by Frederick William Zackel
[I have always wanted to write my own commencement speech.]
I think everybody here should applaud you again for all you did and had to do to get here. No, seriously, give them another round of applause.
Hey, guys, I got a pop quiz for you. Yeah, your last one.
I call you guys because until recently I had two of my own kids in college, and I see you as being the same wonderful guys as them. And I am as happy for you, I am as proud of you, as I am of them. (Mostly.)
I say “guys” because saying “guys and gals” all the time sounds awkward as hell, and I hear women all the time on campus saying “guys” as a rallying cry. “Hey, guys, it’s get it together timer, so let’s focus and do it!”
This pop quiz has only one question.
What do you call the top one percent of any population?
Are they the ruling elite? The Ruling Class?
One percent of the population of this world are college graduates.
Congratulations on joining the Ruling Elite.
Being as how I am on the margins of society, if not clinging by the fingernails to the rim of the cliff, dangling in the abyss, I never expected I would get this opportunity to be a commencement speaker.
So, out of pure cussedness and flippancy, I decided to tell all you guys (and gals) this truth.
Some years ago I met a Brit. When I asked this Englishman how his day was going, he barked a laugh, slapped his leg, and said, “Absolutely standard!”
Took me a moment to realize he was pulling my leg.
How’s your day going?
Absolutely standard means absolutely ordinary.
This year there are about 20 million college students taking, maybe even attending, classes.
What you graduates are doing today is Absolutely … Standard. Few things in life are more routine than a commencement. Today is run-of-the-mill, folks. We do hundreds, no, thousands of commencements every year.
Isn’t that Absolutely Wonderful?
Some of you are yawning already.
Scientists think yawning is how human beings get a jet stream of energy to the brain. Notice how refreshed we are after we yawn. Well, that refreshed feeling is all that new energy jump-starting us again.
Yawning makes us more alert.
So I look out at all the yawns out there as celebrations of you and your folks waking up and paying attention to my words.
Today’s ceremony is one Big Yawn.
Do you guys buy that?
How ‘bout you folks in the bleachers? You guys in the folding chairs?
Today is a palimpsest of Yesterday. That means, what we know today comes from yesterday, and what we know today is fragmentary and imprecisely translated and then even less understood than yesterday was.
A “palimpsest” is a manuscript which has been re-used by scraping off the original text and writing over the top. A “palimpsest” is therefore “a recycled book.”
If you and I go to San Francisco tomorrow, we will buy a couple books, get a map maybe from the car rental agency, and even look online to find out the Greatest Adventures we can have in San Francisco.
And when we get there, we erase everything we know about San Francisco and we go out and make it Our Town.
Our San Francisco is a palimpsest of what others before us did in San Francisco.
I wish I could say that idea was mine. But it is not. That’s my take of what somebody else said that I erased and made mine.
We scrape off the old and print our own words on it.
I love the word palimpsest. Once anybody learns its meanings, how can anyone resist not using it at least once a week?
Palimpsest is a word we need in our daily life.
We build today on what we learned yesterday. That is what you guys are going to do. At least you better think that you will do better than what we did before you.
Off and on over the past few years the Taliban of Afghanistan machine-gunned little schoolgirls for going to school. And then they gut-shoot them, standing over their fragile bodies. The Taliban also burn, bomb and behead. So much for their visions and values.
Did you graduates know that “Taliban” means “students of theology” in Arabic?”
Yeah. Students of theology. If I were their teacher, I’d flunk them all to Hell for killing little girls who want to go to school. But that’s just me. And every religion has wacko teachers who pervert the teachings and make them ugly and wicked and evil and …
Remember going to school for the very first time? How you were scared of meeting your teacher and all those new guys. How would they look at you? How would you get along?
Would you be able to do okay in first grade, second grade, high school? In college? In university?
The last time I looked, only half the children of Afghanistan are able to attend school. A third of that half are the girls.
Goofy enough, Afghanistan has never before had such gloriously high enrollments. It is an Afghan tradition that girls don’t go to school. Killing little girls is new. The Taliban made that up.
But never before have so many Afghan boys and girls been in school. Even without the lunatic wackos that kill little girls because they go to school.
Afghanistan is learning that going to school is Absolutely Standard.
Like this commencement.
The Taliban, the jihadists, al Qaeda, all of them are dangerous losers on a global scale. Nobody
wants to hear their Side of the Story. Their zealotry has made them heartless vermin. They deserve extermination.
We kill a mad dog on the streets because we don’t want it mauling little kids.
I don’t know much about their women folk. I don’t know what permits women NOT to raise a stink when their men folk shoot little schoolgirls. I find it incomprehensible for any woman to stay with so vile a man. My guess is those women can’t see how to escape. That there’s a better life without those bums.
Consider this news just in from the outskirts. The New York City public school system alone has 80,000 teachers. I consider that small number in just one big city to be a great tribute to our Civilization.
This Civilization we have around the world is the worst of all cultures and societies, except for all the rest that came before. (Mostly.)
A most astonishing thing about Our Civilization is that we permit the hearts and minds of our children to be stolen from us. Yes, for instance, here in tiny, faraway Ohio, we can be truly grateful for the State of Ohio, the State Board of Regents, the University faculty and staff.
Woodrow Wilson once remarked that the purpose of a college education is to make a man as much unlike his father as possible. What an astonishing thing to say.
We send our kids, you guys, to college where we want you subjected to every weird, wacko, lunatic, bizarre, and downright dangerous Idea that Human Beings ever came up with. We want you to take quizzes and write essays and do research projects on all those dangerous ideas that might threaten Our Way of Life.
We send our kids, you guys, to college because we are positive that Our Visions and Values are so strong, so durable, so valuable, so useful, so enduring, that we will let our kids, you guys, put them on trial and up against Every Other Vision and Value our instructors can lecture upon.
We believe Our Visions and Values will prevail in the Marketplace of Ideas.
Even when we despise the whole idea of a Marketplace of Ideas.
And we figure if … when … you come up with new ideas … we will all be the better for them.
You parents in the bleachers, in those folding chairs, tell me if I’m wrong.
I didn’t think much of our previous president. When I think of what his ideology has done to my country and the world, I can only quote Emilia when she gets stunned by Othello’s stupid stubbornness. “O gull! O dolt!” she cries. “As ignorant as dirt!”
But I thoroughly support what we are doing in Afghanistan.
We are playing Whack-A-Mole in Afghanistan. And sometimes Pakistan. And sometimes Yemen.
When I hear that some terrorist training camp got splatted into nothing by rockets from a drone, I think about school girls sitting in school safely.
Little girls not having their heads chopped off for reading books.
Some years back British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech about on foreign policy to members of his Labour Party. (Yeah, I know them Brits spell it weird.)
The one thought that Mr. Blair would probably like remembered most is: “This is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilisation.”
Civilization versus barbarism.
Barbarians target schoolgirls. AK-47s. Chopping off their heads.
Tony Blair also said, and most have of us forgotten this, is that most of the victims of terrorism were Muslims.
Like schoolgirls in Afghanistan.
Think of their courage going to school and sitting in their classrooms. Think of the courage of their parents sending their little girls to school in a country slathered in bloodshed.
Barbarians don’t want school girls sitting in school.
The happiest sounds human beings make is school kids playing in school yards. It is not always the most pleasant sound to adult ears, but it is the happiest sound we humans make.
I can tell you I hope this commencement is subversive, a great word that means “another voice is heard from beneath the table.”
According to the French philosopher Albert Camus, rebellion is rage against an idea, while revolution introduces a new idea.
God bless what ideas those little girls can add to the Arab Spring.
Listen to those other voices. They have a lot we can and should listen to. Help them if you can.
As you leave this auditorium, listen to other voices and look for tricks people might want to pull on you in the name of their own personal agenda. Maybe they’ll say God wants you to obey them. But they’re lying.
See how I am manipulating you right now, if you need an example, but most of all always value your own beliefs, your own knowledge, your own talents and skills, your own successes and, yes, even value your failures.
The most important book you will ever read is the first one after your graduation.
The hardest, most difficult part of being out in the real world is finding time to sit down and read. Once you graduate — you should sit down and read. As often as you can. Read whatever it is that pops up in front of you. Look how far reading has gotten you already. Think how far reading will get you in the future.
Consider this commencement as just a scaffold on a journey.
When you go visit the Real World out there, you might feel overwhelmed by how much material you will be expected to get through.
That is an optical illusion.
The material in the Real World will be dealt with bit by bit. Just like the material in your chemistry or philosophy courses got dealt with bit by bit.
As you go through life, you now get to set your own pace. I recommend for a while that you start off and go slow. At least first, until you read the instructions that come with your life.
Please do less with your life until you feel more comfortable doing more. Then throw yourself under the roulette wheels of life. Go for it. See what you get away with it.
Enjoy the pretty pictures, too. You might not get back here again for a while. Be flexible, too. And be nice to others. Hey, how can it hurt?
Also, leave your fingerprints and footprints out for the rest of us to see them.
That’s called leaving your mark on the world.
That’s how we get things done around here.
By the way, guys, this adult life you’re getting into, this real world you’re waltzing into, well, it is especially designed for adults. Sexually explicit language & topics will be used regularly throughout the rest of your days. If you are upset by, or made very uncomfortable by sexually explicit language or depictions of human sexual behavior, you may wish to reconsider whether you really want to be an adult.
Let me know how that works out, ‘k?
If there is an obstacle like this in your path, go around the obstacle. Drive around it, like you would in a car. Then it’s behind you, in your rear view mirror. You can forget about it.
Celebrate — and remember — this commencement.
This commencement brings more of us to the table on a more equal footing. It is a leveler upward for more of us than ever before. And, because we value what you graduates have been through and what you are going to do next, we make it Absolutely Standard.
The best part of Commencement is how Absolutely Standard they all are. God bless the fact that we have Commencements all the time, that we promenade hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of students through Commencement practices.
That is a sure sign we are transmitting Our Civilization to future generations. Which means that, odds are, we will survive and endure, god willing. Our Story will endure.
Consider this commencement just a palimpsest for some future graduation.
They will erase all that came before and make it theirs.
Oh, speaking of stories, in “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,” an absolutely brilliant, absolutely hilarious novel by the Englishman Douglas Adams, for example, he postulates that civilization goes through three stages: the “How?”, the “Why?” and the “Where?”
Adams wrote, “The first phase is characterised by the question, How can we eat? The second by the question, Why do we eat? and the third by the question, Where shall we have lunch?”
Today is Commencement, and I guarantee you that every restaurant in town will be very busy.
Where shall we have lunch?
Let me finish by saying, To those of you graduating this weekend, I wish you lots of laughter in life and someone to share that laughter with. All the rest comes in second place.
Good luck & best wishes.
Vaya con Dios, mi amigos.