At a high school graduation ceremony the other day, no one advised the graduates to follow their dreams. In the gymnasium, in folding chairs set out on tarps to protect the basketball floor, beneath the tournament banners and folded backboards and hoops, there were families, underclassmen, teachers, and graduates. It was a modest, civilized, amiable, well-educated crowd, living lives, not dreams. Of course, most of them have had dreams, but how many followed them, from high school graduation to grandparent-hood and retirement? Not many, I guessed.
The brief speeches that began and ended the simple, lovely ceremony, emphasized what the graduates had learned, what they had done, what they had contributed to the school and to the larger community, as well as to their peers. The speakers also admired the graduates for becoming such a companionable and cooperative team of friends. If there was any suggestion at all of what they might do next day and beyond, it was, go forth and do more of what you've been doing. Other messages, I suppose, may have included more galvanizing summonses, perhaps a call to harken to distant trumpets, or to "make a difference" or "change the world." It is quite possible that some of the graduates will do one or the other of those things. We'll see, and hope. What seemed most likely, given the congenial, accomplished, relaxed and confident mood of that late afternoon was that these two dozen or so kids would become terrific friends, neighbors, fathers, mothers, grandparents, citizens, and contributors. And, to me, it seemed plenty.
Graduation day is one of those occasions that brings out the aphorist in everyone. Big day, one thinks, the words will have to be mighty. Can't have that hollow, meaningless sound words usually have. Big day, big thoughts.
"I would like to thank you, the class of XXXX, for the privilege of standing before you today. I am truly honored!" Here's an example of what I mean, of the overwrought species of talk common at graduation. This speaker was trying very hard, and maybe he really "would like to thank you", but, think about it, that's not the same thing as actually thanking you. So, despite the puffery, you haven't really been thanked at all.
And, that part about "truly honored." Why not just, "I am honored." Maybe he didn't think the simpler formula would convey the feeling he may have realized he didn't feel. Maybe, the occasion being graduation day, he was moved to inflate the simple to the clichéd.
High school graduates this year have frequently been charged by graduation speakers with saving the planet, uniting the races, lifting the third world out of poverty, dulling the appetites of the first world, curing cancer, living their dreams, and, by the way, having fun. The last, of course, seems unlikely with all that difficult work ahead of them. And incidentally, who are all these graduation speakers to be giving marching orders to 18-year-olds. If the planet needs saving, it's not because of my graduating kids or yours. If peace has eluded the world community, whose fault is that? If the 2007 graduation day speakers and their generation, following the uncounted generations of graduation speakers who preceded this latest crop, didn't get her done, why should my kids be expected to straighten the mess out?
What can you say to these kids who very shortly will find out that they are not kids anymore? Well, you might say, you're a likely looking group, appealing and bright. There's a good chance things will unfold happily for you. Dream if you like, but the road ahead may have a curve in it, or a fork, or a sharp right. Your dreams may change, or deflate, or maybe you won't remember them. Nothing stays the same. Keep your eyes open. Something may turn up you never imagined. Don't miss it, if you can help it. Let life show itself to you, and when something catches your eye, give it a try. There's time to try something, and then try something else. But, there isn't all the time in the world. There's some urgency attached to what happens from now on, but remember, it's not all up to you, and you can't do it alone.
So, in conclusion, get going.