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Friday, June 24, 2011


So here we are.
This past Saturday, my alma mater, Northwestern University, held its commencement. I know this because their graduation speaker was esteemed alumnus Stephen Colbert, and his fabulous speech was all over the web within hours. 
My husband (also NU) and I watched this speech online with a great deal of jealousy. It was such a pretty ceremony, with regal purple robes set beautifully in front of bright blue Chicagoland skies. It had rained on our respective graduations, and my final college memory is sitting in a dull, black robe in the bleachers of a dimly lit sports arena, listening to a speaker who was very much not Stephen Colbert in all the worst possible ways. In a word: bleak.
Maybe it’s the YouTube effect, but it seems as though all the major universities are really stepping up their games when it comes to commencement speakers these days. Mine was best known for having a sitcom character loosely based on her, but that hardly meant she was as entertaining as a sitcom character. When asked, my husband couldn’t remember who his speaker was. This is a big deal, seeing as whenever we’re watching old TV shows, he can rattle off the résumés of the second and/or third guest stars with ease, or at least say something like:

I believe... that guy was in the monk episode of “The Odd Couple.”
And he’ll be right. So for him to instantly know that the girl who had a few lines in a third-season episode of Night Court was also in the movie H.O.T.S., but not know who his graduation speaker was, this is saying something.
We also watched Conan’s Dartmouth address, and heard about all of the other highly impressive -- and mostly famous -- people who dropped some wisdom on the collective asses of the Class of 2011. And then there was the New York Times roundup of most-used words in these speeches. All the usual suspects appeared: passion, faith, career, happiness, service, world, challenge, opportunity.
And it made me think that it’s time for a sea-change.

Think about it. It’s almost too easy to throw some wealthy, successful name with great hair behind a podium and have them say wonderful words of inspiration. Granted, I imagine that the “shiny speaker” feature is a vital part of the Sheepskin Deluxe Package at the pricier universities, more for the benefit of those who wrote the checks than for those who wear the caps and gowns:
Daddy, of course your money was well spent! Look! We got Amy Poehler! She was on the cover of New York Magazine last month and made the Time 100 list!
But let’s be real. It’s not only a tough world out there, it’s also a crap-filled trench of iniquity. Smart and talented young souls slowly devolve into bitter old souls who are no less smart or talented but are nonetheless slapped by life through no fault of their own. There are lessons to be learned from that. So let’s hear from a colossal failure at commencement.
I don’t want to hear about Conan’s “failure” that was cushioned by gigantic piles of cash and job offers. That really doesn’t count. No, I’m talking about someone who has been thoroughly disillusioned and financially devastated and who’s still trying to figure it all out. This would have a twofold effect: it would lower the bar of a naive graduate’s expectations from I’m gonna be a superstar just like that famous guy! to the more realistic Hey, if I can make it through a good life with my sanity intact, well, that’s just gravy. It would also show the dignity of living an ordinary life, and the kiddies need to see that; not just because the world actually runs courtesy of the anonymous worker bees, but also because half of the battle of life is being able to get out bed when the world is seemingly not worth getting out of bed for.
Or hell, even better, I want to hear from a hobo. There’s got to be loads of hobo wisdom out there. I don’t know what the New York Times round-up of those speeches would be like. It might include words like frugal, humility, boxcar, unknown, futility, contentment and beans. They may not be funny or even inspirational, but then again, what’s more inspirational than knowing the hard truths right out of the gate? And what’s a better graduation gift than the driving urge to not want to be a hobo... or the knowledge of how to turn an Amana box into a home should the need arise?
I’m aware that no self-respecting university will grant an honorary degree on a hobo. But man, what a great YouTube video that would make. 
And you can bet that if my husband had heard his commencement address from a hobo, he sure would have remembered his name... even if he never appeared on Emergency!.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.

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