The Last Word : Commence speaking
We had the privilege of hosting a few high school English students for an end-of-the-year barbecue. All seniors, all high achieving, and all on the cusp of being tossed out of the nest. The topic of graduation speeches arose, as at least one of them would be making a speech at the upcoming commencement-day ceremony.
I think of all the commencement addresses I've heard over the years at my own various graduation ceremonies, and those of my spouse, children, friends, and relatives. Preschool, high school, college, graduate school and on. Some addresses have been better than others. Some have been ghastly. One or two even had remarks that stuck with me for a few weeks before fading like a dream into the realm of vague recollection. I'm not talking about the hired gun, the semi-celebrity commencement speaker who entertains the crowd and overshadows the student speakers. I'm talking about the students, the bright young women and men who have earned the right to address their peers and their mentors. They look so young, so sincere, so self-assured. I want to yell Go back! It's not safe out here! But I don't. I sit and smile and flick away a tear of pride that such youth can pull off a speech that makes me wish. . . well, just makes me wish.
Commencement speeches are a part of our culture's oral tradition. We give a lot of weight to the oral traditions of native peoples, of the Greeks, of the tellers of tales like Beowulf and other epic poems before word processing. The idea of standing up in front of a crowd and saying something meant to be significant - and a little entertaining - is time-honored and at the same time, a curious holdover from a past that didn't include television. Orators, then and now, are revered. We haven't yet found a substitute.
On this weekend of graduations, there was another oral tradition demonstrated for us at the funeral of a friend. There was a homily, wonderfully expressed by the priest, who knew the deceased very well, and then there were three "remembrances" by family and friends. As I listened, I realized that the basic root of all human interaction is the voice. We are, I think it's safe to say, the only species that gives speeches. And all-important occasions require the spoken word. Not just the chatter of guests, or the reading of text, or even the singing of songs, but the designated speech of toastmasters, eulogists, valedictorians. And, as you can see, we even have named those particular speeches and their speakers. A best man labors over his speech, as does the class essayist, or the priest preparing his homily. We still, after centuries of civilization, want people to stand up in front of us and solemnize special events in our lives with their own words. Words spoken not by Bards but by ordinary people with a vested interest in the proceedings. It's endemic to human experience. I don't think that there's a culture in the world that doesn't have an oral tradition hard-coded into its ceremonies.
Most of these speeches are pretty predictable. I'm sure that the valedictorian will touch on the supportiveness of his community, the safety of the known, and the excitement of the unknown, the leaving of the nest as the next chapter of a young life unfolds. You know the kind of thing. The eulogist will tap into the essence of the person being eulogized, will find that thread that held the two together and exploit it. And that's okay. That's what the listeners are looking for. They want to know that the young man understands the significance of the day, that the eulogist understood the heart of the deceased. It is in this very predictability that the traditions are met. The best man is expected to stumble, the valedictorian to inspire, and the eulogist to remind us all of the fragility of life.
Congratulations Class of 2008.