Commencement season is a time for polite platitudes.
Which makes it that much more interesting when speakers don't say the expected things.
"I have never understood why the graduation speech was invented," the poet Archibald MacLeish told the graduating seniors at Groton School in 1959. "The one time when you cannot possibly catch or hold the attention of another human being is when something has ended for him … a graduation is not a beginning and nothing you can call it—not even 'Commencement'—will make it seem like one."
So began a speech in which MacLeish told the young prep school lads:
“The general theory held on both sides of the enormous gap which divides you from your grandparents is that you are not so much another generation as another race. You dress differently from any human creatures we have ever seen before. You speak an English we have never heard and cannot understand … You prefer spasmodic dislocation of the spine to the fluent movements previously associated with dance. You adore singers who cannot sing, guitarists who cannot play the guitar, and songs without either music or words, unless you count a mooing repetition of sounds like love and above. You have a passionate addiction to motion at high speeds in any direction and by any means as long as it is mechanical and makes a great deal of noise and requires no effort on your part.”
(MacLeish went on to praise the kids, too, and to say that his generation is “fascinated by you.”)
San Ysidro High School valedictorian Nataly Buhr employed the opposite structure in her valedictorian address earlier this month.
After sincerely and profusely thanking her mother and father and friends and a half-dozen teachers by name, Buhr thanked the staff in the main office for “teaching me how to be resourceful” through their negligence and unhelpfulness. She thanked a nameless teacher “who was regularly intoxicated in class this year” for teaching her and her classmates about the dangers of alcoholism. And her guidance counselor: “Thanks for teaching me to fend for myself. You were always unavailable to my parents and I despite appointments. Only in these last few weeks, with the awards ceremonies and graduation coming up, did you begin making your appearance. And might I note, you expressed to me your joy in knowing that one of your students was valedictorian, when you had absolutely no role in my achievements.”
And it really is a good thing that commencement season comes only once a year. The Onion joined the commencement commentary this year, with a pieceheadlined, “Hotshot commencement Speaker Jumps Straight Into Speech Without Even Defining ‘Courage.’” —DM