Friday, June 19, 2009

Great Graduation Speeches

My school operates on a quarter system, and we have a graduation ceremony at the end of every quarter. As a result, I have the opportunity to hear a lot of graduation speeches. And most of them are dreadful. I've spent the better part of the last decade thinking, what would I say, if I had a chance to speak to graduates.

During the hottest part of the recent economy, when that economy was expanding and the most ramshackle of our homes would fetch half a million dollars in the South Florida market, we heard a lot of speeches that told graduates that they could be whatever they wanted to be and the only thing that would hamper their ability to make gobs of money would be that inconvenient human need for sleep. There was no talk of giving anything back, no reminders of obligations to society. There was no mention that there might be more to life than money. Frankly, these speeches disgusted me. I know that I'm a liberal arts kind of girl, a poet steeped in Liberation Theology, so I know that I'm vastly different from many of my fellow citizens. But there are times when I get so depressed by being bombarded by evidence of my outsider freakishness.

Last night's speech was blessedly different. We had Steve Leifman, a judge from Miami-Dade, come up to be our speaker. He reminded the students that they had great talents and great opportunities. But he also reminded them of how much their communities need them. He reminded them of the great difficulties in our current climate, and he asked that they get down to the artistic mission of envisioning a different world. He's also Vice Chair of our Board of Trustees, and he talked about how much comfort he got from serving our school, after a hard day of watching (from the bench) all the people whose lives had blown apart in so many disheartening ways.

The speech reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver's speech at Duke in 2008, which you can read here. I liked that speech so much that I've been using it in my classes as a model of great persuasive writing. Plus, I use it to lead to a fun writing assignment. I think it's a wonderful writing exercise for students to write a graduation speech: what would you tell graduates and how would you effectively tell it? We've all sat through dreadful speeches. It's eye-opening to try to do it better.

It's interesting to read her speech, which was written before the various economic collapses in the Fall of 2008 (and I mean that word Fall in many senses). Here's the last part of her speech. Barbara Kingsolver has always been one of my very most favorite writers. I love the way that she uses language, especially here:

"You could walk out of here with an unconventionally communal sense of how your life may be. This could be your key to a new order: you don’t need so much stuff to fill your life, when you have people in it. You don’t need jet fuel to get food from a farmer’s market. You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says 'Your money or your life,' you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.

The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, 'We already did. We have made the world new.' The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it. The ship of your natural life and your children’s only shot. You have to love that so earnestly –- you, who were born into the Age of Irony. Imagine getting caught with your Optimism hanging out. It feels so risky. Like showing up at the bus stop as the village idiot. You may be asked to stand behind the barn. You may feel you’re not up to the task.

But think of this: what if someone had dared you, three years ago, to show up to some public event wearing a big, flappy dress with sleeves down to your knees. And on your head, oh, let’s say, a beanie with a square board on top. And a tassel! Look at you. You are beautiful. The magic is community. The time has come for the square beanie, and you are rocked in the bosom of the people who get what you’re going for. You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world. Look at you. That could be you."

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