The Best Commencement Address
Excerpts from the wonderful Commencement Address given June 3 at Zed's school by Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize winning father of the comic strip "Kudzu," whose son was also graduating.
Congratulations, class of 2005, the greatest graduating class in the history of the school. If you’ve grown up here in the Triangle this may be the first southern accent you’ve heard, so I will try to speak clearly and distinctly and remove all tobacco products from my mouth.
It is an honor to talk to a graduating class where practically everybody makes straight A’s. Everybody excels. Everybody is sensitive, supportive, diverse and multicultural. I’ve seen your college applications and all of you have a 4. 5 grade-point-average, you’ve worked with the needy and the homeless, with Aids babies in sub-Saharan Africa, you’ve unlocked the secrets of the human genome, and in your spare time you cobble your own shoes. Upon graduation many of you will be canonized. Others will simply be assumed bodily into heaven. I salute you.
... I was a loser in high school. With grades, with girls, with sports. I did not excel. I stayed home and drew. Mad Magazine was my inspiration. I once concocted a parody of the popular Batman TV show called "Ratman," which featured several of my teachers at school. My friends laughed at "Ratman" but one said scornfully, "You spent your weekend doing this?"
Yes, I was a geek, a dweeb, a dork, a tool. I still am, but for a cartoonist that’s a job description.
So though I tip my mortarboard to all you high school winners – the sharp, the slick, the self-possessed, the well-spoken ... – I’m directing these remarks to the potted plants and human wallpaper of the student body as well, the ones who don’t stand out, who feel like extras in a movie about somebody else’s life.
And I’m here to tell all my fellow dweebs and losers that your day will come. High school is not the final word on you. ... There is hope.
A few years ago I was at a dinner in New York with a bunch of people who were getting something called the Golden Plate, an achievement award for doing well in their fields. Some were celebrities -- Barbara Walters, Calvin Klein, Colin Powell -- others were less well-known, but had done things like discover the planet Pluto. Oprah emceed. I was the least famous person there.
The idea was to get a bunch of "achievers" together and bring in four hundred high school National Merit Finalists from around the country for three days of schmoozing with the accomplished. The idea, I suppose, was that achievement was contagious, like pink eye.
... at breakfast I was discussing the event with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Stanford who had discovered the sub-atomic particles called quarks. ... The Nobel Laureate asked me, "Would you have been invited to something like this when you were in high school?" I laughed and said, "No, I wasn’t a very good student." He shook his head and said, "I didn’t even finish high school. ... I had to get my high school equivalency later." Then, looking around us, he said, "I wonder how many of the others invited here were National Merit Scholars in high school."
What he was hinting at was the puzzle of human personality, the mystery of success, late-blooming talent and confidence, the ineffable qualities of character, drive and ambition, qualities that are often key components of achievement and are sometimes even galvanized by those early high school humiliations.
In the spirit of keeping things in perspective, remember, it was Harvard grads, the best and the brightest, who got us into Vietnam. It was a Duke Law graduate -- Richard Nixon -- who obstructed justice, ignored subpoenas and was forced to resign the presidency. It was a graduate of Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar – Bill Clinton -- who disgraced the office of the presidency, lied under oath, and taught a generation how to parse the meaning of is. Enron execs were, as the book title puts it, The Smartest Guys in the Room.
A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a bum seated on an orange crate with a sign that says, "Blew off my SAT prep class."
Yes, it’s a bottom-line world out there, boys and girls. Everything -- including education -- has been commodified. Consequently, we think everything worth knowing is test-able, quantifiable, and measurable.
You’ve grown up in a time when performance is everything ... Performance Anxiety is marketed to you in discreet and insidious ways. ... Binge drinking, eating disorders and college suicides are all perfection diseases, ways of acting out the impossibility of perfection. Ease up on yourselves. Have some compassion for yourself as well as for others. There’s no such thing as perfection, and life is not a race.
... Read. Reading is active. TV, movies and video are passive. Reading engages your imagination. Video substitutes for your imagination. Reading takes you into life, while television distracts you from life.
Recognize political correctness for what it is: a bureaucratic substitute for thinking. It evolved out of a righteous impulse to rectify historic wrongs -- racism, sexism, various forms of bigotry -- but it has morphed into a Stalinist means of suppressing free speech. ... It is modern-day Phariseeism. Jesus had a colorful phrase for Pharisees, the so-called "experts" of his time: "hypocrites," "brood of vipers." He considered virtue a private matter and said, "take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them . . . do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the streets, that they may have glory of men."
Be suspicious of experts. ... trust your own experience and instincts over the experts. When my high school guidance counselor called me in for my one and only college counseling session – this was before college admission was a growth industry – he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t know what that meant exactly. Art, where I come from, was black velvet Elvises, poker playing dogs, and popsicle stick birdhouses. Culture was something you scraped off the cow’s tongue to check for hoof-and-mouth disease. All I knew was that I wanted to draw pictures for a living. The counselor looked stricken. "Douglas, believe me, when you get to college, artists are a dime a dozen." Then, looking at my grades, he said, "Why don’t you use your math skills and drafting ability and study architecture?"
I realize now that no responsible high school guidance counselor would ever in good conscience tell some kid, "Sure, go ahead, be an artist, move to New York, live in an attic and starve." Fortunately, I knew enough to ignore the experts, but I want you to know that manners do matter. So I did nod politely, and said "Yessir," as I left the guidance counselor’s office.
So whether you wind up blazing your own trail, or stumbling blindly down it as I did, have high standards. Strive for excellence. But don’t condemn yourself when you fall short.
Be competitive, but remember, envy is not competition. The word "competition" derives from the Latin con, which means "with" and petere, which means "to strive." Competition – to strive together. Competitors are in secret alliance, not to do each other in, but to bring out the best in each other.
Above all, remember: You are not your resume. External measures won’t repair you. Money won’t fix you. Applause, celebrity, no number of victories will do it. The only honor that counts is that which you earn and that which you bestow. Honor yourself.
And despite all I’ve said about the authorities, honor your parents. You will eventually realize that there are no grownups. We are all children in various stages of growing up. ... a pretty good definition of maturity is knowing how immature you are. A pretty good definition of sanity is knowing how crazy you are. A pretty good definition of wisdom is knowing how foolish you are.
Have fun, don’t worry, be happy, pick up your towels off the floor, and don’t call directory assistance for numbers you can look up yourself. Congratulations, Class of 2005!
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