Mark Shields: Surviving gradution day

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

It’s graduation time once again. And by some unwritten but strictly enforced law of nature, every graduation must have a speaker. Before I gave my very first graduation speech, some 25 years ago, I was frankly nervous. But the advice of a priest friend calmed me down. Remember, he counseled, that the role of the speaker at any graduation can be compared to that of the deceased at an Irish wake; they can’t have the party without you, but nobody expects you to say too much.

It’s a good bet that more Americans could name President Harry Truman’s vice president than could tell you who spoke at their own graduation. Still, thousands of devoted parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends, neighbors and sweethearts will be forced to sit on hard chairs, usually for a couple of hours and frequently through uncomfortable temperatures, while listening to yet another graduation, or commencement, speech.

After testing the patience and the tolerance of some 15 captive graduation audiences over the years, I do have some specific suggestions for the speaker. My own beloved bride, a compulsive truth teller, was characteristically candid in her instructions to me: “Don’t try to be witty; don’t try to be eloquent. Just be yourself.”

Every speaker must first understand that no one, in all recorded history, has ever left a graduation ceremony and said, “Gee, that was a really good speech, but it was too short.”

On June 5, 1947, in surely the most historically significant graduation speech ever delivered at any American school, Gen. George C. Marshall, then the secretary of state, told the Harvard University graduating class that President Truman, in what Winston Churchill called “the most unselfish act by any great power in history,” would champion the U.S.’ rebuilding of a war-ravaged Europe. The entire speech, unveiling what the world would come to know as the Marshall Plan, took 10 minutes.

Your standard, run-of-the-mill graduation speaker, unlike Marshall, is probably not going to make news, let alone history. If those in a graduation audience are not going to remember the speaker’s name (for the record, former Sen. Alben Barkley of Kentucky was Truman’s vice president), the speaker can at least give them a laugh or two. That’s what the late Art Buchwald, a wise and witty man, did when he told the 1993 University of Southern California graduating class, “We, the older generation, have given you a perfect world — so don’t screw it up.”

As for advice to any graduating seniors, urge them at all costs to avoid becoming one of those sad souls who fail at ordinary living. As the great Southern novelist Walker Percy wrote, “you can get all A’s and still flunk life.”

Acknowledge that life, sadly, is not fair. For example, nobody really cares if the banker writes a bad poem. But pity the poor poet who writes a bad check. An American original, Will Rogers, once said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Let the record show that Rogers never met Donald Trump, who, told how unpopular he was in many quarters, once asked, “Why do so many people take such an instant dislike to me?” The honest answer: “Because it saves them time, Donald.”

And never forget that when you eat breakfast at any diner or restaurant anywhere, it is mathematically impossible to over-tip the waitress.



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