There is only one high-school graduation speech, and every student speaker gives it.
I wish I had a copy of mine, from 1978. (I still have the damn baseball magazines I bought every year of the 1970s, but my speech was apparently consigned to the burn barrel at home shortly after I gave it.) I recall that I quoted Kurt Vonnegut, albeit not directly. I lifted his preferred epitaph from Slaughterhouse-Five, “Everything was wonderful and nothing hurt,” but used it as an example of something I wasn’t going to say in the speech. And I quoted an Elton John song at the end: “And just like us/You must have had/a once upon a time.”
A year later, I went back to graduation, and I thought the speaker had stolen my speech from the year before, almost word-for-word, minus the geeky parts: Can it really have been four years, isn’t it amazing how we have changed, we’ll never forget the people and experiences we had here, it’s time to go forth into our bright future, etc. What I did not realize, of course, is that the same bilgewater is ladled out in all times and places, world without end.
I’m not blaming the speakers, in 1979 or last week (when another nephew graduated). I am just pointing out that to an 18-year-old at a moment of high accomplishment, certain words and ideas represent the kind of things they are supposed to say. They are what we are supposed to feel, and they are what an audience of adults wants to hear. And because we are 18 and don’t have much experience with high accomplishment, we think that our take on these words represents something new.
Here’s something else we don’t know: that many students sitting before us in their caps and gowns disagree with our highfalutin sentiments. We never ask how many of them feel like high school was a four-year death march whose end they prayed for nightly. Or how many of them are bitter over the way they have been treated by people who formed their opinions in the third grade and never changed them. Or how many of them can’t wait to forget those people and get out of that town. We never ask how many are sitting there without a clear path in front of them, wondering just what the hell they’re going to do now that they don’t have school to fill their days.
To the typical graduation speaker, the road to the future looks smooth and wide, and it climbs an easy slope to the highest heights. But for many in the audience, that’s not the road they’ll be taking. The kids for whom graduation represents an escape from pain into nothingness, or a robotic step into an uncertain future, never get to give the speeches. But maybe they should. They suspect already something that everyone learns sooner or later: failure and heartbreak are real, and they will fuck you up. They can bend your best intentions into nightmare shapes or turn your plans to rubble. And life’s disasters will hit you all the harder if you don’t believe they can happen to you.
It occurs to me that this disquisition ends up harsher than when I first started percolating it last week. All I mean to say is that there’s poignancy in watching this year’s senior class climb the mountain and begin their tumble down the other side, to places where they will have to learn the hard lessons of the future, the ones we wish we’d known then but were not equipped to know.
The ones we would never have listened to anyhow.
When I noticed there was no musical angle to this post, I went looking for something appropriate, and found a song that topped the R&B charts in May of 1978 while failing to make the Hot 100 at all (although it did chart in Cash Box): a big honkin’ groove from the Isley Brothers.