Good afternoon, graduating students, families, teachers and the caterers who set up all of these chairs. I'd like to say that I am deeply honored that you asked me to be your commencement speaker today. But extremely shocked and profoundly saddened are probably better words. I mean, this is a huge day in your lives. I direct that to the students. For the caterers, it's not a huge day, just another crummy day of setting up and taking down a bunch of damn chairs.
A speech of 1,000 words
starts with a single Huh?
But for you graduates, it depresses me that you could not get a much better speaker for this ceremony. Frankly, it doesn't bode well for the rest of your life.
Nonetheless, I'm here and you're stuck with it. I did a little homework before coming here because this is the first time I've been asked to give a commencement speech. Even the high school I graduated from -- which I've been asked not to identify -- won't have me back. Some jerks, I mean, local news personalities are always asked to give commencement speeches. Leslie Wilcox does three or four a year. Personally, I think she's in a rut, but that's her business. Paula Akana, Tina Shelton, Pamela Young, Dan Cooke ... they all get asked to give commencement speeches. See the pattern? Right, they're all cute chicks. But I'm not jealous. Especially since I am standing here with so many close friends at (fill in name of high/junior/elementary school).
Like I said, I did some homework before coming here. Because giving a commencement speech isn't as easy as it sounds. There are rules. Like, you can't tell any dirty jokes. That's a major difference between talking to a graduating class and, say, a Rotary Club. Rotary Club members love dirty jokes. And martinis. You guys aren't drinking martinis out there, are you? (Wait for laughter, unless it is an elementary school graduation.)
Commencement speeches, I learned, are supposed to instruct, persuade, motivate and entertain. That's asking a lot from someone who isn't getting paid. My question is, If that is what commencement speeches are supposed to do, how come none of them do it? Most commencement speeches hound, berate, bore, disillusion and depress. You go through four or five or, if you count catching up in summer school, six years of classes, you pass tests, you make the grades and yet, before they let you out of the door with your diploma, you are subjected to some yahoo blathering about how exciting the future will be.
Let me tell you something, I've seen the future and it sucks. If you don't believe me, look over there at those guys getting ready to fold up all these chairs. See the guy with the shaved head, smoking the cigarette and sneaking hits of Wild Turkey? Does he look like he's enjoying the future? And get this, HE'S a college graduate. He's also got a master's degree in French poetry. Poor bastard.
I'm sorry. I'm supposed to be inspiring you. I'm sure you'll probably do better than that guy. (Look sincere.) Let me give you some advice you can really use: Don't study French poetry. And remember: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Today, you've taken the first step. Congratulations. You have only 999.99 miles to go. Drink lots of water. (Smile warmly and duck if necessary.)
Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. E-mail email@example.com