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You are here, I am told, because you made it. You fulfilled the requirements, satisfied the criteria of your studies and now will be rewarded with a diploma. Congratulations!
In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons? Where has your learning been its deepest and most rewarding? What are you proud of? To whom are you grateful?
I ask these questions because in my experience, some of the best graduation speakers turn out to be the students themselves. Often they are selected by their peers. When you speak as a student, you can address the graduating class as peers. You know what many have been through because you were there. And now as you sit, organized perhaps alphabetically, or by discipline or a combination of those, you may be sitting next to some people you know well and near others whom you perhaps hardly know. Yet whoever stands up here where I am now may be hard pressed to recognize you as anything other than a collective, a class of, yes, graduates.
I want to change that. Rather than have me talk to you or about you for 8 or 15 or 30 minutes. I want us to do something different with this time we have been allocated. I want you spend some time talking to each other. I want you to spend five minutes (2:30 for each person) responding to one of the questions I posed at the beginning. Each of you will have 2:30 to respond without interruption. I will signal when the time is up and then ask you to switch places. I want everyone here to participate, not only the graduates. Speak to the person next to you or behind you and share your responses. Listen without interruption until you hear the signal. Then switch and tell your story.
Find a partner you will speak with and raise your hand to let me know you are ready. We are a lot of folks here, so please hold off with your conversation until the signal, just raise your hand silently to show me that you’ve found a partner.
Looks like just about everybody has a partner. Great!
Here are the questions to which you may respond. Pick one: (Displayed on giant screen)
- In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons?
- Where has your learning been its deepest and most rewarding?
- What are you proud of?
- To whom are you grateful?
First partner, are you ready to tell your story? Okay, begin. (Full buzz of thousands of conversations unleashed)
(at 2:00) You have about 30 more seconds, partner 1.
(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!
Partner number 2, are you ready to share your story? Okay, begin. (Even louder, more animated buzz)
(at 2:00) Partner 2, you have about 30 more seconds.
(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!
Continued buzz. Pause.
How did that feel?
Graduates, this is the opportunity that I continue to long for – creating entrances into meaningful conversation. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our family members. Even as we dance on this planet, many of us hyper-connected and often more in need of unplugging than of anythings else, meaningful, face to face dialogues which unlock our intellect as easily as our emotions may become scarce yet no less necessary to our thriving. And if you or I intend to make a dent in the world, then we must understand that our significant dialogues need to extend beyond our most trusted circles.
You are leaving this ceremony with a degree in your hand. You know, too, that you have had classmates along the way who are not here with you. Classmates who have not yet made it to where you are. Right there is a space for dialogue which is often overlooked. The dialogue between graduate and drop out. What might you be able to learn from each other, to contribute to each other’s understanding of the world we inhabit, especially when you may each see the world very differently?
As a graduate, you enter adulthood in one form or another. There will be new demands upon your time, money and wits. You likely have friends and family who are in your corner rooting for you. What kinds of new conversations will you be having with your parents, siblings, grandparents? How will your freshly won independence express itself when you need to ask others for help?
Thinking about being able to live with yourself, what internal conversations do you need to have before you leave this place and head for the next? Even when you know what to do (get more sleep, exercise regularly, brush and floss daily), what gets in the way from acting on that knowledge sometimes? How do you bridge your own ‘knowing-doing gap’? How do you talk to yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself to make it alright again?
I raise these questions not to throw you into a philosophical crisis, but as signposts for the conversations I wish more of us would entertain. While dialogue, even with yourself, may not be the solution to the world’s problems, it strikes me as a perfectly fine place to start. Each of us is capable of becoming an effective listener. We can learn to respect and honor multiple perspectives. Without these capacities, I fear that your education is hollow and of limited use to the world.
Make your education useful: Become an expert on gaps.
Recognize the gaps that exist around you – through gender, race, class, education, health status, to name a few – and dare to stand in those gaps. No need to raise your hand anymore; raise your question. Question what is and perhaps try “what if?” Gather the responses. Investigate their sources and interrogate their meaning. Research possible ways forward. If your education has equipped you to do as much, we can all be well pleased.
Do not fear the gap; make the gaps you encounter an unending source of creativity.
What questions will you pose to the world?
What is life asking of you?
These are the questions that come up for me as I look at you in your caps and gowns. To me you all look lovely and promising and slightly uncomfortable.
I have often wondered about the purpose of commencement speeches. When they are good, they are often highly marketable after the fact, particularly if they are delivered by uniquely wise and well spoken members of the celebrity class. Yet what good do they do? What do you gain by listening to someone offer anecdotes, some encouragement and of course, a bit of advice? Speakers at graduations are of course talking to a much wider audience than just the graduates themselves. They are addressing parents and families of the graduates, the faculty and administration of the institution, and perhaps other invited members of prominence. Of course, you, the graduates, are the focus of these ceremonial activities but rest assured that there is much more going on than folks simply gathering here to say “Congrats!” and to wish you well. We have the pomp and circumstance along with apprehension and nervousness. We have joy and cheering along with tears and departures. A commencement address seems to be there to tide us over until we can get to the main course; to forestall a widespread emotional implosion should all the other parts move too quickly. That said, I have one more quick exercise for all of us before we go.
This exercise has two parts, the calm and the storm. During the calm we are going to go silent for yes, a whole minute. Use this time to breathe and simply be where you are, who you are right at this moment; nothing more, nothing less. Then, when you hear the signal,please stand up and give us a whopping loud cheer of celebration.
Here’s the calm.
(at 58 sec.) Now the STORM. (Very loud cheering from all angles !!!)
Congratulations, graduates and Thank you!