Commencement {Of Dreams, Failure, and Asking For Help}

A student gives his commencement speech in Public Speaking class.

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.

1 Timothy 4:12

A ninth-grader stoops down to zip up the long robe, struggling with the zipper until a classmate helps him.

“Do I have to wear the hat?” he asks me, adjusting the polyester garment that billows around him like a navy cumulus cloud.

“Only if you want to,” I reply. “It’s an optional hat today.”

“Oh, I want to,” he decides, pulling the mortarboard down over his hair. “Is this right?”

I nod approvingly, and he’s ready to begin.

After a good deal of preparation, which involved listening to dozens of examples, coming up with inspirational rhetorical devices and honing personal anecdotes for support, my Public Speaking students are giving commencement speeches this week. Though some, like the young man starting his speech now, are still three years away from completing high school, I’ve asked them all to spend a few weeks listening to and preparing speeches for graduation ceremonies.

Like the college essays that arrive at the end of American Literature each year like a piece of dramatic punctuation, the commencement speech was a curriculum choice that I initially questioned. These are the Hallmark cards of speeches, often filled with platitudes and flowery language, hardly the spontaneous, vibrant speeches on self-selected topics that I enjoy at other points in this class. In a setting where cheesiness is not only accepted but expected, I had little hope for genuine expression or feeling.

Still, the speeches have taught me more about my students, and young people in general, than I could ever have expected. Part of their instruction in preparing the speeches was to build them up on the foundation of what we affectionately called The Wisdom. This Wisdom often took the form of a memorable platitude, a catchphrase that they could emphasize and decorate with anecdotes and rhetoric. While I helped them with the decoration, the foundation was all their own.

There are of course a few students who go with the classic “Follow Your Dream” speech, but there is a great deal of variation, too. I hear several speeches on the importance of failure: accepting it, learning from it, moving on from it. One student talks about humility being the key to success, reminding us that our victories are not just our own, but gifts granted because we live in community. Another focuses her speech on asking for help, and warns that this is only valuable if we’re careful to see assistance from those wiser than ourselves. One of the last speakers encourages his classmates to avoid comparing themselves to each other, and rather to remain confident in the love and approval of the God who made them uniquely.

The speeches are mostly of high quality, sincere and well-delivered, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is their depth, how these 14- to 18-year-olds have given speeches that are identical in content–though the examples differ to those delivered by people with a great deal more life experience. I realize that these ideals, grand and beautiful exhortations, truly belong to young people. That we’re still repeating them now, as adults, is credit both to the ideas themselves and the kids who discovered them as teenagers.

After spending the last decade in the classroom, I’ve come to take for granted that students have wisdom to offer. I forget that many feel differently, looking at hordes of tall, scowling teenagers with unease or scorn. I wish that I could invite the general teen-fearing public to these commencement speeches, to see the endearingly nervous and entirely sincere presentations of young people happy to use their podium to give their hard-learned advice, which finally has a forum, to a receptive group of peers–and one adult–eager to listen. Young and less-young, we’re not terribly different as we to fail, to dream, and to ask for help from different stages of the journey.

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