I vividly remember three years ago watching my brother graduate from GW on the National Mall. That was the year first lady Michelle Obama gave the Commencement address.
There had been so much hype about the speech. The student body worked all year to log 100,000 service hours to lock her in as the headliner.
But what was most memorable about Obama’s speech was how unmemorable it really was. I can vaguely remember her talking about how students should never give up.
To be fair, it wasn’t a bad speech. I just felt like I’d heard it all before – and I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.
Now that I’m set to graduate in May, I’ve been thinking about what this year’s keynote speaker, actress and alumna Kerry Washington, might say to the Class of 2013.
I’ve spent some time reading and watching a number of commencement speeches. And after consideration, I realized that the best graduation speeches are those that avoid showering the students with praise about their accomplishments. The best graduation speeches tell the audience something they don’t want to hear – something that makes people a little uncomfortable.
That’s the purpose of college: to debunk everything you’ve been taught for so many years – to tell the unpleasant truth. It’s the notion that what you thought you knew all along is really a sham. It’s that horrifying realization that what you thought was the truth – that what looked and felt so obviously real on the surface – was nothing but hot air.
When I think of a good graduation speech, I think about former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon’s address at Georgetown University last year. Simon is famous for his HBO series The Wire about the drug trade in Baltimore. He told the Class of 2012 something quite unconventional, and it offended some.
“For starters, my generation probably owes yours an apology. Because, hey, we definitely shanked it. We choked. We let ourselves get distracted with greed, with gloss, with the taste of the bread and the glitz of the circuses. We took our eyes off the prize,” he said.
These are harsh words. But at the same time, I don’t see how anyone could ever forget a line like that – an apology from one generation to the next.
It’s an example of honesty in its purest form, the kind that is all too rare when it comes to graduation speeches. We failed, and now it’s your duty and responsibility to fix it, Simon said. And the truth is, you’ll probably fail too.
What is lacking in a lot of commencement speeches is a dose of reality. It’s all too easy to search for words and metaphors that just brush the surface and leave the graduates with a pat on the back and a job well done. What was daring about Simon’s speech is that he didn’t sugarcoat anything. He effectively said our generation is inheriting a world plagued with injustice.
It’d be too simple for speakers to tell us stories of how they toiled for a few years only to emerge from the wilderness enlightened and ahead of the pack. I hope that’s not the case. At a time as uncertain as this one, in a job market that is both unforgiving and intimidating, the speaker would do us all a favor by speaking candidly.
In 2005, novelist David Foster Wallace didn’t tell Kenyon College graduates that their lives would be happy from here on out. In fact, he said quite the opposite.
“The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means,” he said. “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”
Wallace was honest with his audience. He didn’t romanticize the years ahead. He was realistic.
If I have one wish for the graduation speaker this year, it’s that she’s honest with us. I hope she doesn’t tell us how special and wonderful we all are. I hope she doesn’t leave us with inflated egos.
I hope Washington catches us off guard. If she’s willing to do that and step outside the bounds of what’s popular and superficial, she might just deliver a speech that people still remember 20 years from now.
Patrick Rochelle, a senior majoring in English, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.
This article appeared in the March 25, 2013 issue of the Hatchet.