Here’s the valedictorian speech I gave May 5, 2007, at my alma mater. At the end of it, the president of the college didn’t even clap. The crowd, however, loved it, and I made the bishop laugh. If you’re thinking about giving a similarly reckless speech, I recommend going for it as long as you’re not too set on that whole “being allowed to graduate” thing.
If I had to describe college in one word, it would be this: oops. You might forget what you learn from reading a book, but you’ll never forget what you learn from sticking your finger in a power outlet. That pretty much summarizes the college experience: it’s quick, it’s shocking, and it makes you smell like burned hot dogs. If you’re not firmly grounded, you’re going to die, and if you’re not smart, you’re going to do it again. Some kids put their finger in a power outlet two or three times before they learn their lesson. Some college students decide to go to graduate school.
Learning from our mistakes is part of growing up. We might not have the maturity or life experience to be adults, but many of us have certainly lost enough hair and gained enough weight to play the part. Every day, we become more and more like our parents, but our parents, too, are changing. Like everything else in this world, they’ll soon grow old and start to smell funny. To deal with them, we’re going to need a little bit of patience and a lot of air fresheners. Stock up accordingly.
Your parents aren’t going to be around forever, so maintain good relations with your other family members, as well. Should things go wrong, they’re your most likely source for an emergency blood transfusion or a spare kidney. Be nice to your friends, too, assuming they have the same blood type as you. If not, make better friends.
A college education isn’t just about exploring your role as a friend and family member. It’s also about civic duty. Know the law. In Indiana, stealing lawn gnomes is a felony, but spousal abuse is only a misdemeanor. That means wives are less valuable than lawn gnomes in the eyes of the state. It also means that if you do steal a lawn gnome, you’ll get a much more lenient sentence if you marry it first. On a related note, never, ever write a valedictorian speech after attending a senior event that features an open bar. Also, don’t steal lawn gnomes.
The world is full of these kinds of complex responsibilities, which is why college instills in us the skills we need to avoid them entirely. There comes a point in every student’s career when he or she realizes that the required reading absolutely, positively needs to be done … sometimes … maybe … assuming there’s nothing good on TV. The same goes for written assignments. There are two great fictions in North America: One is Santa Claus. The other is a term paper that’s worth starting early. With a little planning and a lot of panic, there’s nothing that can’t be overcome through the power of procrastination. I’m convinced a cure for cancer could be developed in an evening if scientists just put it off until the night before it was due.
College trains us how to squeak by in an educational environment, but that’s not the point; the point is learning how to squeak by in the real world. That world is a lot easier to manage if you know nothing about it, so I recommend turning off the news. Major media outlets exist for the sole purpose of hyping the latest Armageddon fad, and there are plenty of them. Yesterday it was the Ebola virus. Today, it’s global warming. Tomorrow, it’ll be squirrels laced with anthrax. I’ve already seen the edition of the paper they’re working on for tomorrow, so you can trust me on that one. At this point, it’s hard to think of anything that’s not going to bring about the end of civilization as we know it. I’m sure somebody out there has a petition right now supposed to fix all of these things, but quite frankly it’s a lot more satisfying to be part of the problem then to be part of the solution. Sometimes it’s fun to be on the winning team. If you need me tomorrow, I’ll be with the anthrax squirrels.
Higher education isn’t just about becoming a better person; it’s also about learning a better way of life. Old inhibitions erode away, and old bad habits are replaced with newer, much more destructive ones. Exercise, but not too often. Drink, but not too much. Swear at inopportune times in front of large crowds of people … just not when the bishop is sitting right behind you … or at least not until after they hand you your diploma. I’ll see you all in twenty minutes. Remember, it doesn’t end today. There are all sorts of other occasions when you’ll have to get dressed up and sit in a hot, uncomfortable room for an unbearably long period of time. Life is all about ending up places you don’t want to be and listening to people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and deal with it. But for right now, the only thing we have to deal with is moving on with our lives. Congratulations to the class of 2007. Let’s graduate.