Congratulations to the Class of 2015!
Thank you for the opportunity to address you on this, the day of your commencement. I have only been at two commencements prior to this. Each holds valuable lessons that IÕd like to pass on to you.
The first commencement I attended was my own college graduation. Two things stood out. My parents banged on the door on my room to wake up me and my girlfriend, who only a few short years later became my first wife. And later that day my nose was badly sunburned sitting in the stadium during the ceremony.
The lessons are quite clear: first, donÕt ever marry your college sweetheart, and second, always wear sunscreen. In the former case, since I had the emotional maturity of an eleven year old when I graduated, marital failure was fairly predictable. But after getting divorced I was remarried a mere six years later, only six-tenths of a decade, to the love of my life. WeÕre married yet today, proving that sometimes things work out.
The other commencement I attended was as a young professor. I was chosen by the departmentÕs leading student to join him and to represent the department. We kibitzed throughout the ceremony and were eyeballed by the dean, who had a hand in firing me some short time later, proving that sometimes things donÕt work out.
These lessons notwithstanding, it is incumbent upon me to say that, inasmuch as you all are graduating, there is at least the possibility that some of you have heard the phrase Ōhard work.Õ Knowing as I do the academic level of this and other institutions, it seems unlikely that many of you are directly acquainted with the concept. But IÕm here to tell you two more things. First, itÕs not your fault. Since all of you were small children youÕve been told that youÕre special, and moreover that feelings count more than facts, that giving offense is the worst thing imaginable and that while you as individuals are terribly special, our civilization as a whole is especially terrible. ŌWorkÕ hardly figured into any of this.
But IÕm also here to tell you to fear not, your hour of liberation is at hand. The act of commencing with your lives means getting on with things, and so I urge you all to begin by forgetting pretty much everything youÕve learned during the past four years. It was hugely irrelevant to begin with; your high schools teachers and guidance counselors knew it, everyone here from the guy who shovels snow to the college president knew it, and now you know it. In fact, some of you, possibly most of you, suspected as much along the way. And pretty much nothing that you studied besides Chinese or math will do you the slightest bit of good out there. Your self-esteem, and your personal sense of being either a victim or a victimizer, or both, will really do you very little good unless you decide to enter what is accurately called the Ōnon-profit sector.Õ
In the equally well-named Ōreal world,Õ corporations and other employers will either demand that you zip it or they will send you to reeducation classes to learn how to read and write. As for your expensively earned Ōcritical thinking skills,Õ these will come in handy mostly when you read menus. For example, how many of you know the difference between Chow Mein and Low Mein?
Sometimes things donÕt work out, but donÕt feel too bad. Like millions of others youÕve been sold a bill of goods and swallowed it hook, line and sinker (that, by the way, is called a Ōmixed metaphor,Õ and this brief digression is proof that, in fact, learning doesnÕt stop with college but is a life-long journey). Indeed, college is really just beginning. Perhaps the best way to look at it is to think of college like my first marriage Š it seemed like the thing to do at the time, there were some really fun moments, but ultimately it was a disastrous waste of time. Of course, your college education involved much more money than my first marriage, proving perhaps that no analogy is completely accurate. In any case, what matters is what you do with yourselves next, how you pick yourselves up, look at yourselves in the mirror and admit, shit, I really screwed up, I made a decision that wasted a whole lot of time and money. You need to really take ownership of that failure, assume responsibility, then forgive yourself and say, now IÕm ready to move on. The monthly checks you write to pay off your student loans will remind you of how you ultimately triumphed over your mistakes.
Most of you shouldnÕt have been here in the first place. And thatÕs ok too, we all know about parents and about peer pressure. You and they bought into the myth that a degree in English actually prepared you for something, or that Sports Marketing was a topic best studied in college. Had you gone to technical school you could be making excellent money repairing air conditioners, much better in fact than what most of you will make in the next few years making coffee for people who repair air conditioners. You could also be reading Marcel Proust or John Grisham in your spare time like the rest of us. And itÕs ok that you got caught up with football or drugs or ethnic studies or poetry or STDÕs. Really, distractions are what this place is all about. But again, to commence means to begin. HereÕs your chance to put it all behind you and to really begin, by forgetting everything and starting fresh.
Remember, it doesnÕt much matter whether you ŌlikeÕ what you do, it may not even matter if youÕre good at it, now you need to make money to buy food, shelter and clothing. So find a job, preferably one that doesnÕt make you totally miserable or something you completely suck at, and just do it. YouÕll quickly learn the satisfaction that comes with hard work and a job well done, or at least with getting paid and not living with your parents, or maybe starving.
But, you ask, what about me? My goals, my plans, my desire to contribute, to change the world? These are good and honest feelings, but theyÕre completely irrelevant, and chances are theyÕre unachievable. And even if they could be achieved - and I say this in all honesty and with a heart filled with warm, moist feelings toward each and every one of you - the fact is that almost to a man and/or woman- your heads are filled with such ridiculous mush that it would be a catastrophe of Biblical proportions if even one of your dreams for the world came true. The world is a bad enough place as it is, and I sincerely apologize for that, but your adolescent wish fulfillment and dark visions of romantic violence will not make things better. In time, some of you will indeed take your place as societyÕs leaders, then, in the fullness of maturity you will have the chance to screw the place up with your fully baked visions of salvific domination, exploitation and of course, vengeance. For now I counsel patience.
Keep your dreams in the bedroom where they belong and where they can do the least harm. To make the world a better place, please, I beg you, for the love of God, shut the hell up and just get a job, maybe assembling sprinklers or designing lasers, or writing software or growing corn or something. Because if we want things to work out we need to actually MAKE THINGS AND NOT RUN OUR MOUTHS OFF ABOUT HOW MUCH THINGS SUCK AND HOW I TOTALLY DESERVE TO GET THIS GRANT TO MAKE A FILM ABOUT HOW THE LIVES OF INUIT HUNTERS HAVE BEEN IMPACTED BY OIL DRILLING AND HOW PATRIARCHY IS REIFYING THE INEQUALITY INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM AND HOW THE GLORIOUS RESISTANCE WILL ATTACK THE FOUNDATIONS OF EMPIRE AND THIS TOTALLY COOL BAND OUT IN BROOKLYN THAT I HEARD ABOUT FROM THIS GUY AT THE GYM AND
I see that my time is almost up. In conclusion, we do the best we can to go beyond our former selves, and by wearing sunscreen we substantially reduce the risk of skin cancer. So good luck to the class of 2015! WeÕll be following your Tweets to see howÕs its going.
© 2011 Alex Joffe