Note: Last week, and a very difficult week it was, our guidance counselor asked me to “offer some words of wisdom” for the upcoming senior milestone dinner, and I agreed, though it’s a difficult task if you don’t like trafficking in clichés.
So what follows is a sort of rough draft, which I’ll more or less memorize, and then deliver it to the seniors, their parents, my colleagues, and whoever else shows up.
Good evening and first I’d like to congratulate the class of 2017, and all of the people who have helped you reach this point: your grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, the obstetricians/midwives who brought you into the world, everybody — because no one who has ever made a speech like this has failed to mention that you had a lot of help along the way, and you did.
Mrs. Kimberly has asked me if I might convey some “words of wisdom” as you prepare to leave this familiar place, so I’m going to give it a shot, and at the very least end this talk with the best advice about succeeding in college there is. So stay tuned.
One of life’s biggest challenges is staying awake – and I don’t mean that in the literal sense of not dozing off as you’re tooling down the Crosstown but staying awake to the wonders of the world.
Wordsworth has a sonnet that starts
The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,
Little we see in nature that is ours,
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.
What Wordsworth means, I think, is that the day-to-day grind blinds us to the miracles of being. Focused on the upcoming chemistry exam or speeding ticket court date, we don’t notice the wren perched on branch above singing its heart out or the glint of sunlight on the distant river or maybe even the river itself.
We forget [acid head voice] that, like, hey, man, we’re on the third planet from the sun swirling in concert with a spiral galaxy spinning like a Frisbee through interstellar space.
A had a jolt a couple of months that reminded me of my own place in nature. My son Harrison and his wife Taryn gave Judy and me a DNA test kit so we could check out our ancestry. When the results came in and I logged on to discover my makeup, the first thing I noticed was the drawing of a cave man and the message “You have 58% more Neanderthal DNA than the general population.”
“Ah ha. That explains a lot. My deep-set eyes, prominent brow, inability to factor quadratic equations.”
Now, Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago. Let’s for the sake of argument say a generation is 30 years. That means, in my case, it took 1,333 successful matings to come up with me. If my Neanderthal Mema had died in childbirth from an older sibling, I wouldn’t be here. Ditto if my sub-Saharan ancestor had stepped on a snake or my Norse ancestor hadn’t raped and pillaged that Irish village. You get the picture. It’s the same with everyone everywhere. That we exist at all is truly miraculous. We’ve all had miraculous births.
One of the most universal human myths – it extends from Borneo the Hebrides – is the hero’s journey. The hero, like you, has had a miraculous birth, and, like you, is called to leave his home on a quest of discovery. You’re at the part of the journey called “crossing the threshold.” Having mastered crawling, walking, riding a bike, reading, writing, calculating, solving equations, understanding the rise and fall of empires, conjugating another language’s verbs, it’s time to go.
You’re leaving the familiarity of your home to encounter new and strange beings, and, of course, it’s not going to be all smooth sailing. You’re going to be tested in more ways than one.
The good news is that you’ve been equipped with an excellent education, not only academically but also in the realm of ethics. My charge to you is not only to stay awake to the miracles surrounding you but to also strive to be a good person because I sincerely believe that if you don’t live a life of integrity you won’t be truly happy. I say this not only in the context of my own experience but also in what great literature tells us about the human condition.
Each night we go to sleep assured that the sun will rise again in the morning; however, of course, one morning it won’t, at least for us. Keep in mind the immense unlikelihood of your existence, your miraculous birth, the beauty of the world. Look up more than occasionally at that night sky Hamlet calls a “majestic roof fretted with golden fire.” Step boldly over that threshold into adulthood with your eyes and ears wide open. In other words, wide awake.
How great, how exciting to be just now venturing forth.
Oh yeah, that surefire advice about succeeding in college. I promise each and every one of you will be successful if you follow this one instruction:
GO TO CLASS!
It’s harder than you might think.
To all my former students, it’s been an honor teaching you, and certainly an honor addressing all of you tonight. I wish you all the very best.