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Hello Graduates: My Blake HS Commencement Speech

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Yesterday morning I was at DAR Constitution Hall to deliver the commencement speech to James Hubert Blake High School's Class of 2009. This is the second graduation speech I've given. I did one over a decade ago at Rockville High School, my alma mater.

My problem -- well, one of my problems -- is that I don't have a single, good, stem-winding stump speech. Whenever I speak to a group, which is not that often, I have to write something from scratch. I'm pretty sure Thomas Friedman doesn't do that. I didn't finish writing Blake's speech until Tuesday night.

And, of course, I worry about how I'm going to come across. I'm happy to report that the speech went pretty well. The audience laughed at the funny bits and even at some bits that I didn't think were that funny. And the entire morning was a model of a good high school graduation.

I sat next to Dr. Jerry Weast, MoCo school superintendent, who told me that all graduations in the county are videotaped and critiqued. (Sounds like Redskins' game film.) Principal Carole Goodman kept things running and delivered an impressive recap of the class, mentioning just about every member of it.

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I shook the hands of 440 students after they'd been handed their diplomas and every kid looked absolutely thrilled -- not to shake my hand but to have finished high school.

Here's my speech:

Thank you. And thank you for inviting me to speak this morning. I’m very honored to be here. The first thing I want to say is congratulations. You did it.

The second thing I want to say is… I don’t have anything more to say. Really, I’ve been wracking my brain for months trying to come up with some lesson or message to pass on to you -- that’s what commencement speakers are supposed to do -- and I thought, “You know what? What can I possibly say now that you haven’t heard in the last 12 or 13 years of school?”

Why would anyone think that in literally the last 10 minutes of your high school career I could come up on stage and say something that you’d never heard before, something that, if I didn’t say it, would never have occurred to you?

“’Make a positive contribution to society?’ Wow, I’d never thought of that before, Mr. Kelly! I’m glad you told us. Thanks so much!”

I mean, it would be kind of insulting for me to stand up here and lecture you on how to live your lives. So I’m not going to do that. I’m going to let my readers do that.

A few months ago I mentioned in my column that I would be speaking here today and I invited my readers to suggest things they would tell the Blake High School Class of 2009 if they were here. Now, before you think that I’m being lazy -- look at him, he got somebody else to write his commencement speech! -- I should tell you that this represents the very cutting edge of journalism.

We call this crowd-sourcing or user-generated content and it’s very hot now. The only thing more cutting edge would be if I sent each of you a single, 140-character Twitter message, but we have this lovely room rented until noon so we may as well use it.

Okay, let’s get started. Remember, this is actual advice sent to me by readers of my column:

“I would recommend that you tell them to find out what they love and seek a career in that direction. That way, they’ll never work a day in their life.”

That sounds reasonable. What’s next?

“Tell them to pick their college major with an eye towards employability. I knew a lot of people in college who chose their major by what they liked, then found themselves with a 4-year degree that would not help them get a job.”

See, right off the bat we have a problem. One person says "Do something you love" and the other person says "Don’t major in something just because you love it." That right there is the great unanswerable question of adult life.

“Tell them to look at the person sitting next to them as it might be the last time they ever see this person.”

Well that’s just depressing. Unless you really don’t like the person sitting next to you. In which case that’s great news.

“Boys and Girls” -- really, that’s what it says: “Boys and Girls”; I apologize; you really look quite grown up sitting there in your dresses -- “within the next few years, you will be making the most important decision of your life: choosing your marriage partner.”

Wow, I didn’t see that one coming. I thought the most important decision of your life was whether to go with Comcast, Dish Network or Verizon Fios.

“Don’t ever try to avoid jury duty. You’re never too busy to find out how the justice system really works, and it usually provides an enriching experience. If you wind up not having an enriching experience, it’s a good story to tell at a party years later.”

You know, this is so true. I spent a day last month at the District Court of Maryland in downtown Silver Spring. I have to tell you, it’s better than going to the movies. I mean, it’s not quite as good as the new “Star Trek” but it was better than “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.”

Anyway, the day I was there, there was this one case involving four guys who’d been arrested for smoking marijuana at 3 in the morning in a car in a parking lot off of Briggs Chaney Road. That’s not all: They had a gun in the car. And the car was parked in a handicapped space.

Now, if I was going to turn this into advice suitable for a high school commencement speech, I would say, right off the bat: Don’t smoke marijuana. That’s obvious, right? And don’t smoke marijuana in a car with a gun in it. And especially, don’t smoke marijuana in a car with a gun in it while you’re parked in a handicapped space. I mean, come on.

“If you go to a party, a wedding or another gathering, and you see a person standing alone looking uncomfortable, go over and make conversation. You will be the person they remember the most, and the most fondly, from the whole event. If there’s music, ask the person to dance.”

I’m just going to add: Don’t do this if you’re in prison. Or at a funeral.

“Tell them that the best age to get married at is 32.”

I don’t even know how to respond to that. I have to believe there are some people out there who got married at age 31 or 33 -- or, god forbid -- at 24, like I did, and are reasonably happy.

“You will be old some day. Be nice and be patient with people who cannot move as quickly or remember things as well.”

That’s sweet.

“You will be old some day. Be nice and be patient with people who can not move as quickly or remember things as well.”

That’s sweet.

These next two are sort of related:

“Tell them to invest and save! Stress to them that this economic situation should be considered a blessing because it has shown them at an early age that greed and reckless spending never goes unchecked.”

Another one: “Times are tough, but don’t let hunger and deprivation detract you from your finest goals.”

Wow, that sounds kind of desperate: hunger and deprivation. That reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon I saw the other day: “If all else fails, your co-workers are edible.”

“Be good to your fellow person.”

That’s a good one, right? The Golden rule and all that.

“If you are having a bad day, go to sleep and things will seem better in the morning.”

You know, I had my doubts about that one -- I wasn’t even going to include it -- and then I read about a study at the University of California San Diego. What the researchers did was give test subjects problems to solve. Those who slept on the problem had better results. According to Science Daily, “it appears REM sleep helps achieve such solutions by stimulating associative networks, allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas.”

So, keep that in mind for college. However, try to sleep after, not during, class.

“Have the graduates do the hokey pokey! And then somehow tie your speech into it. Sometimes you will be out, sometimes you will be in….”

You know, I briefly considered doing this, but I think the Daughters of the American Revolution have rules against people shaking it all about here in Constitution Hall.

I’m going to go through these next few kind of quickly:

“Tell them to call their parents and grandparents as often as possible to say thanks and I love you.”

“Relax and take time for yourself.”

“Don’t drink and drive.”

“Watch less TV; read a newspaper.”

I swear I didn’t write that one.

“Your parents, though embarrassing, aren’t always wrong.”

I agree with that one. And I agree not only because I’m now the parent of two teenage girls who don’t come to me nearly as often as I think they should for my wise counsel.
I agree because the few times I went to my parents for advice it turned out to be pretty good.

I remember once, during college, I was dating this girl. My family had met her. I’d met her mother. We were sort of talking about moving in together. (Me and the girl, not me and her mother.) I raised this prospect one day as nonchalantly as I could with my father. All he had to say was “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” for to me realize that no, this is not a good idea, this girl is an insane harpy who will probably ruin my life, bleed me dry and turn me into a hollow, lifeless husk. Thanks Dad!

“Boys should learn the fundamentals of cooking (so they can eat nourishingly), girls the fundamentals of car mechanics (so they don’t get ripped off).”

I would just amend that to say those are both good ideas whether you’re a boy or a girl, which I’m assuming most of you are.

“Vote in every election after carefully considering the issues (which would absolutely positively involve reading alternative news sources to balance the extreme, never-ending liberal bias of The Washington Post).”

Did Mr. Keegan send that one in?

“Visit a government-run nursing home from time to time and give some old lonely widow a small bunch of flowers to brighten her day.”

That’s nice. I don’t know how you find such a person. Maybe just Google “old lonely widow.”

“Tell them to prepare to be surprised.”

I kind of get where that’s coming from but I’m not sure how you do that: prepare to be surprised. Isn’t the whole point of being surprised that you’re not prepared for it?

This one’s a little better, I think:

“If you get a chance to try something new, try it. When you get to the end of your life, it’s better to regret the things you did than the things you were afraid to try.”

I really can’t improve on that. And it reminds me of something I read recently, something that a man born 126 years ago in Baltimore said. That man was James Hubert Blake, the person your school is named after. I have to confess I never really knew much about him. When I was asked to speak here I thought it would be the perfect time to learn. I checked out a library book -- you can’t rely on Wikipedia or Google for everything -- and read about him.

Eubie Blake made his professional debut at the age of 15 playing piano in a brothel. Can you imagine how good Blake must have been if the thing people remembered after going to that brothel was the piano player?

Over time Blake became one of the most celebrated musicians of the ragtime era and one of America’s greatest composers. In 1973, he flew in an airplane for the very first time. He was 90 years old. He hadn’t wanted to fly before because he was afraid. He’d been born in 1883. When he was growing up what you heard about were all the people who hadn’t been able to fly, all the failures. He was 20 when the Wright Brothers were finally successful at Kitty Hawk.

But Blake got over his fear and spent the last 10 years of his life flying around the world entertaining audiences.

You don’t live to 100 without knowing a lot of people who didn’t live to 100, without having a lot of friends and loved ones die. A biographer asked him how that loss made him feel.

“You know,” Eubie Blake said, “the world goes on no matter what you do. If something good happens to you, you just enjoy it. If you lose somebody, you don’t go to pieces over it. You can see they’re gone and the world is still here. If it was you that was gone [the world] would still be here too. But you got to get up and go out and live your life.”

That’s exactly what you get to do now. You don’t need me to tell you how to do it. By all means, ask for advice, just like I did with my speech. But in the end, Eubie’s right: “You got to go out and live your life.”

It’s the only life you’ve got. Make the most of it. All I’ll say is congratulations and good luck.

Thank you.

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By John Kelly  |  June 11, 2009; 8:54 AM ET
 
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Comments

"Whenever I speak to a group, which is not that often, I have to write something from scratch. I'm pretty sure Thomas Friedman doesn't do that."

You actually tailor your speech to your audience? That's just crazy.

Crazy, and nicely done.

Posted by: staxowax | June 11, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Wow, I wish my sister had graduated from Blake this year instead of back a few years ago. We were stuck listening to some guy from Channel 7 blather on about the human side of his stories. Your speech was fantastic. Nice job.

Posted by: jrachlin | June 11, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Really an excellent speech. I don't remember anything anyone said from my graduation, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Blake class of '09 remembers you.

Posted by: Southwester | June 11, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

My high school didn't have a graduation speaker the year I graduated because we were banned from asking our Congressman. He was considered to radical (can you imagine?). So, the class voted, overwhelmingly for no speaker. Looking back, it still seems pretty cool, as was your speech.

Posted by: mfromalexva | June 11, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Love your speech! Made me giggle. I would have loved to have you at my HS graduation but I don't think you were born yet . . .

Posted by: MILW | June 11, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I was one of the parents at the Blake graduation and I loved the speech. It was fresh, insightful and humble. I don't think I will ever go to another graduation without thinking of the hokie pokie! I have done my share of speaking and I always consider something my son (who was 9 at the time) told me, "Dad, keep it short, it gives people less to forget!". Thanks for giving me and my young graduate something to remember.

Posted by: saccojos | June 11, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kelly,
Your speech was wonderful, as was the entire graduation. My only complaint, which I will raise here, was a crazed police car that tried to assault graduates and family members who had spilled out of the front of the building after the ceremony. We were pelted with outrageous sirens and I witnessed a police car try to push people out of the way who were walking on the street because there was physically no space on the side walk. One significant issue were the trailers that lined both side streets yesterday. Apparently they are filming a movie in the area and used the DAR sidestreets for the parking. It seemed like a sad ending to an otherwise perfect morning.

Posted by: jmr707 | June 11, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Hey, I was one of those 440 students who graduated yesterday, and I thought you're speech was great! It really helped raise the spirit in the room. I enjoyed it very much. Going in there, I didn't really feel like I was graduating... It was just sort of like... bleh, can we get this over with. For some reason, after your speech, it finally hit me. I started tearing up and smiling at the same time. I just wanted to let you know that it really sank in, and I don't think I could ever forget that day, even if I wanted to. Thank you so much! ... and thank you to your readers to :].

Posted by: ihartbbb | June 11, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Did you b!tch about how bad Muslims are and why Mayor Fenty should avoid traveling to muslim countries? Just curious.

Posted by: August30 | June 11, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

John Kelly probably said that he was disappointed that the Holocaust Museum shooter turned out to be a white supremist and not a crazed muslim terrorist, otherwise he could have given a hell of a better speech.

Posted by: August30 | June 11, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for a great speech! My daughter graduated yesterday and your speech made us all laugh - you really hit it right on! What could you say that they didn't already know...you hit it RIGHT ON!

Posted by: ihartbbb | June 11, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

My sister graduated a few days back from Blake and I was at the graduation. I really enjoyed your speech Mr. Kelly! You made everyone laugh and you gave a lot of really great advice.

Posted by: gocaps99 | June 11, 2009 8:56 PM | Report abuse

I had forgotten that Mr. Keegan had moved from Rockville to Blake. One of the best moves Goodman has made as principal, stealing him away. Mind you it is also impressive that she is still principal there. Good speech. Do you know Keegan personally John? He was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Posted by: ThatGuy1 | June 12, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

“You will be old some day. Be nice and be patient with people who cannot move as quickly or remember things as well.”

That’s sweet.

“You will be old some day. Be nice and be patient with people who can not move as quickly or remember things as well.”

That’s sweet.

Now that is funny. It made me lol!

Posted by: dailykos1 | June 15, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I graduated from Blake hs two years ago, and have to admit while I remember enjoying what our commencement speaker had to say, I cannot for the life of me recall anything he said. However, I was there last week to witness my younger brother's ceremony and admit that I'm a little jealous that he had such an outstanding commencement speaker, though I also base my jealousy partially on the fact that I also am a former student of Mr. Keegan's, and nothing would have served as a better conclusion to my high school career than to hear one of his students send us off into our future careers/schooling/service. I can assure you that everyone there will remember your speech for years to come!

Posted by: pdysland | June 16, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

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