Now that another commencement season has passed, maybe we should test this year’s graduates on what the commencement speakers said. I doubt the grads would remember a thing.
At my own college graduation nearly three decades ago, the speaker began by noting that commencement orators are like the second-place finishers in a horse race: 10 minutes after the proceedings, they completely vanish from memory.
He was right, of course. His insightful prediction is the only thing from that long-ago speech that I can recall.
We know that each year’s graduates aren’t really listening to the monologue at the podium, but the commencement address endures as a national fixture of spring.
Maybe the speeches are understood to be not for the graduates at all, but the gray and balding souls in the audience. In offering homilies to the next generation, we older folks are probably talking to ourselves, trying to celebrate the things that have sustained us through careers, parenthood and personal trial.
All of this came to mind last month when a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio called and asked if I’d be willing to sit for a phone interview about advice for this year’s graduates. I’d written about my daughter’s recent commencement, and there was a hope that I might have something else to say to those leaving high school or college.
Although counseling the young isn’t my strong point, I accepted the invitation, confident that the pressure to perform well was low. I would, after all, be on the air at 7 a.m., a time when few recent graduates are awake. There was also the comforting knowledge that one doesn’t have to dress well for radio. Unshaven, in a bathrobe, and with coffee mug in hand, I trudged to the phone at the back of the house, waiting for Wisconsin to greet me through the receiver. If you’re going to dispense commencement advice, there’s nothing more liberating than doing it in your pajamas.
What to tell someone with a new diploma? I mentioned my bachelor years after college, when living alone gave me the space and time to understand who I was. Solitude isn’t a dream destination for most graduates, but it’s not something that should be feared, either.
Graduating from college disappointed me a little, I told listeners, because I thought the four years on campus would have given me more answers about life. What I learned after college is that education is more important for the questions it gives you, many of which can’t be resolved.
Doubt isn’t such a bad thing for a graduate. It’s the foundation of wonder, which is something we should hold close no matter how old we are. Or so I tried to remember as I hung up the phone, then got ready to go to work.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.