As a father of four children who are now young adults, I have attended my share of graduations. It did not matter whether it was an elementary graduation, a high school event, college, or graduate school ceremony; I quickly found a common theme. The speeches by the class officers, salutatorians, or valedictorians have always been boring. It was as if there was only one accepted outline guiding the students as they wrote their words of wisdom. There has always been the talk of the glorious futures waiting out there for the graduating class. There has been the standard mention of the wonderful accomplishments achieved by those wearing the caps and gowns that hot day on the football field or in the school auditorium. The speeches have also always included the required thanks to faculty, staff, and parents who made it possible. I know the sentiments are sincere, but let's face the facts; boring is boring.
Aside from having been to so many of these events, I have an additional qualification that makes me comfortable being so critical of these commencement orators. I, too, gave a speech at my high school commencement ceremony. I could report here that I was the valedictorian, and I probably could get away with it. After all, who would check that? Do you think someone would go back and research my "permanent record"?
My age is showing by talking about my permanent record. Years ago, just this side of the Dark Ages, teachers used the threat of putting something on your permanent record if you didn't behave properly. They created a vision of some vault in the school basement guarded by alligators. The myth was that from now until the end of time, any behavioral transgressions would be recorded and could come back at a moment's notice to haunt you. I am still a little nervous that my permanent record will show up at the gates of heaven. I have this vision of St. Peter at the gates putting on his reading glasses and glancing down at my record. After thirty seconds that seemed like an hour, he would just shake his head and say, "Sorry."
The truth of the matter is I was not a class officer or valedictorian. I was voted class clown and graduated "cum lousy." The chance to speak at graduation was open to any senior. All I needed to do was submit the text of the speech I wanted to present. A team of teachers would choose the speaker. I am uncertain, but I think I was given the honor by default. Evidently, out of a class of five hundred students, only one wanted to speak at graduation. I would like to report that I hit a home run with my words, but that would be a lie that might end up on my infamous record. My speech was no better and probably a little worse than any I have heard over the past several decades.
I recently attended my nephew's graduation where, about forty years ago, I made my not so memorable graduation address. The soon to be graduates paraded onto the football field with Pomp and Circumstance played by the high school orchestra. It was about ninety-five degrees in the shade. As the community and school dignitaries were recognized, and they spoke, I stood under a tree sweating. There was no way I was envisioning the gift I was about to receive.
The valedictorian of the class stepped to the podium, and I glanced at the program and the impressive list of her accomplishments. The list included performing with the state high school chorus, being honored by the band, and membership in the World Language Honor Society. Conspicuously absent from her list of awards was anything sports-related. Yes, the valedictorian was a great student and a band nerd. The gift she was about to give those attending this event was based on her nerd status.
She began her presentation similarly to the other speeches already given. Much to my delight, as she wound down, she changed direction. She ended with the best advice I have ever heard from any speaker, graduation-related or other. She offered this to classmates: "As you go through life, don't be afraid to be a nerd -- dare to be uncool, and dare to be enthusiastic."
I could only think, as those words sank in, what wonderful wisdom this girl shared with us. I further hoped that her classmates and all attending heard her and would live by those words. I searched for the words to close these ramblings properly but realized that some things can't be improved. So, I challenge you by repeating her words:
"As you go through life don't be afraid to be a nerd -- dare to be uncool, and dare to be enthusiastic."