Dear Class of 2022,
There’s nothing I can type in these paragraphs that will surpass Taylor Swift’s terrific commencement speech for New York University earlier this month.
Look it up on YouTube. That’s how you give a commencement speech.
Kurt Vonnegut gave great commencement speeches. They put a book together of his speeches called, “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young.”
Buy that book. It’s completely free of empty platitudes. I read it every few years even though I am no longer young.
I should read it this year. I am a part of the Class of 2022. I earned my master’s degree from Drake University earlier this month.
When I graduated from Drake for the first time, in 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a column called “Advice, like, probably just wasted on the young.”
That sounds cynical, as journalists often do, but it was a lovely column that began with an excellent piece of advice: “Wear sunscreen.”
The column became one of the first viral pieces of writing in the early days of the internet.
And like viral things on the internet, it was often misattributed.
One line, “Do something every day that scares you,” was incorrectly credited to Eleanor Roosevelt.
The whole thing was attributed to Vonnegut.
Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann turned the column into a hit single. He read it word-for-word and properly attributed it to Schmich, who got royalties.
The song streams online and the column can be found out there, too.
This is the long way of me saying I don’t have any better advice than these fine people when it comes to graduation.
I remember a few things about graduation from being both a student and a teacher this year.
For example, I remembered senioritis. I forgot how done with it one is by the time they get to the last lap of high school or college.
I never expected to have senioritis three times in my life, but even the luster of graduate school — where one might expect to find the most studious minds — fades near the finish line.
Each milestone, no matter how minor, seems like a Sisyphean task. It just feels like you’re never going to get to the end.
And then you do.
There’s supposed to be this great release.
It’s more like a great relief.
Senior years are stressful.
Everything is “the last” of something: last homecoming, last game, last prom, last finals tests, and so on.
The process wears on students, especially in high school.
Imagine all the hype for the Super Bowl, but about once every two weeks for something at school.
Maybe it goes well.
Maybe it’s a bomb.
Or maybe it’s just “meh.”
Hype seldom helps.
The challenge should be to take things as they come, and enjoy life as a journey and not a destination.
Pause occasionally, as our friend Mr. Vonnegut suggested, and ask, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
We aren’t set up this way.
Our culture values milestones and celebrations.
Small moments, the ones that we hold dear for the rest of our life, get washed out in the big bombast of pomp and circumstance.
Graduation is important. You successfully completed a largely preplanned series of steps toward a goal.
The market values that.
Life values that.
You’ve demonstrated you can learn.
I worry that we haven’t done much that demonstrates we can live.
I recall a fishing trip with Dad 2.0, the kindly east Des Moines printer who raised me after my parents died.
I was 15. We were out on his canoe. I fidgeted. I would rather be back at the air-conditioned trailer reading comic books.
Had I been a modern teenager, I would have scrolled through my phone.
Dad 2.0 recognized my disquiet. Now, I don’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like this.
“You know, you’re lucky,” he said. “The world is a noisy place and getting noisier every day. But right now, all there is nature.”
“You know what the sun feels like on your skin, the still of the water in this lake.”
“You know how it feels for the sun to come up in the morning and how it feels when the day changes to night.”
“Most people let those things pass them by, but that’s the good stuff.”
So, if I have any advice at all, Class of 2022, it’s this: Find some quiet and enjoy the good stuff.
A former journalist and future teacher Daniel P. Finney writes a column for the Marion County Express.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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