Everything I need to know about commencement speeches I learned from Dr. Seuss
April 11, 2011
In the April 3 issue of The Catholic Moment, my Indianapolis archdiocesan newspaper, Christine Capecchi writes about her favorite part of the upcoming commencement season—the “prospect of a send-off speech that summarizes the past four years and prepares for all the remaining ones. An address that wipes away distractions—the sweltering heat, silly stilettos, stiff chairs—and makes us all feel promising and powerful.”
She adds, “My hope is to be surprised, to be challenged and delighted by something original, free of cliché and the standard quote recipe (JFK + MLK + Helen Keller).”
I suspect Capecchi has not heard many contemporary commencement addresses, or she would know that speakers such as Steve Jobs at Stanford, Will Ferrell, J.K. Rowling and Bill Gates at Harvard, Jodi Foster and Bono at UPenn, Ellen DeGeneres at Tulane or Jon Stewart at William and Mary don’t typically quote JFK, MLK or Helen Keller.
Jodi Foster ended her commencement address at UPenn on May 15, 2006, with this quote from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself:”
You better lose yourself in the music
The moment you own it you better never let it go, oh
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
Cuz opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.
Capecchi demonstrates she’s a girl after my own heart, however, revealing her favorite commencement speech is really Dr. Seuss’s book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Mine too.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a fabulous template for a commencement address. It covers all the bases.
It begins on an up note: “Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
But not so fast, Seuss cautions, “Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t, because sometimes you won’t. I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true. That Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.”
Seuss tells us that “slumps” are part of life and so is something he calls “The Waiting Place,” where people are “Waiting for a train to go, or a bus to come, or a plane to go, or the mail to come, or the rain to go, or the phone to ring or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow.
“Waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break, or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance…”
Indeed. In these difficult times, many of us are waiting for a “better break” and “another chance.” For an interview, a job, a new client, for the price of gas to drop, a house to sell, our boys to come home from the wars, for our ship to come in.
Seuss’s conclusion? “But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are. And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed. 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.”
Alas, some of us will and some of us won’t succeed. But perhaps that’s too much candor for a commencement address.
Christine Capecchi puts it this way, “We walk the path of the saints, who turned their dreams into deeds—whether there was rain or snow, whether they heard yes or no. We heed God’s call to action, his summons to use our talents and not bury them. And we hold the banner high, with a Seuss-like bravado, so the new graduates can see where to go.”
Cynthia Starks is a freelance speechwriter based in Central Indiana.