Words to Remember?

It’s graduation time. The end of one stage of life, the beginning of another. Cliches abound. There’s the proud parents, the fond farewells to our classmates, the parties, the commencement speech.

–Wait a minute, the commencement speech?? Who wants to hear that?! Almost nobody apparently, because years later we don’t remember what was said, or who said it. I interviewed the people I work with, and found little recall of the words of the philosophical men and women who sent these grads out to the cold, cruel world with no memorable advice to start with.

I talked to one graduate who remembered the commencement speaker only because she couldn’t speak. This was Marlee Matlin, the famous movie actress who is deaf. She gave her address through an interpreter, but true to the theme of this op-ed, the graduate in question couldn’t remember what message Ms. Matlin had to impart that afternoon.

Another friend I spoke with said he’d heard entertainer Bill Cosby at his 1996 commencement address. He remembered that Cos shook hands with everyone who got a sheepskin that day, but, you guessed it, he couldn’t remember the speech.

But not to worry — the words exist in cyberspace. I plucked them out from the net, and we can still appreciate Cosby’s wit and wisdom, ‘Commencement speakers say you can change the world. That’s a bunch of crap! It’s too high to reach for somebody who can’t even get their car packed properly.’ Reaching a little less high, Mr. Cosby said, ‘First, you should apologize to all the professors whose classes you didn’t take seriously. Second, pay off your student loan. I’m serious! Those are two important points, and you can make a change in the world because the change came in you.’

So maybe some addresses are worth remembering after all. Let’s try another one — General George Marshall’s in 1946 at Harvard. It was the day he announced the plan with his name on it that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. At another university on another day, John Kennedy announced his plan for the Peace Corps. At Wellesley, Hillary Clinton stridently engaged the crowd, and so did Oprah years later with her famous ‘bad men’ speech.

In Chester County, Pennsylvania, several important addresses were given at all black Lincoln University. President Taft gave the commencement address way back in 1910, while Albert Einstein visited in May, 1946 when he spoke of ‘the disease of racism.’ It was then and there that a young Julian Bond met Einstein and was given some appropriate advice for a commencement proceeding: ‘Don’t remember anything that is already written down.’ (Hmmm, not encouraging news for a writer.)

With so many commencement addresses that can be cited, I wondered what the most ‘cited’ living man (citations in academic and scholarly journals in all languages) will have to say about his own graduation speeches. That would be MIT linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, and I was surprised when he told me, ‘I don’t like to speak at graduation ceremonies, and don’t remember what I said on the few occasions I did agree to speak.’ (By the way, he doesn’t know what was said at his own graduation ceremony back in the day.you see, he didn’t attend.)

Oh, well, maybe commencement addresses are meant more for the speakers than the students and parents. I’m sure these speech-makers want to help the novitiates, but they also want to show their stuff, and make sure the listeners know they’ve worked on their speech to provide something of value because, after all, this is a captive audience.

What attendees are getting for their time varies in quality and might not match your taste, but be patient; you’re only doing it once, so why not listen and see if you might catch a falling star.

P.S. In case you students don’t get a good quote at the ceremony, I’ll drop in a few of my own favorites.

‘There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.’ — Beverly Sills

‘You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.’ — John Wooden

‘A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success.’ — Robert Orb

Jim Gavin writes from Orefield, PA. He can be reached at: nivag7@hotmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.