The Commencement Speech

Helen Keller wearing graduation cap and gown. ...

Helen Keller wearing graduation cap and gown. Helen learned a lot from going to school. She even wrote a book during the time she was in school. The book was called “The Story of My Life.” She graduated in 1904. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Graduation Day: I have been to many of these celebrations.  Some were exhilarating, some sweltering hot, some were so painful I have blotted them from my memory.  They are all bittersweet.  The kids have worked so hard to get there.  You are proud of their achievements and at the same time worried for their futures.  They are going to be batted around out there…are they prepared for the real world?

The parade of caps and gowns, the slides shows of baby pictures, the speeches of students, teachers and special guests, and the musical interludes of the graduating seniors, are the same the world over.  Its funny though, it’s the speeches that make it or break it.  We dread them and love them.  We root for our kids and our colleagues as they stick their necks out to say goodbye to the graduating class, to praise their accomplishments, and encourage or scare them about the future that awaits them.

The speeches usually fall into the following five categories: The Amazing, The So Funny but Should I Be Laughing, The List of Anecdotes, The Scrapbook, and The Wha? Huh?

The Amazing:

This speech is given by the student that will clearly be famous or change the world in a monumental way. They are realistic in their stories; they are humble in describing their triumphs and failures.  There is just the right balance of story telling, fear of the future, and advice on the next step of their lives.  Their prose are poetic.  Their images are vivid.  They pause and speed up, raise and lower their voice, their words and their tone carry you on a euphoric wave and at the end you say to yourself… “Wow, that kid is going somewhere.”

The So Funny But Should I Be Laughing:

This speech is certainly funny.  It speaks a truth that is painfully real.  It criticizes your past deeds, it mocks your students and colleagues, it impersonates people with uncanny accuracy.  It kicks sand into the eyes of the serious scholarship you thought you were achieving with these pupils.  And every time you laugh you are worried some one will see you laughing and call you into the office on Monday morning for encouraging this kind of insubordination.  Yet at the end of the night, the teachers and administrators are still talking about this one speech, laughing at its truths, and laughing at themselves for taking life and their jobs a little too seriously.

The List of Anecdotes:

This speech, as the name implies, is a list of stories.  Each graduating student is thoughtfully mentioned, short snippets of stories from their past are recollected, and inside jokes are told one last time.  There is really no climax to this type of speech, no slow build to the kicker.   It is orderly, you know all the students will be mentioned, and when the speech is over you think to yourself “Aww, wasn’t that sweet?”  It is a feel good journey of our last four years together.

The Scrapbook:

This speech is like a Pintrest page of stuff one has saved for just this very moment.  Pictures, postcards, slips of paper, favorite YouTube videos.  Little tidbits of life lessons learned, literary anecdotes from favorite books, quotes from famous individuals, stories from their childhood or adulthood, lots of praise for the students’ accomplishments, and a few warnings for their future.

This speech can be the most difficult to sit through as your brain works overtime trying to connect the dots between each example, anecdote, and quote.  But this is the speech that has the most love.  It is the most personal.  It is where the speaker who maybe, for the first time, is laying themselves open before the graduates to show their true feelings.  In spite of their tough discipline, their reprimands about late work, their criticism of the students’ capabilities, this teacher truly loved and learned from these kids.  Regardless of how confusing, awkward, or random this speech may become, the audience continues to listen because they know this one is from the heart of someone who truly knows and cares about these graduates.

The Wha? Huh?:

This speech type is the reaction of the crowd due to either the speaker who was chosen to give the speech or the content of the speech.  Because most schools let the students choose who will speak at their graduation, the choices of who speaks can sometimes be, well to put it nicely, interesting.   Why did the students pick that kid?  Didn’t that kid fail most of his classes?  Why is the grandfather of the pro-ball playing alumni speaking?  Shouldn’t we have asked the pro-ball playing alumni to speak instead?  Why is the mayor giving a campaign speech?  Did he print the wrong speech file?  Or did his press secretary forget to inform him it was graduation and not a fund-raising event.

This speech is different from the previous “Scrapbook” speech in that it is either way off topic but carefully crafted or it is simply incomprehensible.  It was clearly created to highlight the speaker’s greatness or to tell off all those people who kept him/her down for so long in this prison called high school.

What Keeps the Speech From Being Heard:

The commencement speech has many factors working against the speech giver.  It is hot, brutally hot.  No air conditioning, no breathable air, and no comfortable chair to sit on.  More often than not, you are sitting on bleachers.  The speech takes place an hour into the ceremony, you are drowning in your own sweat at this point and your butt is officially Novocaine grade numb.  Most people are concentrating more on getting out of the venue than on the heart-felt words of the student or teacher.  There is some serious partying to be had and the kids are ready to let it all go.  Wait..where are we meeting after?  Brunnerz?  What time?

I Am Terrified to Give this Speech:

This is not meant to be a criticism of the speeches and speakers I have heard, it is just an observation I have made as I sit back and think of all those years of graduation ceremonies.   I admire my colleagues who have had this opportunity. I would be honored yet completely scared out of my wits if I were asked to give this speech.  I don’t think I would be able to sleep for nights worrying about it.

I write a blog and say things to the world all the time, but in a way it’s less personal.  I’m in front of groups of people in the classroom all day, but I’m teaching a subject I feel comfortable with.  I perform in front of hundreds of people in musicals, but I’m playing a part that I can hide behind.  But a commencement speech…that is something different, something monumental, something personal.

A commencement speech is a culmination of your collective lives together.  You want to say something of the journey you have taken; you want to recognize all the players in the production of High School/University.   You want to say something profound, something meaningful, something memorable that the students will grasp on to and take with them.    There are so many stories from your years together, so many anecdotes from books read, so many great quotes from long dead thinkers…what do you say?  How can I do these kids justice?  How do I send them off into the unknown, give them courage, and inspire them to be great leaders who will save our future on the planet?

So Bravo! Class of 2013.  And bravo to all of my colleagues and students, past and present,  who have written and delivered the all important commencement speech.  You have inspired us and made us think.  You have shown great courage and great humor.  Thank you for reminding us why we love the students sitting there before us in their shiny caps and gowns.

Here is a recent commencement speech that I believe is almost perfect.  It is personal, timely, funny, sincere and from the looks of it, is given by a much beloved teacher.

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