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May 24, 2024

Pomp and Circuitousness, or Graduation Speeches

Does commencement breed commiseration?

By Ed Goldman

This is the magical season of the graduation speech, in which students—no longer protesting about something they have absolutely no idea of—are provided the vital information that the future lies ahead. They also learn that the past is behind them and the present is right now. And that “giving back” to the community, or at least to the school’s alumni fund, is what Jesus would have done had he finished Hebrew school.

I gave one commencement speech a number of years ago and found it a demoralizing experience—as did, I’m sure, the students, their parents, the faculty and the groundskeeper anxious to get the ceremony over with so he could break down the bleachers, go home and enjoy a relaxing case of Schlitz, “the Champagne of bottled beer.”

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School sample

Actually, the groundskeeper might have liked my speech for one reason: its relative brevity. Accustomed to speakers who thought nothing of waxing eloquent for an hour or more, the assemblage might have been disappointed that I kept my remarks to 15 minutes, throwing off the program schedule. The children’s choir from a nearby church had to get hastily berobed, warmed up and hustled to the stage to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for the grads’ recessional march down the aisle—well, actually across the football field to the parking lot.

I’m not sure why my message that day failed to inspire: the theme was that their next port-o’-call, college, was going to be less stressful than high school—and that the work world thereafter would be a piece o’cake. Most of all, I told them to be “lifelong learners” which elicited some groans from the students. At that age and in that setting, you’re hoping you’ll never have to learn another thing as long as you live. 

Maybe my illustration of each coming attraction was superficial—e.g., “Think of how self-confident you’ll feel once your acne has cleared up and your dates don’t have to end at the doorstep” (college) and “How cool it’ll be to never have to read Chaucer or ‘Moby-Dick’ unless you damn well feel like it” (the work world). A number of parents seemed to chuckle at that one but I could feel intense and heated glares coming from the faculty seated behind me. Especially from the English department. 

I understand why everyone except the students felt I’d failed them. (The kids cheered when I prefaced my last sentence, at around the 14-minute mark, by saying, “In conclusion… .”)

In my slight defense, I must point out that I didn’t have a reliable frame of reference. I attended only one of my own graduations—from Lakewood Senior High School. I skipped the community college rites two years later as well as the state-university services two-plus years after that because I overslept for the first one and was already working as a night-shift newspaper reporter by the time of the second one. And sure, overslept. 

As a result, I wasn’t really sure what a graduation speech should include or ignore, how lofty the language should be and how long it should run.

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I also foolishly wrote out the entire speech in cursive and attempted to read, verbatim, my own handwriting. This was “problematic”—a word equally at home describing a door or tire flying off a jet plane and a middle-aged writer with a bit of myopia trying to make sense out of his text, which vaguely resembled that of an EKG monitor during a patient’s epoch of fluctuations. During a tsunami.

It gave the talk all the spontaneity of an instructional video on how to administer the Heimlich Maneuver in esperanto.

One parent told me afterward that my speech gave her time to study the top of the tasseled mortar board I was wearing since I’d apparently spent the entire 15 minutes reading my remarks while hunched over. I complimented her on being a lifelong learner. 

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).