Confessions of a Commencement Speaker Cliches and other ways to lay a little wisdom on this year's crop of graduating seniors Commencement day! Ah, I remember it as though it were only yesterday. That's a lie. I remember it as though it were 30 years ago, which it was. But I remember it. It sticks in the mind like chewing gum on a shoe sole, a memory to be kept if not cherished, like a family mustache cup or a lumpy cameo pin. It was a pretty day, as days go, but it didn't go much for us. Instead of running through fields of girls and daffodils, knee deep in June, we were herded into the local auditorium and forced to sit on folding chairs, while our parents stared in stunned surprise that we had actually made it through and the school officials glowered at us like escaping criminals. Twelve years of scholastic torture, and now we were in sight of the promised land, as organ music poured down upon us and the sweet scent of mothballs rose from our rented caps and gowns. After the customary prayers and lamentations, the speaker of the day arose and, with a smile of sympathy at our parents, began a dreary recital of life's struggles -- the struggles behind us, the struggles ahead, the labor of it all. He lashed us for the sacrifices our parents, our teachers, the taxpayers, our forefathers, the whole damn human race had made to boost us to this pinnacle of knowledge. It had been, his expression made plain, a poor investment, one not likely to pan out. "You young people, he cried, "Hold tomorrow in your hands!" You could tell that he had great hopes for this goodie, he dropped it upon us like a veteran dropping a water bag from a convention hotel window^ But he missed. We were there to endure and to escape to get our diplomas and head for the all-night bash that was the mark and privilege of graduating seniors. The poor speaker could have read the phone book, called for the burning of City Hall, or the victory of ByJohnEd Pearce communism, and it would have made no impression on us. He was a tall man, as I recall, with a voice like barrels rolling across an attic floor, and he punctuated his sentences by pointing at us a gaunt finger that seemed likely at any time to go off and blow us out of our dreams of license and lechery. But he was not an unkindly soul, and it seemed to me, as the waves of his oratory pounded and broke on the rocky shore of our indifference, that he was seeking earnestly some word of guidance to steer us through the heavy seas ahead. It was no use. "pick out a goal and work toward it," he insisted, and we began casing the girls. "Don't be drawn offside by l i f e ' s t e m p t a t i o n s , " he warned, and we left off casing the girls. He made references to the great ball game of life, holding the line against sloth and evil, carrying the ball of success -- and so forth, all designed to appeal to the red-blooded, football-addled American youth. To no avail. Our minds, if they were anywhere, were with the spring-scented day outside, and the speaker knew it. So with a final gesture, he flung wide his arms as though to part the clouds and let the shaft of wisdom reveal to us the secret of man's knowledge, and then he laid it on us. "The future," he cried, "Lies ahead!" He had launched his thunderbolt at us, and now he stood and watched it wilt and trickle down the aisle. "You're kidding," came the voice of the class smart-aleck, and a snicker rose, rattled and died. It was a moment of soggy climax, at once the zenith and nadir of the occasion, as though the high tide of his oratory had hit. the low-water mark. With a look of defeat and a final flapping of the a r m s , he s u b s i d e d , our p a r e n t s slapped their hands together damply, and the principal began doling out diplomas and shaking our hands as we traipsed by in alphabetical order. It was over. Outside, in the sunbathed freedom, we hugged and hit each other and were given wrist watches by our parents, poorer but prouder for having seen us this far along life's highway. And of f to one side I noticed the commencement speaker, drained now f energy and platitudes, his lastcliche having rolled from our backs like water from ducks, shaking hands with some of the citizens who had come to witness our moment of glory. And I recall wonder, idly and without particular rancor, why the custom of commencement was continued. In the years since, the thought has occurred to others, with the result that a lot of colleges are not even bothering with the occasion. The graduating classes are too big, it takes too long to hand out the diplomas, the kids won't come. This is too bad, for commencement is not pointless. Like military service, football or parenthood, it gives a person the satisfaction that come with having suffered and survived. It builds character. Fortunately, while it'may be declining on the upper reaches of learning, the commencement is flourishing at the lower levels. First junior Tiighs, then grade schools, and now even kindergarten stage commencement exercises for their departing darlings. A June cannot pass without the newspapers flaunting pictures of toddlers, hardly out of their training pants, lined up in caps and gowns, as though their parents, fearful that they will never make it to the next level, are determined that their offspring shall appear at least once in graduation gear. Whatever the reasons for the degradation of this fine old American custom, it has created a new and hot demand for adults vain and simple enough to appear before a bunch of teen-agers and attempt to lay some wisdom on them. So far down into the barrel have school officials been forced to reach that even I, at times, have been lured on stage by the mention of that magic word "fee," And in the process of embarrassing myself for pay, I have learned things that have reminded me of that speaker (what do you suppose has become of. him in the years since?) who graced my own launching day. For the lot of the commencement speaker, like that of the honest cop, is not an easy one. The hours, admittedly, are good, the pay is usually fair, and the work is not hard; it really makes little difference what you say. A Churchill may perk up ears by announcing the descent of an Iron Curtain, a George Marshall may send reporters scurrying by describing a plan to rebuild Europe. But the audience, as well as the world, will little note nor long remember what the average commencement speaker has to say. Which is just as well. After all, what can we, in good conscience, say to young people shoving 'off into the tricky currents of life? Honesty, kindness, tolerance -- even chastity -- are solid virtues to carry with you as you start the adult journey, but start recommending them to the teen-age audience and you wil get a face full of yawns. Nor will you fare much better with recipes for success, even if you are one. Like their elders,the kids have seen that too often success comes to him who throws a ball well, that kindness is often mistaken for weakness, that honesty can lose elections and that wealth goes frequently to him who hits the other guy first and hardest. As a master of the commencement cliche, my advice is -- use it. Don't make the mistake of falling into big thought. Let them eat platitude. Look them square in the eyeball, point your finger, wave any available arm, and let them have it: "The future lies ahead!" They can't argue with that. CHARLESTON, W. VA. 7m Â·l ,1 r I t i ! r \'
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