Last night was commencement. This is always a bittersweet night for me. On the one hand, I’m so happy to be getting to the end of the school year and embarking on summer, the time when I can devote myself more fully to writing more than just remarks on students’ papers. On the other, I’m usually sad to see our seniors leave. They are going off to figure out their way in the world, and while quite a few will keep in touch, commencement is, as last night’s student speaker reminded us, the last time all 139 of them will be together. Watching them leave, these children-turned-young-adults whom we as teachers have poured ourselves into through mentoring and tough love, is a pale precursor — at least for me — to what I expect I will feel in seven years, in nine years, when the Fairy Princess Badass and Tiny Beowulf graduate, too. At my school, seniors’ parents who work at the school come up and present their diplomas to them along with the headmaster, the head of the Board of Trustees, and the commencement speaker, and every year as this happens, I imagine myself doing this with my own children.
I’m a writer. My imagination is deep and vivid. This foreshadowing is profound.
But that’s not actually the subject of today’s blog post. Rather, I want to tell you about last night’s commencement address.
I have experienced more than any person’s fair share of commencement speeches. Not only have I had more than a few graduations of my own, being fairly well-educated, but I have taught high school for almost seventeen years. I have also read and heard and watched commencement speeches from other schools’ ceremonies that people have shared with me in one form or another. And so when I say that a particular speech is one of the worst or one of the best I’ve ever heard, I feel like I can make that judgment with at least a modicum of authority.
Among the best speeches I’ve ever encountered is, of course, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon, “This Is Water.” The entire speech is excellent, but some really smart people excerpted the highlights so we could get the gist is under ten minutes and then made a movie of it. Watch the video here.
Last night our speaker was Joe Ehrmann, who (among other accomplishments) started Coach for America, a division of Building Men and Women for Others, an initiative he began with his wife, Paula Peach Ehrmann. His remarks were intelligent, important, insightful, and just the right length. And something very interesting happened: a few minutes into his speech, I saw a rare and marvelous phenomenon, which was that nearly all the graduates had turned to give him their full attention. They had stopped fidgeting and chatting amongst themselves behind their programs and looking around them. They were focused on what Ehrmann had to tell them.
And while he spoke about character and the origin of the word and what it meant in ancient Greece versus what it means now, while he spoke about moral courage and one’s moral compass and what those things are actually about and for, the most impactful part of his comments, the part where he had everyone’s intent focus, was the part where he explained the great, damaging myths our culture foists upon boys and girls, to everyone’s detriment. I want to share those with you now, as best as I can sum them up from memory, because they are dear to my own moral compass and some of the things I advocate passionately for in my own life.
First, he explained that there are three fundamental lies our culture tells to boys, some of which they learn as young as four or five years old and some of which they encounter in adolescence. The first one is that athletic ability has something to do with what it means to be a man. Young boys learn early on that being a “real” man has to do with physical strength or prowess on the field or court, but he explained that this is absolutely not true. He also said that boys are taught that manhood is full of what not to do: commands that demand boys not show emotion (“Stop that crying!” — “Don’t be a sissy.” — “Never show your emotions.”) are fundamentally wrong and damaging. Another lie boys learn from our culture is that their manhood is formed by sexual conquest. He explained in no uncertain terms that there is a significant difference between being a man and being someone who uses people, and that a culture of conquest falls into the unfortunate latter camp. He explained that boys are taught that manhood is dependent upon socio-economic status and the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. Lies, all lies.
Next, he explained that our culture tells girls three fundamental lies as well. The first one comes by the time girls are four or five years old: the myth of Prince Charming. There is an understanding that girls must be rescued by some man, and that being rescued by a man is a function of their worth as people: is she pretty enough? is she worth being rescued? This, he explained, is wrong. The second fundamental lie girls are taught by our culture is ingrained by the time they’re twelve or thirteen years old, and it is that a woman’s worth and value as a person are determined by her physical beauty and body type. This is another myth, one perpetuated by the media, by culture, and by entertainment of all types. The third fundamental lie girls are taught, by late adolescence and early adulthood, is that to be a woman is to deny or hide your true, authentic self. This is yet more damaging nonsense. As he put it, when you start believing that lie, you begin to lose your moral compass.
All of these things he told us last night about the fundamental lies our culture teaches boys and girls about what it means to be a man or a woman were not just well received. During his speech, members of the audience clapped or voiced enthusiasm for particular points, and at the end of it he received a sustained standing ovation from everyone in attendance.
Believe me when I tell you this doesn’t happen that often.
So what can I say about all of this? I don’t want this post to be just reportage.
Frequently in my AP Gothic Lit. class, when we would discuss social issues as they arose in the context of our course material, I would encourage my seniors to “go out and fix the world.” I said this glibly, and it made them smile, but I know at least some of them took it to heart, because they would say it back to me, in the context of their charge in life. These are good kids. These are good young men and women. If anyone can make this world a genuinely better, more respectful, more peaceful, more intelligent, more sustainable place, I think they can. They are well positioned because of their privilege and their education to fulfill the old unexplained cliché, to “make a difference and give back.” They have the power and the ability to give that trite expression some teeth, to actually effect change on a meaningful scale.
It will be hard, and they will encounter difficulty on a similarly meaningful scale.
But they can do it. I know them, and I believe most of them will try.
Dear seniors — no.
Dear graduates, go out and fix the world. I’m working on it with you, from the corner of my classroom with a new group of young people every year. It’s a tough slog, I have to tell you, but sometimes I look at what you’ve become and I begin to think it’s all worth it. My optimism gets the better of me, and I start to feel really good about what might be ahead.
I look forward to seeing how well you will do. Keep in touch.
And one more thing: now that you have a diploma in your hands, you can call me by my first name. If you want to. (Some of you will do this immediately, some of you never will. And those are both okay.)
Have a good summer.