In communities across the country, the rite of passage known as graduation is once again upon us. Whether it's Moving Up Day at nursery school, Step Up Day to the middle school, or Graduation from high school or college, parents the world over hustle to
make sure that the batteries in the camcorder are charged and the film in the camera is fresh.
There are certain rituals associated with the day, regardless of which venue. A new outfit. An appropriate gift. A celebratory party. Depending on the age of the participant and the size of the extended family in attendance, these can be approached in a small, intimate way, or as a full-blown Long Island Jewish wedding, minus the troublesome spouse that you know you're going to ditch eventually anyway.
But before you get to the cake and the ice cream, there are certain rituals that must be observed. You have to get fitted for your cap and gown. You have to show up early and practice standing in line. On the appointed day, you have to get dressed in your best, arrive with a smile on your face, and file in while mom and dad watch proudly from the bleachers. And before they make it official and call your name and hand you a piece of parchment that says you are a graduate, you have to sit for the speech.
Usually given by an august member of the community or a person notable in some way, it is filled with cogent observations about life and love as you make the transition to the next stage in your existence. Occasionally it's touching and witty. Sometimes it's soaring and inspirational. As often as not, it's banal and boring. But regardless of the tone, it almost always issues a call to seize the future, to make the next chapter count, to use the skills and lessons you've learned to date to make a difference in the world at large.
Well, no one has ever given me the opportunity to address the graduates, and the reasons are obvious. I'm not famous, I haven't given a large sum of money to any institution, I hold no lofty position. But I've always wanted to give that speech, to put my spin on the world, to offer up my thoughts to youngsters who are bravely going where I once tread, hoping to do better than I did. And so, with the conceit that comes with owning a couple of column inches on a regular basis, should the phone ring tomorrow and an honorary hood is offered, here's what I would say to the assembled multitudes.
"Thanks for having me. And congratulations on getting to this next step in your journey, the one described in the musical 'A Chorus Line' as 'too young to take over, too old to ignore.'"
"I'll try to be brief, as I'm acutely aware that the only thing that stands between you and your diplomas is my 5 minutes of fame on this stage. In fact, I've come to terms with the reality that you're focused less on my words of deep, insightful wisdom, my empathetic musings about how I was once where you are, and my rousing call to arms as you take control of the next phase of history, and more on a great looking ice cream cake that's waiting for you featuring your name written in chocolate sauce."
"Ostensibly, my whole point in being here is to give you advice. But let's be honest: I can't give you any guidance. I mean, it's not that I have nothing to offer. But the truth is that you've never listened to anyone before... so what makes me think you would take the words of a total stranger? After all, you didn't listen to your father when he told you that jumping on the couch would break the springs. You didn't listen to your mom when she told you to eat your vegetables. You didn't listen to your teacher when she told you to double space. You didn't listen to your kid brother when he told you that dad was actually standing behind you. You didn't even listen to the waitress when you told you that the plate was hot. In every case, you got burned... but you still didn't listen."
"But that's what being a young adult is all about. You know it all. You are immortal. You intuitively see the world, recognize its shortcomings, and have foolproof solutions for them all. And you can't understand why the adults in your life don't accept this truth, put your plans into action, and keep their opinions and helpful suggestions to themselves. I will tell you that time may change this perception. After all, it was Mark Twain who said that as a lad of 13, he was astounded at how stupid his father was. But when he got to be 23, he was amazed at how much the old man had learned in the ensuing ten years."
"You want me to tell you what to do? The list is long. Go kiss your brother or sister. Go wash my car. Go listen to some music and sing along. Go thank your parents and your teachers. Go change your socks after you exercise. Go eat plenty of bran. Go tell the people in your life that you love them before you don't get the chance. Go help the Cub Scouts, plant a tree, write a poem. Go do something that 50 years from now, you'll be able to point to and say 'I did that.'"
"But the odds are that you won't do any of those things. Or more correctly, you won't do them because I told you to. You'll do them because you want to. And that is the one truth I will leave you with: the only person who can tell you what you should do... is you.
"And so I won't pretend to offer you advice. Likewise, I'll pass the word on to your parents, your teachers and your Uncle Ernie. I'll tell them that like most young adults, you already know the answers. The problem, as you will discover, is that it takes a long time to learn which questions they go with. If there's any challenge you face, that is it."
"As I said, there is only one person you should depend on, one person you can depend on, to, as Spike Lee says, 'Do The Right Thing.' And that person... is you. Listen to your heart. Answer to it. Make it proud, and you'll do just fine."
"Thank you. And should you change your mind and want to listen to me, my car is the dirty green one, third from the end."
Marc Wollin of Bedford has two kids. This year, one graduates from elementary school and one graduates from middle school. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.