Senator John Chafee spoke at my graduation from prep school. The cartoonist Garry Trudeau spoke at my graduation from college. What either might have said I cannot recall — too much whirling in the noggin at the time, the time too long ago. I suspect both were quite good.
Of the many commencement speeches I’ve heard in an eavesdropping capacity since then, a few have resonated. Most just slipped into the oratorical equivalent of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance’’ — well-intended, familiar, mildly rousing (emphasis on mildly). Usually, the simple fact of speaker and speech is satisfying enough. One’s attention can wax and wane at little cost; we’ve heard it all before. And for many of the graduates, to listen too closely to the speaker, however compelling, is to lose focus on the larger significance of the moment: In just a few minutes I’m outta here, baby! No more pencils, no more books, and etcetera. Commencement speakers know all this; still, they persevere, thousands of them, every spring.
As anointed emissaries from the real world, commencement speakers want to be helpful to the graduates, to offer insights and advice that will matter, to put the capstone on an education, to elevate the ceremony from quaint ritual to noble rite of passage. Speakers would like to be profound but accessible, wise but entertaining, timeless but topical. Witty would be nice, too, if not outright funny. Nor are they unaware that the families and friends of the graduates would like to hear something worthwhile as well. And all this in 10 to 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, hovering overhead is the specter of the jowly old windbag bloviating a string of platitudes so stale even the grandparents wince. Then there’s the zealot with something to sell, the narcissist who can’t get past the first person singular, the dullard lost in the arcane. Also complicating the speaker’s task is the slow augustness of the proceedings, electrified with a general buzz of glee. And it can be hot under that robe.
Challenging, too, is fulfilling the function, playing the role, but in a new and relevant way — this more than anything. One must remain respectful of the occasion and the traditions of the school and hit at least some of the expected notes. In sharing her or his thoughts, the speaker is offering an implicit benediction: To get where they are, the graduates have worked hard, presumably, and done well, presumably. Across the years they’ve explored ideas, written papers, crammed for tests, and honed an intellect. They’ve embraced the significance of education and the best intentions of the institution, also presumably, and now the world awaits, eager for them to put their strengths to good use. This merits formal recognition in the form of a worthy speech — a big responsibility. The speaker knows all this, too, or should.
Then there’s this, of which the commencement speaker should also be aware: To be invited to participate in the ceremony is a high honor, to pull together some truths for the benefit of young people just starting out is a rare privilege, to stand at the podium and look out at the scene is a thrill, to be answered with applause is gratifying . . . and to witness up close the faces of the honorees as they cross the stage and receive the passport to the rest of their lives is the best part of all. I’ll guess Senator Chafee and Mr. Trudeau would agree.
David McCullough Jr. is a teacher at Wellesley High School.
Watch: David McCullough’s 2012 commencement speech