The art of the graduation speech
A few years ago, I was asked to give the keynote speech for an area high school’s graduation ceremony. At first, I thought one of my so-called friends must be playing a joke on me. Why would anyone want a local newspaper columnist/college English teacher to address a group of graduating high school seniors? What would I be expected to say? “Esteemed graduates, you face many problems and challenges in the world you are about to enter — skyrocketing health care costs, our dependence on foreign oil, the scourge of terrorism — but when all is said and done, if you do not finally get a grip on comma usage, I swear I will track down every last one of you and write nasty little comments with a red pen on everything you ever write from now on. If you do not learn the difference between ‘their’ and ‘there’ I will haunt you from beyond the grave. Now go forward and prosper, but do not let your participles dangle.”
I am hardly in the know when it comes to how graduation speakers are selected, but most often it seems that we get either politicians or a celebrity whose fame is commensurate with the size and prestige of the school. I personally have never heard a keynote speech that I actually enjoyed, or could even remember five minutes after the ceremony was over. But I especially despise the political campaigning disguised as a charge to the graduates.
“You young people understand the value of hard work, the cause and effect relationship between effort and achievement. That is why this very graduation exercise is so symbolic. It is a towering monument of protest against the welfare state and the tax and spend liberals who, by their very existence, dishonor what you have worked so hard for. Remember that when you go to the polls — liberals hate you.”
Of course, it really is bipartisan, this political pandering. Politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, just cannot help themselves. Put them up in front of people, shove a microphone in their faces, and they are just pigs at the trough, regardless of the context. Can’t blame the scorpion for stinging, can you? That’s what scorpions do. Pigs and scorpions. Scorpions and pigs. OK, I’m a little down on politics. Let’s move on to celebrities.
At Stanford or Princeton or Duke, you might expect to get Bill Cosby or Al Pacino or Oprah Winfrey. At Appalachian State or Western Carolina or Marshall, you’re aiming for people like Toby Keith or Jeff Gordon or Larry the Cable Guy. At the community college level, maybe you get Mr. T or George “Goober” Lindsey or Isaac the Bartender from the “Love Boat.” A small high school places a call to that blonde woman who sells rugs on television, or to the quarterback who led their football team to the state championship in 1979. When these luminaries pass, they call a local newspaper columnist.
Of course, I cannot really remember exactly — or even approximately — what I said at the high school graduation. But I am pretty sure I followed the time-honored formula that all non-campaign speeches follow. First, bid welcome to everyone in attendance — the graduates, the board of education, the principal, the assistant principal, the faculty, the staff, the relatives, the friends, the caterers, the press, the grounds crew, the photographers, and anyone else you can think of. This will eat up five solid minutes and put your audience in the appropriate keynote speech trance. They’ve been here before, and know what’s coming.
Next, tell them you’re honored to be here, in a way that is humble but not TOO humble. You are the speaker, after all. You are in control. For the next 10 minutes, you are king of the world! Tell a self-deprecating joke about barely being invited to your own high school graduation, must less anyone else’s. If only your old chemistry teacher could see you now. Say that. It will be endearing.
OK, it is nearly time to quote one of the Greek philosophers on the vital importance of a good education. You have spent several days puzzling over various phrases from Socrates and Plato that you pulled out of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Lay it on them now. Relate it somehow to the importance of education in your own life. Tell them you were once where they are now.
Move on to platitudes. Use a sentence that has at least five of the following words in it: “challenges,” “daunting,” “noble,” “wisdom,” “courage,” “tenacity,” “integrity,” “ages,” “legacy,” “dynamic,” “synergistic.”
Throw in a quote from the Bible, or something from Shakespeare. Remind of us what Abraham Lincoln said. Share an amusing anecdote of a classmate of yours who could never remember the teacher’s name, followed up by something profoundly touching, perhaps another anecdote of a woman you knew who overcame tremendous odds to succeed beyond her wildest dreams. Pause, dramatically, and tell them that this particular student was your own mother, who has been a shining example of the power of education and your greatest inspiration. Finish up with your hearty, heartfelt congratulations to the graduates. Say “Carpe Diem.” Or “Godspeed.” Or “Live Long and Prosper.”
There’s your speech. Then again, if you’re a school out there and you are listening, you could do what we’ve done at Southwestern Community College, which is do away with the keynote speech altogether and opt for a slide show. Our graduates love it, even without the nifty Latin phrases.