Commencing Now

Today I’m working on my speech for the graduation ceremony at a creative writing school where I teach. In my head as I write, I can actually hear the background soundtrack of all the commencement speeches I’ve ever attended or watched online — rattling programs, coughs, passing traffic, the booming reverb of large spaces.

As I read my own words I practice vocal dynamics, inflections for emphasis or casual asides, and the general authoritative timbre of Wise Words Officially Spoken. I also hope I’m funny enough, cool enough, inspiring enough to connect with the audience.

Most speakers I’ve heard, I’ve never met. But I know these young writers — so getting it just right matters. I’ve threatened to recite verbatim David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech to Kenyon College grads (This Is Water), the most exemplary address I know. I’m anxious to give them something like a lasting hug and compelling “Go for it!” to send them on their way memorably energized. I write, revise, read to a stopwatch, make cuts, revise some more.

In addition to student faces, this whole writing process is infused with memory. I’ve been conjuring my high school graduation — the smell of the gym, itchy lace on my dress, delighted surprise at ranking well among my peers. We squirmed on the brink of adulthood in the same gym where we’d produced musicals, cheered sports teams, sweated through gym classes, and panic-dashed to be on time for band and choir. It’s where we’d assembled for school-wide scoldings, and to mourn an exchange student who’d died in a car crash. It was, in our graduating moment, becoming the past. The speaker was a well-loved biology teacher, Mr. Richards. I remember to this day a lot that he said in class, but nothing of his speech.

I don’t recall any details of my undergraduate university graduation — except that I had postponed it by taking more and more classes until my parents threatened to stop subsidizing tuition.

Ohio State University MA in English – Go Bucks!

My first graduate degree was completed in two phases separated by odd jobs, marriage, giving birth, living abroad and moving back. Here’s a photo of happy me with my parents. My face reveals a mash-up of giddy joy and secretly still not exactly knowing how to navigate life convincingly.

Insert many endings and beginnings here.

To observe completion of my second graduate degree, my sister and I drove slick, blurry highway miles in sketchy-to-downright-deadly sleet and globby snow. Mom and Dad started down the same highway about an hour later and the rest of my dear ones were coming from different directions. The moments until we all met up at the arena were a harrowing wait. After the ceremony, amid scraping chairs and cheerful whoops, my mother, in tears, held my hands and told me that during the event she kept remembering my tiny baby self in her hands. Oh my! The image of her complicated, loving gaze is deeply engraved in my memory.

It’s all there — birth and death, innocence and wisdom. So many fresh starts that looked, at first, like endings. And in that, somehow, my task as speaker just became clearer: Speak well then perch and let life commence again.