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Essay: Speech for a High School Graduate

5 minute read
Roger Rosenblatt

Others will exhort you to take risks, to be yourself, never to look back or lose your faith. Not I. If the truth be told, I do not want you to take risks. Oh, maybe a selected few to preserve your selfesteem, but not the killing kind of risk, nothing netless.

As for being yourself, that’s fine, as long as you are happy with yourself. Otherwise, be someone else. You’ll find your way; most everyone does. Never to look back? I’d say look back quite often.

If you don’t look back, you won’t know it was you who smashed the china. Never to lose faith? Of course you will. People lose their faith.

So what truth can I give you, my college-boy-to-be, on your way out? You’d think I would be able to produce something.

Words are supposed to spill from writers’ minds like shrimp, especially on momentous occasions like graduations, weddings, funerals; we do it all. Instead, I reach in my desk for some verbal pocket watch to wrap up for you in tissue paper, and come up blank. Too dazed or polite, you stare at my face the way Telemachus must have stared on the beach at Ithaca, searching for Ulysses among the sailors.

Should I offer you wishes? Poets have done that for their children from time to time. In Frost at Midnight Coleridge wishes his son Hartley a life surrounded by nature. I could wish the same for you, though I have less trust in nature’s benevolence.

Still, Mary McCarthy said something interesting in an interview recently, that “our perception of the world and our values stem absolutely from the possibility of some reasonably true perception of nature—which is gradually disappearing and will soon become impossible.” That could be so. Myself, I like watching the ocean.

Yeats wished for his girl a sense of ceremony and tradition in A Prayer for My Daughter. I’d repeat that wish for you, as long as you did not turn into a snob, like Yeats. In This Side of the Truth, Dylan Thomas, probably hoping to protect himself, wished that his son Llewelyn would hold all judgments in abeyance. “Each truth,” he wrote, “each lie, dies in unjudging love.” That I will not wish for you.

Have your love and your judgment too.

If not wishes, how about aphorisms?

Everyone can use an aphorism. I wish I could remember one, something especially Delphic or brilliant from The Consolation of Philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran. Charlie Chan said: “Evidence like nose on anteater.” Does that count? Russians are better at such things. Once in my earshot Lillian Hellman observed: “A crazy person is crazy all the time.” I have frequently found that valuable, particularly when in the company of a crazy person who is, for the moment, lucid. Confucius said: “Filial piety is the constant requirement of Heaven.” That seems to me an excellent aphorism.

What would you say to purely tactical advice? Over the years I picked up several emotional maneuvers that might serve you well as contingency plans. When lonely, for example, read murder mysteries; I find them soothing. When angry, choose solitude. When lovesick, do push ups, run a mile or two, or step out with the boys; I don’t know why that helps, but it does. When bored, see the movie Bringing Up Baby. When in despair, dress to the nines. I often wear a white shirt to work when I want to pit elegance against the fates. You might try that. (Do you own a white shirt?) When glum, call home.

Or should I present you with a parable? You’ve probably heard the ones about the good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

No matter. Neither parable applies to you. You were born a good Samaritan and prodigality has never been one of your problems. Frankly, I do not know a work of moral fiction that could improve your character, for it has always seemed to your mother and me (admittedly prejudiced but not blind) that your character never needed much improving. I have not known anyone more fairminded, more considerate, more able to swallow disappointment. Not from me did you get these things. Why should I expect to give you something special now?

Unless, as in the old days, you would like a story. This is a true one (I can swear to it), about a father and a son in a playground twelve years ago, in the spring, around noon. The boy was five. He had a basketball, which he dribbled off his toes half the time, and which he kept shooting at the hoop—underhand, both hands, straining to reach the rim. The father sat on a bench and watched. The boy kept at it. Then some bigger boys sauntered over, snatched the ball away and shot around, leaving the five-year-old watching too.

Gearing up for the rescue, the father asked his son if he wanted him to retrieve the ball. The boy said, “No. I think I can handle it.” Which he did, simply by standing among the others patiently, occasionally catching the ball and passing it to one of them, until one of them eventually passed it to him. That’s all there is to that story. The five-year-old continued to play ball, and his father sat in the sun. Goodbye, my boy.

—By Roger Rosenblatt

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