Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Commencement Address

Here's the text of the commencement address I gave Friday evening in Easthampton, Mass.

Members of the Class of 2012...Your parents…families…friends…faculty…

Principal Dr. Perrone…Superintendent Follansbee…The School Committee…

And all you guys out there in the cheap seats…

I’m honored to be here to help you celebrate the last graduation ceremony wo be held on the grounds of this building.

First thing I’d like to do here. I’d like everyone out there who graduated from Easthampton High School, including those of you who graduated from the old school on Park Street. .. To stand up. If you’re already standing up, raise your hand. Here’s to you, my fellow Eagles.

We all have much in common with you the class of 2012. You guys have Jersey Shore. We had Dinah Shore. You guys have The Hunger Games. We had The Dating and Newlywed Games. You have Lady GaGa. We had Lady Zsa Zsa.

We had sock hops. You have hip hop. You have Katie Perry. We had Perry Mason.

A lot of us had the Red Sox, and a lot of you’re stuck with them, too.

How much of what I’m going to say will you remember? Who knows? What I do know is that I don’t remember who gave this address at my graduation in 1965. But I do remember one word he said.


Which is a military term for getting to know the territory, the unknown place to which troops are preparing to go.

So if you remember only 2 words of this address, I’ll be one up on whoever that guy was. I just hope the 2 words aren’t.. in conclusion.

Before I go any further I have a few questions. How many of you class of 2012ers want me to give the Looong version of my speech?

How many want the short version?

How many want me to text you my speech?

Don’t hold your breath.

Here’s the short version:

A few weeks before this building opened for business three friends and I got into this school. I won’t say we BROKE in. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is…

Why did we want to get in? We wanted to see what we were getting ourselves into. We were curious. We walked around, poked around. This was before any classes were held here. Any games played in the gym. There are thousands of memories now. The halls echo with them. The echoes of your voices will now be added to the chorus. The Echo. What a great name for your yearbook. Our yearbook.

So there we were in this building. Reconnoitering. When we heard a door slam shut. Heard footsteps. Someone ELSE was in the building. Was it an intruder, one whose mind was set on doing damage? To us? Was it an animal? A bear looking for a place in which to have some kind of fest. Or feast? Was it a boogie man?

No. It was something even more scary than that; it was a School Committee man!

Actually he was very nice. But he told us we shouldn’t be there, that we should leave. Pronto. So…

I was kicked out of high school, this high school, before it even officially opened.

Moral of story. Be curious. Curiosity will open all kinds of doors for you.

Getting back to your choice of hearing the short version. Good choice. Your time is valuable. You have promises to keep, and miles to go before you sleep…That’s not my line; I stole it from Robert Frost.

Short versions are often harder to write than long ones. The acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow once started writing a note after his daughter missed a day of school. She had a virus. Doctorow began, My daughter, Caroline…

Stopped. Thought to himself: Of course she’s my daughter. Who else would be writing this note but a parent?

He tossed the start of that note away. Began again. Please excuse my daughter…

Stopped writing. Thought: Why should I beg for her. She had a cold, she didn’t commit a crime.

He tossed that note away. On and on this novelist went. Starting. Failing. Again and again. Finally his wife said, “ I can’t TAKE this anymore.” She wrote the note. Took all of a minute. Sent it and her daughter off to school. What did Doctorow learn from this? “ Writing is difficult, “ he said. Especially the short form.”

Speaking of writing…

I was delighted to learn that your Senior Class Advisor, Robin Rowe is the school librarian. She knows books, and I do not envy her task: Her responsibility for getting all those books moved. Talk about precious cargo.

Books are the bricks high schools are made of. The brick layers? Your teachers. Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall speaks volumes. But it misses the point in some ways. You may think you’re just be another brick in the wall of this school. But if you think that’s the small role you play - I suggest you are wrong. You’re not just another brick in the wall. You ARE the wall. Without you the whole thing would be nothing.

One of my favorite people is Richard Rodriguez, a gay Mexican essayist: a one man diversity band.

Rodriguez wrote in one of his essays: “ You can be born again in this country. You can become a new man ( 0r woman ) You can even change your name. You can dye your hair. You can go to Muscle Beach and get a new body. That’s extraordinary.

Indeed it is.

Lesson? Grow up. But don’t grow out of your dreams. You were born once and might not like the cards you were dealt. The good thing about card games. You hang in there and another hand will be dealt. A better one. Perhaps.

Speaking of those who help us lean forward. Remember the names of your Easthampton High teachers, as I have remembered mine. Especially my English teachers, who helped steer me towards a life of reading and writing. Mr. Welch. Mr. Kennedy. And Mr. Rockey. Who died a few weeks ago. Goodbye Mr. Chips. Goodbye Mr. Rockey.

Among the many dumb things graduates like you hear this time of year is: Life is like high school. No it’s not. High school is like high school. You will never experience anything like this again.

There is one exception: In the life you’re about to drive into, it will be like high school in a way. When you want to go someplace real special, it will be hard to find a good parking space.

Graduates like you are being told all over the country this evening: You are the future. Your time will come and nonsense like that.

The class of 2012 isn’t just the future. Your tense is the present tense. Your time is now. But this will not last. This too shall pass. This wonderful evening will be as evanescent as the smoke in the wake of a fireworks show. Bang. The Sound and the fury, then gone with the wind.

Seven months from now people will be saying: That was SO 2012.

2012. So far from the early 60s when Easthampton was so, so different from what it is now. The mills in which my mother and father worked thrived, then started dying. My hometown was fast becoming the kind of town Springsteen sings about in My Hometown:

“…Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back…

To your hometown…”

They weren’t making things in the mills anymore. But a remarkable thing has happened to my hometown: The mills that once made elastic web and folding metal chairs have retooled.

Easthampton has reinvented itself. People are making it in Easthampton again. Artists. Writers. Restaurateurs. Shopkeepers.

Places like the Nash Gallery, run by my friend Marlies Stoddard, whose dad, Don Stoddard taught in this high school when I was here.

This reinvention of my hometown suggests to me that Emily Dickinson was right: Hope is the thing with feathers. You Eagles can learn much from how Easthampton has risen from the ashes of economic bad times. What this success story teaches is this: Be as elastic as the web made in this town once. Be flexible. Bounce back from hard times. Life can change in a New City Minute. Be prepared for change. One thing’s for sure in a world full of uncertainty; change will come.

Right after I graduated from EHS I went off to college: Norwich University. I didn’t even make it through my first semester. I failed. Miserably. Then I went to The University of Hartford, where I failed miserably again. Somebody was trying to send me a message: I wasn’t ready for college - and college wasn’t ready for me. I enlisted in the Air Force. It turned out to be four of the best years of my life. I got to live in England for two years. After I was discharged I went back to college. Sailed through 4 years of courses in just two years. Graduated cum laude. I was ready for college. Lesson: Failure is OK. Like curiosity, it can open doors for you.

And remember, the best hitter baseball has ever know, Ted Williams, batted .406 one year. Which means he failed 60 percent of the time he had an at bat.

Be elastic as the web, and be as strong as the metal folding chairs made in the mill where my father worked. I found two of those chairs in a consignment shop in North Carolina last year. The label stuck on the back of the chairs said made in Easthampton. At Hampden Specialty Products.

The chairs built in my father’s mill were built to last, and they have.

You members of the class off 2012 are also products of Easthampton. All of us here are proud of our past, and we’re so proud of the present, the gift to us that is you.

And now for the words you’ve been longing to hear.

In conclusion…

One of my all time favorite song’s is Townes Van Zandt’s “ To Live Is To Fly. “ Here’s some words from that song:

“ Forget most, remember some, but don’t turn none away. What you been is good and gone, all you keep’s the getting there.

To live’s to fly.”

Good luck. God Speed. Go Eagles. Go.



Swanee64 said...

Good to see you back on the Web! Sorry I couldn't be there, that we didn't catch up, and that it was a busy week for both of us. Glad you were able to post the oration! Did you see the graduation speech at Wellesley HS by David McCullough fils? It is an interesting YouTube post. Best Wishes for a summer in SC!

Swanee64 said...

Sorry I missed your speech and that we didn't catch up. Missed opportunity (I was on the golf course when you went by Admissions). Good to read your oration--and that you made it back safely if annoyingly to SC! Have you seen the Wellesley HS speech by David McCullough fils? Google it; maybe you too can go viral!

happygrammi said...

Thanks for posting this. Wow! You are truly amazing! I just love the way you write. Wish I could have been there to hear you.

Terrence said...

Thanks Swanee

Thanks Happygrammi

Kathryn D. said...

Enjoyed this very much!

Great Job!