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A Talk at the 2015 Rex Putnam High School Graduation Ceremony

Class of 2015: Good morning!

Many of you have seen a music video on youtube in which a young man wearing a yellow suit, a blue bow tie, and beige converse high tops, bounces up and down, gestures maniacally, and moves rhythmically in a way that sort of resembles “dancing;” his eye make-up is sweating off, and he’s lip syncing to a song he wrote about a “blue refrigerator.” Have you seen this thing? Okay, well, I have a confession to make. That guy was me. I know. I was that guy.

It was 1987, I was probably not more than three years older than you are now, having dropped out of college because my parents had not anticipated me wanting to go and had run out of money, and having recently tied the proverbial knot with my high school sweetheart, I thought for sure, with all of my soul, that I was going to be a rock and roll star, that I would make my living making weird rock music about kitchen appliances and I would only have to work at 7-11 until I signed the multi-album record contract.

This is just to say that when I was your age I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. That’s not entirely true. How about this: I didn’t know where I was going. I would not have been able to tell you that by some fluke of super dumb luck, I would be able to finish my English degree and continue on for a Masters in Teaching at a swanky private school, tuition free. I would not have predicted, in my wildest dreams, even after I decided that teaching might be a thing, that first of all, it would be a profession that I would love, and that secondly, I would end up spending an entire career back where I had started—at my alma mater—at Rex Putnam High School. You think 4 years is a long time? Try 31.

To start with, if my job tonight is to impart some kind of wisdom to you good people about your future, here’s the first part:

You have no idea. You have no idea.

Looking back I think that I should have been absolutely terrified. To be 21, married, working at a convenient store: terrifying. But I wasn’t terrified. And neither should you be. Maybe you’re as clueless now as I was then, or maybe you have some notion, some direction, or maybe some of you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but I’m telling you, you will go mostly blind into the future, and the challenge is to be prepared for all kinds of surprises, to be okay with that, to revel in the uncertainty of it, the ambiguity of it all, the mystery, the adventure, and, as Rilke advised us, to “learn to love the questions themselves.”

I’m having a déjà vu moment here. In 1983 I spoke at my high school graduation. I was Grant Luecke, a less impressive Grant Luecke(1).  I only remember one thing I said. I concluded with some family story about my dad taking me to the oyster beds at Hood’s Canal and rewarding me with a drink of his beer if I could swallow a raw oyster from the shell. And the whole point of that little anecdote was to say to my classmates that the world was their oyster and that they should eat it raw.

What a dumb thing to say.

I mean yeah, okay, we’ve all heard the cliché, yes, that the world is our oyster, but no, it’s really not. It is not a thing to be swallowed or eaten or conquered—it owes us nothing—and we have no right to demand that it fulfills all of our wishes. So one of the reasons I am so honored and thankful to the class of 2015 for inviting me to speak at your graduation, is I finally get to revise the speech I gave 32 years ago. And to deliver it in a better venue. In my day, we held the graduation ceremony in the gym at Rex Putnam. That’s right.

So, how would I revise that “world is your oyster” piece of non-wisdom nonsense?

I guess I would advise against the notion that your job from here on out is to go out and “get,” but rather, your job is to go out and “be,” to go out and “live,” to go out and “connect” meaningfully, respectfully and joyfully with people and the world, and to find a sense of authenticity, to be authentic.

Live your own life, not someone else’s. Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your stupid smart devices and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself. Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology. Don’t be a tool. There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts. Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

Notice I haven’t said anything in my revision of the oyster advice about writing a great essay or analyzing text or reading great literature. Don’t get me wrong, here. It’s not that I don’t think these things are monumentally important—but they are not the end—they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it–the true purpose of the last 13 years of your school experience: Learning to befriend your mind, learning to use your mind well will help you create a more peaceful world, will make you more empathetic and less selfish, will help you make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own passions, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you. As far as your future goes: treat your life as if it were a work of art and a gift to the world. Try to make it beautiful. And as Frederick Buechner has said, try to find “a place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Surprisingly, as clueless as I was in 1987, I was attempting to say some of these things in that silly video for an otherwise pretty good song. Find yourself a blue refrigerator, people. It will keep things cool.

With love, deep appreciation and gratitude for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2015.

 

(1) Grant Luecke was the student speaker at this graduation ceremony.

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The Imaginary Commencement Address

Greetings, class of 2012! You’ve worked hard and you’ve finally arrived at this momentous day, which, just like yesterday was, and the day before yesterday, and just like tomorrow will be and the day after tomorrow will be again, the first day of the rest of your life.  But yesterday you weren’t graduating from high school, and tomorrow you will have already graduated, so this day is in fact set apart, appropriately, as a special day, a day on which you participate in a singular right of passage away from childhood and into adulthood, whatever that means. It sounds kind of scary, actually.

I’d like to begin by thanking you all for not inviting me to speak at graduation.  I appreciate that.  It really takes the pressure off. But even though I have not been invited to speak, I will speak anyway, at least in imagination and spirit, because I CAN, and because I have a few things to say.

I greeted many of you four years ago in English 9. You were silly.  You were nutty.  Some of you were interested in learning.  Some of you were not.  Some of you worked hard.  Some of you didn’t.  Most of you are here today, but others of you could not join us this evening.  That should give us some pause.  (Pause). But you were a sweet group.  I mean to say, even though as freshmen, and even more so as sophomores, you were sometimes frustrating to work with (remember that time I got so angry I walked out of the classroom,  and that other time I slammed my open hand on a desk to get your attention and hurt myself?), you were, on the whole, nice, kind, caring. I really appreciate that.  To me, being a decent human being weighs on the scale much more significantly than good grades and academic prowess.  So I will remember you for being decent human beings.  We had fun together. Thank you.

Others of you I did not meet until your junior year.  You came into American Literature or IB Junior English knowing nothing about me–and we got on pretty well.  We studied witches, the Declaration of Independence, the roaring 20s, Coyote, poetry, monster-making, alcoholism, Chile’s dark past, America’s dark past, and love during the Mexican Revolution–and through the Exhibition Project (which you all loved) and the Individual Oral Presentation (which you all loved), you made your voices and your learning heard above the roof tops of the world.  Good work, people.

And I was fortunate enough to have about 37 of you in my IB Senior English class and my good buddy and Evil Twin Mr. Hawking had another 25 to 30 of you.  I think we studied some things in the context of that particular curriculum that might be appropriate to highlight here, on this occasion–in case you missed it the first time, or, in case you were not in those classrooms.  Let’s think of the next few minutes as a “review for the test,” so to speak.  The test we’re talking about is a long one.  It begins right this second.  And it ends–well, it ends–at the end–hopefully a really long time from now. I want you to do well on the test, so listen up.

We studied literature about the Vietnam war and we learned this:

Wars suck.  If you can help it, don’t fight them.  Instead, fight to prevent them. How do you do that?  Live peacefully in your families and in your neighborhoods.  I believe in the ripple effect that good living can have on everything and everyone that surrounds us.  I don’t mean pure living.  I mean good–good in that no one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; that everything and everyone that comes into direct contact with you is left in a better shape, condition, or state than it or he or she was before your paths crossed.  Live peacefully in and with your own mind.  You have to believe in the possibility of a world without war.  You have to start there.  And know this: that you can believe all of this and fall short of the mark over and over.  You will fail.  As I have.  And then what? We do what we can to make things better, to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven, to avoid past mistakes and destructive patterns.  In a 2011 joint venture between Vietnam and the U.S., 32 million dollars was invested for an Agent Orange clean up in Central Vietnam, nearly forty years after the end of the war. It’s never too late, people. And for those of you who serve: thank you, first of all.  And secondly, help us imagine collectively and then realize an armed forces whose primary job is to help relieve suffering and not to inflict it.

We studied literature about American slavery and the Troubles in Ireland, and we learned that history matters. It teaches us primarily not about the way things were, but WHY things are the way they are.  And if you don’t understand that, you’re living in the dark. History also teaches us this one abiding truth that, if we allow it to, can guide our lives:  nothing worth achieving comes easily.

And we studied post World War II existentialist drama and we came away with this: Live your own dream, not someone else’s.  Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your cell phones and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself.  Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology.  Don’t be a tool.  There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts.  Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

And from Beckett we learned that it’s okay to wait, but we have to be careful, because all of what we believe we are waiting for might already be here. And this is the trap, right, that Beckett was describing: in grade school we wait for junior high (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it), in junior high we  wait for high school, and in high school we  wait for college and the concurrent and/or subsequent unemployment.  And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and . . .  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin.  Your life has already begun.  You’re in it.  Live it. Be here now.  Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about writing a great essay or analyzing text. Don’t get me wrong, here.  It’s not that I don’t think these things are important–but they are not the end–they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it.  Learning to use your mind well–and I think that has been or should have been the goal of the last 13 years of your school experience–will help you create a more peaceful world, will help you understand and make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own dreams, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you.

With love, deep appreciation for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2012.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Teaching