This is the Commencement Address from last Thursday’s Crossroads School Graduation. Such a remarkable, remarkable honor…
I was told to introduce myself. I’m a Virgo. (It’s important). When I was a kid I wanted to be a big animal veterinarian. True yet little known fact. The guy going into the elephant enclosure, the lion’s den and all that. At least that was the dream. And then 10th grade Biology hit me like a frozen meat truck and that, that, was the dream deferred. So, no big animals, no elephant enclosures. In the future, not: Giles Scott, big animal veterinarian. Instead: Giles Scott, Crossroads English teacher. And rather awed and utterly humbled 2014 commencement speaker.
I needed help with this. Everyone does, especially those who pretend they don’t. There’s a lot out there about how to organize it, what kind of advice to give, whom to thank, how to start, what to stay away from. Apparently, I’m not supposed to talk about sex—on any level—or drop the F-bomb, which is a shame cause the f-bomb when dropped in a British accent sounds remarkably effervescent, especially if whispered. FFfffffff…relax that’s as far as I’m going, but you get the point. It sounds more like an avuncular caress, fffffffffff……….. Nothing remotely like a curse word. Almost the opposite in fact, not just effervescent—virtually reassuring. Like an autumn wind. But, apparently, unfortunately, in a commencement address, verboten.
I’m supposed to start with a joke, which I just did, but I’m on such a roll I’m just gonna keep going with them. I need to thank the board. Thank you Board. And the head of school. Thank you Bob. And of course I get to say something nice about the parents and the grandparents. Which is easy. Cause you look fabulous. You really do. I tell the class of 2014 that they are the best ever. Which they are. And I tell the faculty and the staff that they’re awesome. (Where are you? You’re awesome…) Like I said, so much out there, especially about the commencement address as advice part. There’s the infamous Kurt Vonnegut address given at M.I.T. in 1997, which wasn’t by Vonnegut at all, but went viral because people thought it was. It was all about advice wasted on the young. Some of it pretty good. And relevant.
“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know
what to do with your life”
Both so important. As is sunscreen. I’m amazed how many of the current generation dispense with sunscreen. Shocked even. I know at least one student who has never in her life used sunscreen. Atrocious. Maybe we should make a YouTube video of whales giving the same advice underwater while juggling baby seals and tweeting. That might get your attention. Something so absurd and yet so absurdly appropriate. Because going to college is all about juggling a dozen different and difficult things while feeling like a whale deep underwater trying to converse with another whale deep underwater, while both of you think you’re Kurt Vonnegut.
So, how to get through all that? All my advice is borrowed from the truly wise and the truly qualified though I truly am a huge advocate of swearing. A lot. Got the British through two world wars and fifty years of international mediocrity. Seriously, in England, when there’s a problem we all sit down and have a cup of tea and curse until the bottom of the pot drops out. We literally sit around the kitchen table and take turns throwing curses like completely over the top sailors: frrrrrr I hate him frrrrrrrr I hate her, frrrrrrrrr we’re so mediocre. And when its not your turn, you stop and take little sips of tea you know with the crooked finger, because, of course, in England, that’s how we drink tea. (Not really). But that really is how most of us cope with problems. Tea and foul language. Curse, curse, sip. Curse, curse sip. So utterly cathartic. It’s something I think the Life Skills department should at least consider. There should be a tea and cursing ceremony as part of the Ojai thingy.
Alright, so enough jocularity. To the serious stuff. Emerson gave perhaps the most famous commencement address of all time, to the Harvard graduating class, but 1838 feels like a long time ago. Because it was. But he does talk sense when waxing lyrical about how, and this is a quote: “when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.” Now that’s real advice from a bona fide American genius. The question is how to make sense of such things. Let me repeat the quote: “when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.” As I said, amazing. But what on earth does it mean. Well, the first thing we should probably do, of course, is to translate it into a tweet. A tweet that would go something like this:
“T.I.L.mind open, universe open, shrink world into fable, R.L.R.T. Emerson. hashtag woahspooky Hat tip g-money.”
Now at least we’re speaking the same language. I’m the g-money, and I love the idea of hat-tips on twitter. Right. Just so, so cool. But, anyway, Emerson seems to be talking about each of our minds containing the universe, and containing other minds, other curiosities. Twitter of course being exhibit A of such re-imaginings of the universe. And that is a part of what I love about this class, (what I love about you) their (your) ability to re-imagine the universe, to think in ways that will re-imagine future universes, the curiosity within each of them (within each of you) that never seems to be quenched, whether it be in academics, the arts, community service, athletics, wherever each of you finds his or her center, you do so in ways that re-imagine both this and future universes, in ways that make this world and the next one a better, a more valuable place to be.
Charles Bukowski has that great line about how it’s not the cancer or the broken heart that destroys lives, it’s the burned soup and the broken shoelace. It works for larger things. And if the commencement address is really supposed to be about advice then this is about all I have: It’s not going to college that will make any of you successful, or happy, or even more importantly, which college, and it’s not about how big your house is or how many boats you can or can not afford. It will be the small, apparently inconsequential things. This will sound irrevocably cheesy, but it will be about acts of kindness, the kinds of acts of kindness that happen here every day, and being able to be just as kind in worlds far stranger than this, in worlds where a lot of the time you feel like a thwarted whale communicating underwater. It will be about how many people you can hold in your heart, how much room do you have for people not vey much like you, and how much room do you have for those closest to you when they do you wrong. How much room do you have for forgiveness. Make sure there’s enough space. Make sure there’s enough space for yourself, of course, but also for each other and, most importantly, for the others you haven’t met yet. Make space and take diving lessons. I love you all. Again, congratulations. Thank you.