Two commencement address recently were rebloggable. First, an old Neil Postman one that was never actually given, but still has a beaut of an opener:
Members of the faculty, parents, guests, and graduates, have no fear. I am well aware that on a day of such high excitement, what you require, first and foremost, of any speaker is brevity. I shall not fail you in this respect. There are exactly eighty-five sentences in my speech, four of which you have just heard.
Also, one from Willie Brown:
I’ve done a lot of graduation speeches in my time, but none compared to one I recently delivered at the lockup unit of San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center, otherwise known as juvenile hall.
It was for the GED graduation class.
It have to admit that I had my doubts as I was being patted down by the guards. All I could think of was: Michelle Obama is speaking at Spelman College and I’m speaking at juvie hall.
But it all melted away as I entered the room where 10 kids were waiting in gowns and mortar boards with their parents.
Now, some of these kids are in there for some very serious crimes, including murder, so I knew the ceremony wasn’t going to be full of the usual platitudes about standing on the threshold of life.
The valedictorian was a bright young man who opened by talking about how, at age 8, he had joined a gang because his older brother had been killed. And how his brother had been the one person he admired.
He went into all that followed, and how it landed him where he was now – and about how he now needs to work his way out of it.
He ended by saying he’s looking forward to continuing his education, even getting a college degree – behind bars, if he’s not out by then.
When my turn came, I told the kids they had to understand that rules are the rules, and that they had followed the rules to earn a GED. That constitutes a certain key toward your freedom, I told them.
Now once you get this GED, I said, you’ve got to know what the next key is – so one day you won’t be in here celebrating an achievement, you’ll be out there celebrating an achievement.
When I walked out of there, my only thought was that if only one of those cats was impressed enough to say, “I’m going to get that key,” it would be worth more than the whole stack of honorary degrees I’ve been handed over the years.