My Speech to the Graduates: Don’t Listen to Graduation Speakers

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

No institution has invited me to be the speaker at graduation, and none is ever likely to do so.

But I feel compelled to offer this speech to gradates. So in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut — great American novelist who knew how to give a graduation speech — I’ll start by telling you exactly what I want you to learn from this speech:

Don’t listen to graduation speakers.

Now that I have the main point out of the way, I want to share why I feel compelled to offer this speech to graduates, a speech I will never give, and I have two reasons:

  1. A book of Kurt Vonnegut speeches has been published, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young, and I recommend you either buy a copy or ask for one as a graduation gift.
  2. First Lady Michelle Obama gave a May 2014 commencement address that is troublesome for me in its portrayal of the relationship between parents and teachers:

So my mother volunteered at my school — helping out every day in the front office, making sure our teachers were doing their jobs, holding their feet to the fire if she thought they were falling short. I’d walk by the office and there she’d be. (Laughter.) I’d leave class to go to the bathroom, there she’d be again, roaming the halls, looking in the classrooms. And of course, as a kid, I have to say, that was a bit mortifying, having your mother at school all the time.

But looking back, I have no doubt that my classmates and I got a better education because she was looking over those teachers’ shoulders. (Applause.) You see, my mom was not a teacher or a principal or a school board member. But when it came to education, she had that hunger. So she believed that our education was very much her business.

Next is the part I opened by asking you to ignore — the part where I offer what I learned from my parents and how that differs greatly from the image Michelle Obama created about teachers who needed their feet held to the fire when they were falling short.

I want to focus on two lessons from my parents.

First, my father lived by a creed he repeated often to me: Do as I say and not as I do.

And this lesson is not what my father intended, but it taught me that adults often are hypocritical, especially in their interactions with children and young people (the same adults who implore children to work hard and be nice, do neither themselves). So the lesson I learned — don’t be a hypocrite — is one basis for my speech’s main thesis:

Don’t listen to graduation speakers.

Graduation speakers are apt, I have found, to offer my father’s advice (Do as I say and not as I do), thinly veiled behind a number of rhetorical strategies that the speakers themselves likely did not write.

Second, like Michelle Obama, I learned powerful lessons about teachers and education from my parents. But my parents impressed upon me that teachers deserved my unwavering respect and that teaching was a noble thing for any person to do.

If my parents had concerns about a teacher, that was rarely uttered in my presence, and if I ever crossed any lines of improper behavior or shoddy work as a student, my parents assured my teachers that would change and that the teachers had my parents’ full support in seeing that I never stumbled again.

So for all of Michelle Obama’s good intentions in her message, I would prefer a little less holding people’s feet to the fire and a little more let’s all be in this together. Something that could honor the dignity of everyone involved, teachers, parents, and the children in their care.

The result of this second lesson from my parents— one distinct from the picture Michelle Obama painted about teachers? I have been a teacher for over 30 years.

My parents are very proud of me for having dedicated my life to a noble profession. They do not see me as someone who needs my feet held to the fire, as someone who must be watched because I am likely to fall short.

And I am proud to call myself a teacher. But I too often cringe at the ways in which teachers fail our students and our profession.

Like all humans in all professions, teachers can be calloused, compliant to a fault, overworked, and inhibited by our own biases that remain unexamined.

But for teachers of children, these faults have dire consequences and cannot be much or too long tolerated, I agree.

Now, here toward the end, I want to include what all graduation speakers are expected to offer, advice.

I could have spent my career so far making more money than I have as a teacher, but my profession is a profession of service and the benefits of dedicating myself to that service is more than enough to counterbalance the filthy lucre I have not earned.

So I am telling you without an ounce of hypocrisy or without the usual lip-service that accompanies this advice in the U.S.: Dedicate your life to something that matters to you because you have only this one life, and the pursuit of money and things will always prove hollow in the long run if those pursuits keep you from the things and people that matter.

In the off chance that you didn’t take the paradoxical advice of this speech, I must end in the only way I can in full sincerity, leading you again to the world of Kurt Vonnegut.

Eliot Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater implores:

Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — :

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (p. 129)

The adult world is filled with abundant mean-spirited hypocrisy, and you can certainly do better.

I hope that you will.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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