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.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
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| 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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