Editor’s note: Mark Collins tells us that he has patiently waited for his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, to invite him back as a commencement speaker. Instead, each year Pitt chooses an alum who is “more accomplished” or “lacking in a criminal record.” This year the honor went to outgoing Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who will be speaking today. Clearly the university favors those who are amazingly successful instead of, you know, other people. Mr. Collins has now decided to share his wisdom without the benefit of a formal invitation.
Thank you for that kind introduction. It sounded much better than when I scribbled it down half an hour ago.
In the interest of time and to justify my unvouchered lunch, allow me to offer rousing plaudits along with equally rousing rebuttals. This will be a generic stump speech, the equivalent of the anticipated Mass in the Catholic Church, so, if you have another graduation to attend this spring, there’s no need to go. You’re covered.
First, the word commencement means “beginning;” it is not an end. Every graduation speaker feels an obligation to mention this. If you don’t know what the word “commence” means, perhaps those seven years of college have been misspent. Ironically, your student-loan payments will, indeed, commence. The first bill is now waiting for you at home. That’s the last efficient service you will receive.
Another standard cliche: We are at a crossroads where yesterday meets tomorrow. Frankly, I’d like to change this tired paradigm. I’d prefer if our crossroads were, say, 1981 and Apple was selling at $5 a share. Or I’d settle for last week, when I still had a working transmission in my car. But no. We speak thoughtfully of “living in the moment” as if we had options. We’re stuck here. We can try to bring hope to the hopeless, but after that it gets dicey. For instance, we can’t bring list to the listless or feck to the feckless, so we do the best we can.
Remember to thank your parents, without whom you wouldn’t be here. From where I stand, I can see your parents, and I’d rather not imagine how you got here.
Don’t forget where you came from. Ha! As if you could. I guess the idea is to keep you humble, but if anyone here has ever been in a family or knows of a family, then you know humiliation — sorry, humility. By the way, if any of you plan to find the cure for cancer just to prove your critics wrong, just to say I told you so, feel free. Go ahead. Fine by me.
You are the future. This is my favorite. It gets all of us off the hook — you’re not responsible for anything up until now because you’re just graduating, even though you’re 22 years old and can vote and drink and go off to war and get shot at, and we’re not responsible for anything that happens after next week ’cause now it’s up to you.
Hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but we’re all citizens. We’re all responsible for each other. Sure, some educated folks divorce society and fancy themselves the next Thoreau, but it’s a ruse. Thoreau outfitted his cabin at Walden with heat and light; the Unabomber packed his solitude into little mailable parcels that were also full of heat and light. Your choice.
Are you cynical yet?
Good, because that’s my gift to you. This is the last opportunity you have to be cynical. You can — you should — be suspicious, wary, guarded. It’s a mark of intelligence. But cynicism is a luxury you can afford no longer. Ditto with the word promise, that hallmark of college students. It’s now time to produce. Do what you need to do, but don’t do it for our sake. Don’t do it for the sake of your family or this institution. Do it because you’re a sentient being on this planet, third rock from the sun, alive among the living. It’s the rarest of gifts. It’s the fiercest of responsibilities. That’s why we’re pulling for you, and we are all pulling for you. We want for you what we pray for ourselves: a chance. This moment. Discovery. Meaning.
Aren’t you curious why you’re all dressed in flowing robes and funny hats? Because today you’re all the same. I can’t tell any differences among you. The next time you’ll be treated so democratically is when you die. So, somewhere between now and then, you have choices to make. Fortunately, you’re not alone. You’re not cynical. You’re free. And you’re alive.
Thank you. Now if someone can validate my parking ticket, I’ll leave you two — you and your future — to work out the details.
Mark Collins is a writer living in Ben Avon, but he also is a lecturer and environmental studies coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Geology and Planetary Science.