The graduation speech I’ll never give
June 4, 2022
Greetings to the Class of 2022! I’m not conceited enough to think you’ll read this, since blogs are relics from around 2000 B.S. (Before Smartphones), which is also before y’all were born. However, I’m too lazy to break up this post into TikTok videos, and since this month marks the 50th anniversary of my own escape from high school, I feel compelled to say something.
I could offer you life hacks like, “Wear sunblock. Don’t skimp on tires. When in doubt, order the club sandwich.” What I won’t do is tell you things were better in ’72, even if folks from my generation would like to think so. We were still fighting a hopeless war in Vietnam, for which the men in my class were subject to conscription. I knew a guy who caught an unlucky number in the draft lottery and went off to the Army. Right about the time we got our diplomas, a gang of burglars were busted at the Watergate hotel. I sure hope your history classes covered that.
I had a good education at Loy Norrix High in Kalamazoo, Michigan, though some lessons were more useful than others. In half a century I’ve never once had reason to recite the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Chemistry, biology, and physics fell by the wayside when I found I wasn’t cut out for science after all. While I still remember words and phrases from my three years of Spanish, I couldn’t hold a conversation with a native speaker.
The one thing that left a lasting impression was “ Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s timeless play about life, love, and death in Grover’s Corners. I studied it in sophomore English under Mrs. Ensfield, who had a gravelly voice and a penchant for bad puns, but was a fine teacher. At the time, I was struggling with my father’s passing, with school, and the world in general. Wilder’s message — that we drift through the years without truly appreciating anything — struck a chord.
The character Emily Webb realizes this only after dying and paying a brief, heartbreaking visit to the past. As playwright Donald Margulies wrote in the foreword to the 75th anniversary edition, her farewell is, “one of the immortal moments in all of American drama.”
Good-by. Good-by, world, Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets maybe — they do some.
Long before I walked out of the auditorium on graduation night, I was determined that my life would not be like those described by the Stage Manager in another scene: “Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”
So, kids: Be interesting. Never take life for granted, especially if you’re not a saint or a poet (I’m neither one). And by all means read or watch the play if you haven’t done so already. There’s a 1940 film, and if you can find it, a 2003 PBS version with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. You can see his closing monologue here.