Commencement Speeches, Translated

‘Tis the season. Notables don cap, gown and sash, accept an honorary degree, and then grip the podium for dear life for 40 minutes while imparting congratulations and wisdom to college graduates about to take on the world. Mortarboard tassels still swinging from being shifted, the kids endure (or, if it was like my high school graduation, pass around a Daily’s Juice bottle full of orange juice and vodka). Parents in the audience lap it up. Damn right, they think. I paid, or am still paying, for this.

Trouble is, an important component of the audience is missing: employers. To my knowledge, no employer of recent college graduates has ever attended a commencement speech. Reason I know is, they simply don’t understand. They could not have heard what was said there. Millions of grads who have started new jobs can confirm this. The mental process goes something like this:Commencement

“What? Why are you so perturbed?” the graduate thinks when a boss upbraids him. “My memo couldn’t have been that bad. Didn’t you hear the commencement speech at my graduation? I’m the hope of the future. We all are. We worked hard, persevered, learned, grew, became enriched. We have energy and verve. We’re different than all the classes that came before. The world isn’t just our oyster; it’s one of those boffo roasted oysters from Drago’s! No one with these attributes could have written an anemic memo. Especially when you look at some of the know-nothing slackers who you’ve carried on the books at this place for years! I mean, some of these people are…ugh…fat.”

And on and on.

Now surely, there are plenty of arrogant graduates whose sense of entitlement and oh-so-flat tummies combine to make them as annoying as a sinus infection. But there are just as many industrious youngsters who want to put in their time and make good, honestly. It has always galled me that the last thing we tell them as collegians is, “You are a perfectly formed creature, full of knowledge and energy!” and the first thing they often hear as employees is, “You know NOTHING, you’ve done NOTHING, and you’re worth NOTHING, and you likely won’t survive no mater what you do. Now go pick up my lunch.”

Who has time for that crap? I’m here to help. As a public service, here is a translated commencement speech that will end up being a damn sight more useful. Parents listening to it may need a drink; they should ask their kids to pass the Daily’s Juice bottle.


“A great writer once noted that we tell college graduates one story, then flip it around into something nasty once you get a job. If you’re lucky enough to get a job. In the words of that writer, who has time for that crap?

“So I’m going to tell you what’s what. Fact is, you are a magnificent group of people. Compared to other classes? I have no idea; I just flew in last night. But it’s true: you reached a formidable academic goal while negotiating massive shoals of temptation, recreation, love, sex, sports, financial turbulence, parental expectations (really demands) and biggest of all, occasional self-doubt. Congratulations for coming through.

“You have knowledge. You have energy, maybe more than you will ever have in your life. You don’t have experience, but it’s not your fault you’re only 22. Get the experience, don’t be disappointed if it’s a different color than the little digits in the paint-by-number dream you’ve always had, and bank it all.

“Heed this warning: when you enter the workplace, you will encounter the accomplished and admirable. You will also meet the mean and mendacious. You will be insulted, denigrated, marginalized. You will be disgusted and abused by people who once had dreams and aspirations like yours, but who can no longer see them through the hills of shit they have built around themselves.

“These are the small people, the weak, the ones who allowed disappointment to take over the whole game instead of just one inning. I won’t lie to you: some of these people will have power over you. All I can say is, put your head down, glean what experience you can from these picked-over fields, and get out as soon as you can.

“You will hear a lot of people tell you that following your dreams is better than riches. Do what you love and the money will come, they will say. They are right. But when you hold in your arms in the maternity ward a life you created with someone you love, that child has become the doing-what-you-love, and the money has to come. Find a way to rejoice in that, and not rue the missed opportunity to become the solo free spirit that so many people seem to think is the only version of a happy human. To love and be loved by a child, I can tell you, is the pinnacle of existence, even with all the pressure to support that precious creature.

“Hold fast to your friends. In the next few years, you are going to need each other very, very much. Be prepared: as years, marriages, and children go by, some of those bonds will stretch, fade, and crack. Others will add rings year by year like mighty oaks. Cherish these; nurture them.

“We’re all thirsty, so I’ll wrap up. Whatever joys or indignities lie ahead for you, follow the best advice my Dad ever gave me (among a motherlode of gems): it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, as long as you get up.

“Enjoy your families today. Your parents are ready to bust with pride. Let them. Enjoy all the parties. Be safe. Thanks for letting me speak to you. God bless you.”♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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