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Down with celebrity graduation speakers! Up with teachers!

I am going to ignore veteran journalist Helen Thomas's comments about Israel and Palestine that led to her withdrawing as graduation speaker at Walt Whitman High, the nearest public high school to my home in Bethesda, Md. I am going to focus instead on a longstanding gripe of mine---revived by the Thomas controversy---and a solution that just occurred to me.

I don't like the competition among colleges and high schools to get big names to speak at grad night. The emphasis is always on how famous the person is. If your high school gets Joe Biden, you are feeling good until the rival high school gets Barack Obama. Is that oneupsmanship in tune with the values we want our children to learn?

I want to say for the record that my problem with the celebrity speaker game has nothing to do with the fact that I was disinvited as a graduation speaker by one high school a few years ago when one of its rivals snared Hillary Clinton. I had a happy childhood, am loved by my wife and am above such pettiness.

But it seems worth noting that the outsiders chosen to speak to the graduating class, including me (I have done it twice), tend to be bad at it. They don't know the school well. They have little clue about what the graduating seniors are interested in. Their themes are the usual march-toward-your-future pap. The thunderous applause they receive when they are done is usually motivated by relief that that part of the program is over and party time awaits.

Here is my idea: Ban celebrity speakers, even minor celebrities, from high school graduation. (This would also be good advice for colleges, but they are simply too full of themselves to listen.) Who should speak instead?

Those two times I spoke to a graduating class, I used a trick I learned from a clever politician I once saw in action at a student gathering. He has made some calls, or had his staff make some calls, asking about humorous incidents at school that year. Who had embarrassed himself in the fundraiser dunk tank? Which couples got locked in the gym after that dance? How had the baseball team lost its equipment on that road trip?

It was fairly innocent stuff which he fashioned into a few jokes that killed. The graduating class was unaccustomed to adults even caring about its pranks and pratfalls. To hear a stranger talking about such stuff was charming and engaging. Since I am a reporter, it wasn't hard for me to gather similar tidbits before I spoke. They went over well.

Sadly, the more important and famous the outside speaker, the less likely he or she will bother with such preparations. But there is one way to make sure an adult speaker can connect with the class at its level.

Don't ask the local state senator, or the school board chair, or the principal's cousin who had a top ten single in the 1980s to speak. Ask a teacher.

I don't mean any teacher. Every school has a significant number of educators who love students, who are skilled classroom entertainers and who know what the graduating class is talking about. Occasionally a school will pick someone like that if the person is about to retire, but why wait until they are on their way out? Why not get them in their prime?

I realize some principals cringe, and with good reason, at the idea of some of their more articulate teachers being given fifteen minutes to address a hall full of parents and community leaders. The best teachers often can't be tamed, or fired. It is difficult to predict what they will say.

But graduation speeches should be exciting. Everyone involved will have the whole summer to get over, or forget, whatever is said. Let's make it a rule that only teachers picked by the students can address the graduates, and ban boredom from such events forever.

I confess that the local school that bounced me as speaker found that it did not have enough time to get a really big name, and so went with a teacher. Maybe it was out of desperation, but I am told the guy did a wonderful job, one of the best graduation speeches anyone had ever heard.

So take that Secretary Clinton, and all your famous friends. A great teacher with a point of view has it all over you as the person to sum up a high school class. And you can pretty much count on the teacher to stay away from foreign policy issues, which may be just as well.

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By Jay Mathews  | June 8, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Hillary Clinton would be boring, ban celebrity graduation speakers, choose teachers instead, why Jay was fired as a speaker  
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Dear Jay,
Just wanted to let you know that you were the speaker at the DC Teaching Fellows first class graduation and you did a wonderful job! I still remember it vividly, especially since the first person they proposed was Barbara Bush, who we all vetoed.

Posted by: IvanainNC | June 8, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Your idea is a good one. Any good speaker who knows the students well could do a great speech and the kids would love it!

Posted by: celestun100 | June 8, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I see what you're saying, but I see one potential factor you're missing: if the teachers themselves end up trying to curry favor to get (or avoid) the gig, it seems that it would introduce some politics into the faculty that I'm not sure is needed and that might distract from them completing their primary job (i.e., getting the students prepared to graduate).

If you're going to have a popularity contest, perhaps it is better to have the popularity contest be outside of the school community, rather than within it (don't we have enough of those already)?

Although I will also say that they ought to put a moratorium on local elected officials making the speech into a stump for their campaign -- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then Lt. Gov. of Maryland, did this at my HS graduation and I found that rather disappointing.

Posted by: | June 8, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, IvanainNC. But we both know that was a very special group, eager to happy to me on my favorite topics. As I saw President Obama saying on the Today Show this morning, high school graduating seniors are a much tougher audience.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 8, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

what a garble i left in that last message. I meant to say: a very special group, happy to hear me on my favorite topics.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 8, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jay. Brown University shuns famous speakers at commencement. They have a graduating student be the speaker. I don't mean the valedictorian (which they don't have anyway, due to hippie grading policies). Students compete for the honor, based on the premise that graduation is about the students and the Brown community, not some big-name outsider.

Posted by: cecilia_le | June 8, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

thanks cecilia_le. I didn't know Brown had such a wise policy, or I would have specifically exempted them from my contemptuous remark about colleges.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 8, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Ditch speakers entirely. What students really want is there 30 seconds of glory walking across the stage, getting their diploma.

Posted by: RedBirdie | June 8, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

My less than stellar high school didn't have a "speaker" and my college graduation had the late Joan Kroc as its scheduled speaker. However, Mrs. Kroc never had the chance to speak. This was a Catholic university and the bishop of the diocese talked so long, that the timeline of the event had to be adjusted. So, the whole point of her even being there was moot. It didn't affect Mrs. Kroc's decision to leave the university many millions in her will. Now there's a building named for her on the campus.

Posted by: kodonivan | June 8, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

for kodonivan---hmm, i forgot the money angle. I might forget my anti-celebrity rule a time or two if speaker was willing to fork over big bucks for a milkshake machine in the cafeteria, or free sodas for the tennis team.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | June 8, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

My husband is a teacher at Booker T. Washington Public Charter School in the District. They just had their 11th commencement exercises on Monday.

Their speakers: Alumni. These students are recent college graduates. They all graduated from their respective colleges this past May.

A brilliant plan!!

Posted by: kenyathedst99 | June 9, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

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