bother at all.

And I think the truth is that when someone writes a letter, or a novel, or composes a speech, he is really talking to himself as much as to you, and you in turn are listening because you are hoping, beneath the well-turned phrase and the dramatic pause, that he will mutter something at himself that is a surprise to the both of you.

In that spirit, I’ll start with something that should be no surprise, and see if I can’t creep up sideways to some kind of truth, which is the only way, I think, we can ever let ourselves see the truths we are probably most in need of seeing.

And that something is this: each of us is going to die. . .

We know we are going to die, but we are afraid to look it full in the face. At this point you can be forgiven for thinking that I am going to give you an insipid little piece of advice, like: “Live as if there is no tomorrow.”

I want you to slap me if I ever start talking like that. In this case the advice is particularly bad, I think, because the problem isn’t that we live like there is an endless supply of tomorrows. Yes, we do tend to live like there are plenty of tomorrows, but the problem with not contemplating our mortality is that we end up making our tomorrows stingy, and small. We get so wedded to life, so fearful that something might disturb it, that we rob ourselves — and the people we love, and the people who need us — of living.

After a bit more blabbing I read to them from Frederick Buechner’s “The Calling of Voices,” which has this beautiful admonition: “…the voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” A bit later, Buechner writes: “In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad.”

To sum up, my first and only ever commencement address was me doing my best to channel Buechner. A job is often done best, after all, by not doing it yourself. At the end, I wanted to give them a benediction, which felt foolish, because I’m not a preacher, and that place certainly isn’t a church, and I don’t think most of them cared to hear a sermon. But a benediction is the good word, the speaker’s blessing on the listener, offered if only in thanks for the arduous task of listening. So this was my blessing for them, and, now that I think about it, for you as well:

My hope for each of you is that you find your place in the world, because it is waiting for you to find it. May you discover your place, and do what is good and honorable and just, and be battered but not broken. May you know and be known. May you find grace when you need it most, and reject bitterness when it is most tempting. Most of all, at the end of your journey, may you find peace.

It’s no Dr. Seuss, but maybe some of them will remember it all the same.

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