Letter 2: What is My “This Is Water”?

Dear Mr. Wallace,

What is my This is Water?

In the days that have passed since I read This is Water, I’ve been thinking about what I might say if given the opportunity to address a class of graduates.  If I were given fifteen minutes in the spotlight on what is, at least for those about to turn their tassels, one of the most important days in a person’s life, what pearls of wisdom would I impart?  Or more importantly, what would I tell as my opening joke?

Being a lifelong student and a professional educator for nearly ten years, I’ve sat through a number of graduations and heard more than my share of commencement speeches.  There were my own high school and college graduations.[1]  There was my wife’s college graduation (we were engaged at the time).  Then the seven or eight I’ve been to as a teacher.

I’ve also read several really good commencement speeches, yours included.  A couple of my favorites (aside from yours, of course) are Mark Twain’s “Advice to Youth” and Baz Lurhman’s “Wear Sunscreen,” which was very popular about ten years ago.  I had my AP students read them both one day last year.  The students got a kick out of them, and it made a really good lesson to give while my principal was observing me teach.

As I’ve spent the last week thinking about the speech I might deliver[2], I’ve found there to be various types or categories of graduation speeches.  There are the inspiration speeches, ones that rely heavily on pathos to stir up the graduates and give them the sense that the world is theirs for the taking.  But in reality, these are typically filled with lots of banal platitudes; all colorful rhetoric with very little substance.  Cotton candy speeches, if you will.

Then there are the “shock and awe” speeches designed to scare the bejesus out of the commencers.  The speaker throws a stiff dose of reality into the laps of his/her listeners, telling them of all the dangers and hardships they ought to expect in their near futures.  Life is not going to be a bed of roses in which their every desire is handed to them on a silver platter… so man up.

There are the “good night and good luck” speeches, a reflection on the experiences of the graduates’ education.  These are an opportunity for the speaker to get his/her final words in before the graduates head out into the next phase of life.  Sometimes these speeches venture into the philosophical realm, much as yours does, to find real meaning in the years spent at the educational institution.

Lastly (or at least the last category I could think of), is the practical advice speech.  These are meant to give some last minute words of wisdom that weren’t covered in the academic curriculum, much like a father might do before his son walks down the aisle.[3]  It might be advice about finances or relationships, but always in the category of the “you didn’t learn this in class, but you really ought to know it.”

Coming up with these subcategories of the genre only complicated matters for me.  If I were given – hypothetically – only fifteen minutes or so to impart all the worldly wisdom I’ve accumulated in my thirty-three years of life, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  There is so much to consider, both content and form.  And not to mention the opening joke; if that’s no good, you’ve lost your audience from the word go.

But as I continued to ponder this, a rather depressing thought came bubbling to the surface:  Nobody is going to remember a single word I say.  Like I said, I’ve been to between fifteen and twenty graduation ceremonies and I don’t remember a single word that any of the keynote speakers said, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.  I’m not even sure who spoke at either of my high school or college graduations.  The one speaker-related thing I do remember from my college graduation was that one of my classmates delivered a short speech as the “outstanding student representative” from the English department.  I recall two things about his speech: he made some uber-cheesy reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the students around me (most of whom were his friends rather than mine) were planning on jumping up at the end of his speech and yelling, “Bullsh**!” as he left the podium.  I am very glad they decided against it at the last minute; my parents were in the audience.

Other than this almost profanity-laden moment, I can’t recall a single word of a single speech from a single graduation I have attended.  Shoot, I can’t even remember the topics of any of them.  So if I were given the opportunity to speak, and if I were to spend the hours preparing the speech, and then if I were to deliver it to the assembled graduates and the select family members and friends lucky enough to make the cut and get tickets, it would all be for naught.  I’d imagine very few of my listeners would even be paying attention.  The commencers would all be reflecting back on their fond memories of school or thinking ahead to the graduation parties that await them.  And the friends and family members would be jockeying for position to get the best camera angle for a picture of the diploma handoff, or worrying about whether the camcorder battery has enough juice to make it through the ceremony.

So this job of commencement speaker is really not all it’s cracked up to be.  All the hard work and pressure, only to be forgotten ten minutes later.  In your words, I’d be “hosed.”

But since I’ve already invested several days in this little fantasy and 800+ words in this letter, I might as well see it through.  And rather than just accept defeat, I can take it as a challenge to break through the apparent obstacles and come up with something actually memorable.

As I began to undertake this imaginary challenge, I sought the wisdom and advice of the great sages throughout history for guidance in this daunting task.  I Googled the words of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and so on.  But no help was to be found there.  Then I remembered the words of Dwight K. Schrute, who so eloquently said, “Keep it simple, stupid.”[4]  Come up with something short and sweet and easy to remember, and maybe just maybe, someone will remember it.[5]

So the key is simplicity.  Find some simple, basic truth.  Nothing cliché, but it needs an element of cleverness to it.  Sprinkle in a few anecdotes: some that produce a tear, some a chuckle.  Open with a killer joke.  And you might just have a chance of someone remembering what you say after the hour-long list of names is read.

In reflecting back on my nearly thirty-four years of life, I came up with two bits of advice that I have received that would be worth passing along to a group of graduates.  And they are at nearly polar opposite ends of the advice spectrum (is there such a thing?).  They are so different, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t want to include them in the same speech.  If no one is going to remember the one thing I try to tell them, why would I want to push it with two?  So, I guess this little fantasy mental exercise of mine has now grown into two speeches.

The first bit of advice I would make the focal point of a commencement speech falls into the “practical advice” sub-genre.  I remember one of my colleagues during my first teaching job said that there are two lies that we as teachers, parents, etc. tell young people that can have a damaging effect on the future.  The first is that appearances don’t matter, and the second is that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough.  Young people are told that their appearances don’t matter; it’s what’s inside that matters.  While I agree that the true measure of a person is their character, appearances do matter.  Now I’m not talking about the obvious things of skin color or disability.  I believe we have made legitimate progress in Dr. King’s dream of a world in which our young people are judged by the quality of their character instead of the color of their skin.  But I think our appearance, especially that which we can control, is important.  How we dress, how we carry ourselves, how we decorate our bodies are all a reflection of that inner character.  The importance of first impressions, especially with future employers or clients or even dates, cannot be overstated.  We may never get the opportunity to show others are true inner character if they are turned off by the outer shell.

The second lie is that you can’t be whatever you want to be, no matter how are you try.  I think the “train wreck” episodes at the start of each season of American Idol is evidence enough of that, but I’ll provide a personal anecdote as well.  In junior high, I wanted nothing more than to play Major League baseball.[6]  It wasn’t for lack of effort that my baseball career never got out of the eighth grade.  I spent hours practicing with my school’s team everyday after school, and sometimes would stay late and work individually with the coach.  It didn’t do a lick of good.  I just don’t have the natural talent or athleticism.

Now that doesn’t mean that happiness and fulfillment in one’s career or vocation is unattainable.  It just means that not everyone is cut out to be the next American Idol winner or next number one MLB draft pick.  Rather than wasting our time and efforts on endeavors that will never work out, we ought to invest that time and energy in things we are actually good at and can make a good living doing.

That’s one speech idea down,[7] one to go.  The second idea that came to mind as I indulged this little fantasy was the best advice ever given to me.  The circumstances of my receiving this advice were a bit unique, to say the least.  These words came from a homeless man I met while in college.  While on an outing to hand out blankets and sack lunches to some of the indigent population in Riverside, California, I met a tall, gray-haired man who singled me out from the group to tell me “Keep following Jesus.  His ways, not yours.”  Although those words didn’t relate to anything specific at the time, they have served as a good reminder as I have tried to navigate life’s highways and surface streets.

And that would be my This Is Water.

[1] I didn’t go to the graduation ceremony when I earned my masters.  It was an online program, so I had very little emotional attachment to the school or my classmates.  I just waited for the diploma to arrive in the mail after my thesis was approved, and had a party with family and friends.  I got an iPod.

[2] The forty-minute drive to and from work gets a bit dull at times.  What better opportunity to indulge in a little ego-centrism, imagining myself in the spotlight as I give an official send-off to a bunch of naïve graduates in front of hundreds of spectators?

[3] Everyone knows, and I think you point out in your speech, that there is very often little practical application to a formal education.  Most often the diploma – the piece of paper – itself is the true goal of education.  That is usually all that matters in the real world.

[4] I know that he (or the writer of that episode’s script) is not the one who coined the phrase, but he is the last noteworthy person I remember hearing say it… at least I think I remember him saying it.  I’ll have to look that up later.

[5] Plus, I hear that using hand-motions helps make synaptic connections.  It’s a proven pedagogical technique.  One so effective that it doesn’t matter how much a bridesmaid has had to drink, she’s going to know every word of “YMCA” and stagger out on the dance floor to make an absolute fool of herself.  Those Village People knew what’s up.

[6] You can see how well that worked out for me.

[7] Just insert a great opening joke – probably involving leaders of various religious groups entering an establishment that serves intoxicating beverages – some witty anecdotes, and maybe even hand-motions.


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