George Saunders gives the commencement speech at Syracuse University. David Foster Wallace speaks at Kenyon College. And me? I'm asked to address the graduating 6th grade class at Barton Springs Elementary in Austin, Texas.
And I was honored. I was also nervous, excited and pretty sure I would accidentally slip in some unforgivable profanity. Truth is, I was completely unsure what to tell a crowd of pre-teens. Do I quote One Direction? Do I make a Snapchat joke? What are the kids into these days? I gave some thought to what I would have liked to hear just before heading into those bizarre, explosive, sometimes terrifying middle school years. Here is what I told them:
If I had a time machine and I could go back to when I was graduating 6th grade, what would I tell me?
First thing I'd say: "Check me out, I've got a time machine. I'm awesome."
Second, I'd say: "Listen, in two and a half years you're going to go out even though you've got the flu, you're going to down a Sonic Brown Bag Special while sitting next to the very cute Cindy Waller in the back of a bumpy car. Horrible bodily functions will follow. Just stay home."
And finally, I'd take myself by the shoulders, I'd look myself straight in the eye and tell myself what I'm going to tell you: "Be a fool."
Starting at your age, I wasted too many hours of too many days terrified I looked like a fool. I wanted to dress the right way, talk the right way, look like everyone else. I was more than ready to give up who I was and what I loved for the chance that I might look cool.
And this isn't something unique to pre-teens and teenagers. Look around and you'll see a world filled with adults doing whatever they can to avoid looking foolish. Advertisers bank on that fear. Buy this, wear that, drive this, smell like that... people spend half their lives and more of their money to not be thought a fool.
We had a dance in the 7th grade. Ray Parker Jr. pounding away in the school gym. Now, I knew I wasn't a grand dancer. Watching me dance is like watching a mime being eaten by a shark. It's unnerving. I remember that dance because I had the choice -- look like a fool, or don't dance.
I didn't dance.
There are a lot of people in this world not dancing. A lot of us tapping our toes on the sidelines.
But then it occurred to me that everyone I admired was some kind of fool -- the comics, the writers, the adventurers. They played the clown, they pursued outrageous dreams, took impractical risks. Name a hero and you're naming a fool. It's easy to recognize heroes after they've achieved their goals. But before they do anything great, they dare to be mocked. They dare to fall flat on their faces. And they do, they fall flat on their faces. They're fools.
Luckily, I'm a bit of a goof and kind of a klutz. I trip over little things like loose change or air. I get a swirlies in the bathroom, even when I'm alone. I can't help but be a fool. And I'm grateful. I learned the wild power of not being afraid to be foolish. Once I was no longer worried about being a fool, I was willing to risk, to try, to put my neck out there and go for it.
Be a fool.
Be fool enough to be kind even when it gets you nothing. Kind to the person no one else is sitting next to at lunch, no one else is listening to. Kind to a friend, kind to a stranger, even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard. Because the kindness you live will echo back to you and change the world around you. And be kind to yourself -- sounds easy, but sometimes that's the most difficult of all. Growing up is tough. Cut yourself some slack.
Be fool enough to do what you love -- art, math, music, pet grooming, astronomy, medicine, poetry. Chase your loves, feed those passions. If you love sock puppets, make sock puppets. Get obsessed. Make a career of sock puppets. Yes, it's foolish. Yeah, it's not practical. You think Jim Henson didn't have his parents telling him, "Hey, maybe enough with the frog doll"?
Be foolish enough to dream loudly! You want to change the world? Dream it, say it, move toward it. Don't wait. Right now you've got dreams and passions just popping in your brain, sparking to life. But a spark can easily burn out. Just a little wind, a little rain, and it's gone. And there's plenty of weather coming your way. But if you feed those sparks, feed those flames with time and energy, they will grow into the fire that will light your world and heat your life.
Be fool enough to dance. Get out there even if you're like me, spazzing away like you're smuggling hermit crabs. Looking like a fool, but dancing and smiling. And others will join. Because foolishness -- like laughter and kindness and bravery -- is contagious. The best gift you can give is allowing others to be as foolish as you.
Congratulations on how far you have come. I'm excited by what you're going to give to our world. Because look at you. You're a bunch of wild, dazzling, ready-for-the-bell fools.
Have an amazing summer.