Graduation Season, 2003
It’s the time of year when newspapers start printing excerpts from college graduation speeches. I always enjoy reading these remarks.
Back in 1974, the speaker admonished my class to, above all else, “Know yourself.” I don’t know if anyone really paid attention to that. At the time I thought that was a most lame and abstract bit of counsel. We wanted to know how to get jobs. We were ready to set the world on fire. Did I mention that we wanted jobs?
Speaking at a graduation has got to be a thankless task. It’s an honor and a real feather in your cap, I suppose, if you’re asked to speak at a prestigious school. But even there you’d probably be a fool to think that as many as half of the graduates in the audience are paying attention to you. At my daughter’s graduation from The College of William & Mary the speakers in that one ceremony alone included Congressman John Lewis, Britain’s Lady Margaret Thatcher and Queen Noor of Jordan. But I’ll bet only half of those students can remember what any of those speaker said. (And I’ll give them that because they’re W&M kids, who generally pay attention to things.)
Beside, new graduates are like hothouse flowers being launched into the fresh air. What do they know? It took me an embarrassing number of years to realize that the recommendation to “Know yourself” was one of the best recommendations anyone ever gave me. I wish I’d realized that then.
Yesterday’s New York Times featured a collection of comments from 2012 commencement speakers. From Mayor Cory Booker, of Newark:
“My dad would always teased me: ‘Boy, don’t you walk around here like you hit a triple. You were born on third base, boy.’”
From former Secretary of State Robert Gates:
“The obligations of citizenship in any democracy are considerable…Consider spending at least part of your life in public service.”
From Condoleeza Rice:
“At those times when you’re absolutely sure you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say ‘Amen’ to everything you say, find new company.”
From actor Peter Dinklage:
“My parents didn’t have much money, but they struggled to send me to the best schools. And one of the most important things they did for me—and graduates, maybe you don’t want to hear this—is that once I graduated I was on my own. Financially, it was my turn…But this made me very hungry. Literally, I couldn’t be lazy.”
And again from Mayor Booker:
“I believe in my heart of hearts that it is better to have your ship sunk at sea than have it rot in the harbor.”
And from Mr. Dinklage:
“Don’t bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it. What did Beckett say? ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fall better.’”
There are wise words in those remarks. I hope graduates are more mature than I was at that age.