Thank you. I’m very humbled that you’ve chosen me as your speaker, plucking me from the midst of this expert faculty with whom it is my honor to teach every day. I know I’m different from the last few graduation speakers I’ve seen here. I don’t have the Bronx-born frankness of a Mr. Moeder, the wise earth-mother know-how of a Miss Bennett, or the mellifluous radio voice of a Mr. Meunier, smooth as a pat of margarine at room temperature. In composing this, though, I had to think about what I do have, what I can bring to this address.
It should have been easy. I am exactly twice your age. Imagine everything you’ve lived so far, right up to this moment. Now double that. I’m two of you. You, doubled-down. Double the failures, double the triumphs, double the living. It seems like I’d have a lot to tell you. But unfortunately, even though I’ve been more schooled (in every sense of that word), I don’t feel any more qualified to explain to you how to live the life you’ve been given.
There’s an underlying fallacy in speeches like this one, too: that every life needs the same prescriptions, that you can be categorized and labeled and instructed as a group. I had a section of freshmen three years ago that defied categorization. Let me read you these names, and let you puzzle over what unites these people other than a common age, locale, and species: Lucas Barber, Bryce Barker, Melina Canter, Mike Certoma, Brian Chestler, Jack Curran, Sabrina DiPasquale, Anthony Festa, Carolyn Figliola, Brock Horton, Connor Jonsson, Nick Klokus, Catie Ledwick, Conor Maccabe, Campbell McClintock, Maddie Ratte, Carolina Rivera, Kelsey Sacane, Forrest Savage, Jake Strauss, Eric Urena, Erika Wollman.
All of these students — many of them now disconcertingly taller than I — are standing in your midst this evening. We’ve tried to make them look the same here, hiding them under the shapeless gowns and mortar-board hats that 18-year-olds don before they’re ritually sacrificed on the altar of Real Life. We’ve also done our best to give them a shared experience here: quadratic equations, thesis statements, DBQs. But have these things dampened their Wollman-ish assiduousness, muted their Urena-n humor, doused their Canter-esque joy in being alive, affected their essential Brock-ness?
I taught them the same things — we all did — but now I hope they start needing different things.
This speech of mine was preempted this year by a speech by another English teacher, a Mr. David McCullough, that has “gone viral” lately. In it, he tells the be-robed, expectant mass before him: “you are not special.” The speech has been cheered by many people who admire its tough love, who practically salivate over the way it dices up the prevailing belief that there is something that sets each of you apart from the rest of you. Look it up and see what you think of it.
But I prefer the gentler message of Mr. Rogers, the cardigan-wearing PBS host with whom I grew up, and who, sandwiched between “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company,” would look out from the eight-inch Sony Trinitron around which my brothers and I clustered, and tell us quite the opposite: We were special. We believed him — as we believed Jim and Wendy Long, our wise and doting parents, who had a similar message for us — and we have lived our lives accordingly.
I guess, then, that I’m not going to pretend that what I’m about to tell you will serve all of you in equal measures. Nor am I convinced that you’ll even remember it. It would be easier if you weren’t “special,” but I can’t tell you you’re all the same, that I have the key you need to unlock the door to a happy life.
Perhaps I should focus, instead, on the experience that will be common to all of you very soon: that of leaving home.
My initial aim was to write an entirely quotation-free speech, but you did elect an English teacher to do this, and in a kind of desperation to find an image that will unite all of you, at least for a few minutes, I ended up reaching for a particular favorite passage. This is from Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, which I read with my honors 10th grade class every year. Its protagonist and narrator, Pip, who has recently (and mysteriously) come into a great fortune, is leaving the only home he has ever known, his village at the edge of the marshes, for the great city of London. As he moves down the road, his newly-found confidence falters, and he takes one wistful look back — something he has steadfastly refused to do up to this point — before life carries him forward. The passage is a brief one, and it features language that is uncharacteristically simple for Dickens. But it seems to echo not only what I remember about my leaving home for the big world, but what I imagine your leave-taking may resemble, and in that way, to provide a kind of comfort — as great literature can do — that the anxiety of our experiences can be soothed by the knowledge of their universality. Here is Pip:
“I walked away at a good pace, thinking it was easier to go than I had supposed it would be… I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, ‘Good-bye, O my dear, dear friend!’ … So subdued I was by those tears, and by their breaking out again in the course of the quiet walk, that when I was on the coach, and it was clear of the town, I deliberated with an aching heart whether I would not get down when we changed horses and walk back, and have another evening at home, and a better parting. We changed, and I had not made up my mind, and still reflected for my comfort that it would be quite practicable to get down and walk back, when we changed again.”
The confident, if faltering, strut into the great unknown and the corresponding wistful backward glance with its rush of self-recriminating emotion: yes. Those sound familiar. But Pip’s cardinal error in the novel is, both before and after this one moment, to undervalue his formative experiences, to fail to bring enough of his old self into his new life.
Our society — somewhat randomly, when you stop to think about it — marks this year as the one that divides our protected life as minors, under the aegis of parents and teachers, from our life in the wide world. And, in this moment, there is so much of a focus on the future, sometimes to our detriment. Your teachers have been told to prepare you for “the 21st Century” as if you weren’t already living in that century, as if you haven’t spent the last 12 years of your lives eating 21st Century meals, having 21st Century conversations, riding in 21st Century cars.
It’s a project that can sometimes discount the past, that can obscure the 18 years you have already lived in favor of a singular focus on a fast-paced, over-wired, global future. Sometimes we frame this moment as if it was the one in which you really started to live your life, as if you haven’t been living it for almost two decades already.
How, then, to avoid Pip’s mistake? How to let our past inform our present without dwelling on that past? That, I think, ladies and gentlemen, is the great challenge before you. How do you take what you’ve already learned about life and smuggle some of it into those futures that will lie scattered around our vast country next year? How to look back before it’s too late?
I’m afraid I don’t have the answers to those questions. I only have a bit of advice that may or may not apply to all of you. I can only say that I have found that these things helped — or would have helped — me, and that I hope they help you. I hope they provide a way to take a bit of your past and smuggle it into your future. My advice breaks down into five rough categories: social, intellectual, physical, familial, and spiritual.
The Social: After today, no one will be wresting cell phones from your hands anymore. It will be up to you, in a world of proliferating screens, to switch off, once in awhile, that luminescent little rectangle to which we seem to be drawn, moth-like, and to look in the face of your present companion, to communicate with spoken words, to read facial expressions, to be sensitive to intonations, even to let awkward silences pass. Give it a trial run sometime soon. Go somewhere without your phone. Wait for the cold sweats, the tremors in your thumbs, the incipient nausea to pass. They will. Then look around and take in what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Be there, and only there. And then tell someone about it.
Here’s something else I encourage you to try. It’s going to sound hopelessly old-fashioned, but I swear to you that it will bring you a small measure of joy: Write to your friends and family members. Real, honest-to-goodness letters. I didn’t go to college so long ago that we didn’t have email, but there was nothing like reaching into your little steel cubby-hole of a mailbox and taking out an actual envelope filled with the finely-described experiences of another person, and sitting down to write about some of your own. Doing so may actually help you to reflect on those experiences as they’re happening — an invaluable exercise. Try this soon: There have been rumblings in the news of the U.S. Postal Service shutting down for good.
The Intellectual: After you graduate from college, people won’t be giving you books to read anymore. Whether or not you want to read them will be up to you. But I hope you do. One of the most oddly satisfying moments I have in this job is on the occasional morning when I can catch five minutes to return an armful of novels a class of mine has just finished to the English Department’s book room.
This year, one of those piles consisted of 56 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird that my 10th graders had just completed. Assuming every student did his or her reading every night, that’s 21,056 pages read as a group — 21,056 pages about the made-up life of a young girl in Alabama with a noble father and an odd, reclusive neighbor. That collection of pages, of books that have spent their recent lives shoved haphazardly into backpacks, the weight of those pages, never fails to bring me a quiet kind of pleasure. That fiction — that catalogue of Things That Never Happened — has united that group of students, given them a shared experience, a window into a part of the world they might never have considered. It’s touched them and challenged them and perplexed them. And it’s also united them with generations of American students who have read that novel, who have been told this series of events which we all acknowledge to be lies, but which are somehow, paradoxically, truer than reality.
What I’m saying is: Give yourself more of those experiences. Text flies around everywhere these days; there is no shortage of words clogging the ether around us. But remember the pleasure — enforced, though it may initially have been — of slowly losing yourself in the sparkling West Egg of The Great Gatsby, in the bloody Mediterranean world of The Odyssey, in the expansive Mississippi River of Huck Finn, in the poisonous Denmark of Hamlet. You’re going to be part of this human family for another three-quarters of a century. It’s important to look forward and to create new things, but it’s also important to marvel at the wonders that human beings have already created, to let those old stories spark something new in you. Do that. It will never be time wasted.
The Physical: After you leave here, you won’t be required to take gym anymore. But continue to take care of your bodies. They have a shelf life. Remember what the adults who care about you encouraged you to do for these first 18 years of your life.
At college, there will be a gym, somewhere, but it may not be a place you pass every day. Dining hall food will be plenteous, and you’ll be able to get rolls that aren’t made of whole wheat. The Asian Salad will give way to iceberg lettuce protected by a sneeze guard. You’ll be tempted to stay up into the wee hours of the night because you know you can sleep in until that “early” class — the one at 11 a.m.
And college will be a place of higher learning, where the noblest aspects of humanity will be regularly on display, but it will also, if memory serves, be a watering hole awash in cheap beer. Just be wise. Think about the mortal frame that has to carry you through a post-college life. Treat it with care.
The Familial: After this summer, you won’t see, on a daily basis, the people with whom you’ve grown up and shared moments so particular that they may have come to seem mundane — until you aren’t having them anymore. Know, too, that your parents are about to pour truckloads of money into a place that they may have never even visited before last year. Thank them for that — and, I might add, not only for that: There is the little matter of their having raised you, as well.
You don’t have to thank them explicitly. Thank them by letting them in — judiciously — on your college experience. You may have “helicopter parents,” but that doesn’t mean you should jam their rotors in mid-air. If they hover, they do it because they love you. There’s a natural limit to communication that will come with the physical distance that college brings, but take it easy on them. It’s quite possible that they moved to Weston in the first place partly for this storied school system, so you could have the best life possible. Be quietly grateful for that. It didn’t have to be that way, and it’s not that way for a lot of people.
The Spiritual: After you leave here, no one will try to encourage your selfless behavior any longer. I’ve seen two kinds of altruism at Weston High School in my six years here: the large-scale, public kind — the Relay for Life organizing, the Builders Beyond Borders constructing, the Special Olympics volunteering — and the quieter kind, as well, the kind no one will ever know about.
Once when I was on cafeteria duty, a protracted 45 minutes in which I circle our high-ceilinged facility, encouraging students to “take care of” the modernist sculptures of paper trays, sandwich crusts, cellophane, and taco meat that they have constructed in the no-man’s land in the middle of their tables, I saw this: A group of popular girls, decked out in the latest fashions, the preening center of Weston’s social system, had one space left at their already-crowded table. That chair could have gone to anyone.
But whom did one of them invite to sit at her cafeteria table? It wasn’t someone who was exactly like the rest of the group. It was the kid who always sat alone, who let the other three chairs at his round table get taken to other tables, who was staring fixedly at his mushy piece of Unlimited Fruit. It was done without a fuss, and it was over before you knew it had happened. But it was also a piece of deep and real kindness, and — even in a pool of elegantly worded-essays, last-minute touchdowns, and triumphant curtain calls — it remains one of the best things I’ve ever seen here.
Keep volunteering in those bigger ways, and keep reaching out to the masses of people who are less fortunate than you. But keep doing things like this girl did, too. I’m not going to name her, but she’s sitting among you today. And if she can do it, so can the rest of you.
That’s the end of my advice, and it’s time for you to move on down the road, just as Pip did. Here he is once more, a moment later, in the paragraph that ends the chapter:
“We changed again, and yet again, and it was too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.”
And so the world is for you. We can accompany you no farther, and our advice — even the little I’ve just given you — may fade in the new sunlit vistas of your potential experience.
I humbly submit to you, however, that your foundation has been a solid one, and that our fondest wishes go with you as you try to build upon it. Lucas, Bryce, Melina, Mike, Brian, Jack, Sabrina, Anthony, Carolyn, Brock, Connor, Nick, Catie, Conor, Campbell, Maddie, Carolina, Kelsey, Forrest, Jake, Eric, Erika, and the motley, various, and very special rest of you, with whom I’ve been privileged to talk about books for the last four years: It’s in your hands now. Be well.