Five Books That Include Memorable Graduation Scenes

After graduate school, I hung around the academy teaching English for a dozen years in the Midwest. The only serious downside to that career was having to attend graduation every spring. Often I sat so far back on the dais that I could safely catch up on some reading without being seen by the giddy students and impoverished parents. But most years I had to maintain that look of cerebral attention expected of professors dressed in moldy black sheets.

I heard more than a few barons and baronesses of industry refer to "the river of life," "our responsibilities to a world crying out for solutions" and "the immortal words of so-and-so." And yet, wouldn't you know it, now I kind of miss that rhetorical rite of spring. So here, in this season of graduation speeches, is a list of novels that include memorable commencement addresses. Can you think of some others -- in real life or books? Let us know.

1. I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle.
Geeky Denis Cooverman decides to announce his adoration for a popular cheerleader during his high school graduation speech. This is news to her. And to her ferocious boyfriend. The next 24 hours are full of cringe-inducing teenage antics. (Doyle is a former writer for "The Simpsons.")

2. Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee. In this strange novel, the Nobel Laureate invents a female doppelganger: an aging novelist who travels the world giving speeches on animal rights and literature. Many of Elizabeth's speeches are very close to ones Coetzee has delivered himself, but it's not easy to tell if he's satirizing the form or promoting it.

3. The Blue Star, by Tony Earley.
Toward the end of this sequel to Jim the Boy, Jim's spurned but gracious girlfriend delivers a graduation speech that includes every cliché from every graduation speech ever delivered. And yet in Earley's tender care, it sounds sweet, inspiring and irony-free.

4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. The poet's first autobiography is not a novel, I realize, but it reads like one. In the most frequently anthologized chapter, a white administrator delivers a thoroughly deflating and subtly racist graduation speech, but the African American students in Maya's 8th-grade class rise to the challenge.

5. The Sooner Spy, by Jim Lehrer. At the last minute, Mack, the one-eyed lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, is pressed into delivering a commencement address at Oklahoma Southeastern State College. He ends with good advice: "Congratulations to you all. It is unlikely that any of you will have occasion to remember either me or my commencement address. I don't blame you. But if by chance something does linger, I hope it's just that there was a one-eyed guy up here who kept saying, 'Risk. Risk. The way to happiness is to risk it.' "

--Ron Charles

By Jen Chaney |  May 22, 2008; 6:30 AM ET Ron Charles
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Beth Cooper is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Very happy to see it made your list!

Posted by: dclibrarian | May 22, 2008 4:00 PM

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