Friday May 23 2008
And Another Thing: Sending grads into the world with a little advice
By: Susan Rushton
Well, it’s almost the end of May, and once again nobody’s asked me to speak at graduation. I can’t understand it. I have so many insights to pass along. I can come up with a speech to rival anybody’s. If you want to have a race to see who can put people to sleep the fastest, I’m there. The problem, of course, is that by the time these kids have come to sit on those hard folding chairs on the football field, they’re convinced no grownup can tell them anything of any importance. They either think they know where they’re going or they don’t. Either they’ve nailed down their plans or they haven’t. Either they’ve figured out how to make a million bucks or they’re still struggling to find the secret. I know I am. Plus they’re exhausted. Whether these are high school or college graduates, they’ve heard enough long speeches, brother. And since no grade is riding on the outcome, there’s no reason in the world for them to pay attention. You should be happy they showed up at all, with all those parties they’ve got lined up later tonight. But they need their rest, and now’s as good a time to catch a few Zs while you orate at them. To be honest, though, in spite of what I just said, I’d love to stand up there and orate at them. I love listening to myself. What would I say? How good of you to ask. I’d talk about a student I taught once who said he wanted to be a periodontist, because his dad was a periodontist and made pots of money. “Are you interested in teeth?” I asked. “No,” he said. “Then why ...” “Because I’d make tons of money.” Doing what he didn’t like to do. Of course there’s a great deal to be said about making a great deal of money. But there’s also a great deal to be said about loving what you do. Has he spent the last 25 years staring into mouths with boredom or enthusiasm? I’d tell them about another student I taught when I first got here, in my creative writing class through the Adult School. He worked at a fast food joint and hated it, but didn’t want to go to college because he might have to enroll in classes he didn’t want to take. That was 20 years ago. I wonder ... is he still flipping burgers because he doesn’t want to learn about osmosis? I’d tell them about my first peach. I bit into my first peach when I was 57. I nearly wept with the awareness of the years of pleasure I’d denied myself. I’d tell them about writing. When young people ask me about writing, I always get a question about inspiration: “What do you do when the inspiration just isn’t there?” My answer: write well anyway. Because my deadline looms. I always get another question about writer’s block: “What do you do about writer’s block?” My answer: write well anyway. Because my deadline looms. This is, after all, real life. And I’d talk about real life. I’d tell them something they already know from watching their parents: that a lot of life consists of doing what you don’t want to do. You have to pay bills. Talk about boring. You have to pick up after yourself. You have to be polite to people you don’t much like. You have to get up when you’d rather go back to sleep. You have to buy toilet paper and soap and gas and pay the rent. You have to drive to work when you’d rather drive to Wisconsin. And that would segue into my next comment: that I remember my late teens and early 20s, when my friends and I would gather and fervently discuss the new ideas roiling around us — new philosophies, new music, new ways of behaving and creating and making a difference in the world. Especially making a difference in the world. And how commonplace our parents seemed, how stuck in the old ways, how ordinary their homes and behavior. We’d get out, we said. We wouldn’t sell out like they did. We wouldn’t settle. We’d be different. We didn’t realize that every generation feels this way. We didn’t realize that whatever you do — whether discovering a cure for cancer or giving your baby a backrub — you’re making a difference in the world. And the best of all ways to make a difference? Do the best you can. Finally, I’d remind them that life’s an adventure, that they don’t always have to do what they’re told, and that sometimes the thing to do is drive to Wisconsin. Then I’d make the microphone create horrible feedback, wake them up and tell them to have a good time that night. Susan Rushton’s column appears every other Sunday in the Auburn Journal. Her e-mail address is Rushton@cebridge.net.