Graduates: There is Nothing to Fear but the Speech Itself

Graduation season is here, and for my extended family this year involves a seemingly unending string of pomp and circumstance. My sister, my brother, my brother-in-law, and two cousins are all graduating from college, while two other cousins are finishing up high school.

A recent Saturday found me at my own alma mater, Oklahoma State, to see a sibling and one cousin receive their degrees. Due to the huge number of students, the university split the graduating class in half and held two ceremonies, one in the morning and one in the evening. Of course, my cousin and sister were not in the same ceremony, so I had to attend both graduations.

This situation provided a rare opportunity to not only be bored by the reading of thousands of names, but to hear the same speakers give the same speeches twice in just the matter of a few hours. The commencement speaker was one Frank Williams, Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The Rhode Island Supreme Court? That choice puzzled me somewhat. Not that being Chief Justice of a state Supreme Court is anything to laugh at; it is certainly an honorable position that represents a very high level of success and intellectual credibility. But why the Rhode Island Chief Justice, at an Oklahoma State graduation? That question was soon answered when Justice Williams was introduced as, among other things, a close friend of William Spears. The business college at OSU is named the William S. Spears School of Business.

Justice Williams quickly acknowledged that it doesn’t really matter who the commencement speaker is, or what was said in the speech, because eventually everyone forgets who spoke at their graduation anyway. Which is true, in my experience; I don’t remember who spoke at my graduation, and that was just 3 years ago. I would have already forgotten Frank Williams’ name, except I heard him twice make the joke that no one would remember him, and twice spell out his name as the punch line to that joke.

If the Chief Justice was correct in his assertion that no one would remember him and his speech, then it did not matter what he said or even whether he showed up. And, for the most part, that is probably true. The commencement speech is an interesting animal. It serves as final instructions for graduates, in the form of little wisdom tidbits with perhaps a call to action. It is almost as if the thousands of hours spent in class listening to lecturers were not considered enough, and now a 30-minute motivational speech will really prepare the graduates to enter the outside world. And just like that freshman biology course, most if it will go in one ear and out the other.

After the ceremony, the lobbies and sidewalks in and around the stadium were filled with parents wearing bright spring colors and graduates wearing black robes. Aided by cell phones, each set of family and friends was eventually united with the newly-minted grad they were searching for. All around one could see different tiny celebrations take place. There were the first-family-member-to-graduate-from-college celebrations, which were the loudest and most enthusiastic displays of joy. There were the school’s-out-forever celebrations by students who never really liked class anyway. Then there were the more subdued relieved-it-is-finally-over celebrations, by those who had taken a few extra years to get their four-year degree.

As I scanned the crowd for my sister, I noticed one graduate who did not fit in any of the celebration categories. She was alone, though it looked like she was waiting on her family. She was not excited, relieved, or happy. Instead, she was holding back tears. The emotion on her face was unmistakable, and it was not sadness at leaving her friends and her school and college life behind. No, it was a quite different emotion: fear. She was faced with making the change from school life to what most people call the “real world”, and she was terrified about what was to come.

I could sympathize, or at least realize where she was coming from. She had finished her formal education, and was therefore officially prepared to enter the workforce. But, as she probably realized, school is a questionable preparation for the real world. For the last 17 years, her main job and responsibility in life was to go to school, where she has been extensively prepared to do one thing: pass written tests. Now she was expected to enter the world of work, and though she is not sure exactly what that will look like, she does have a pretty good idea that it will not include written tests. Paychecks are not based on the number of multiple-choice questions you can answer correctly.

Education also instills a healthy fear of failure. Everyone seeks approval and acceptance, and in the structure of a classroom that is pretty clear-cut: you either pass or you fail, and you get letter grades to measure exactly how well you are doing. What if she fails at her job? Presuming her employer does not give out letter grades, how will she even know if she is doing a good job, other than the absence of getting fired for one more day? Even that is assuming that she has been able to find a job. Perhaps a lack of success in getting hired is a big part of the reason she is scared.

Justice Williams quoted an old movie in his speech, one that none of the graduates (or myself) had ever heard of. He somewhat butchered the delivery, both times, but as near as I can remember, the quote involved two cowboys discussing metaphors for life. The older and wiser of the two characters finally gave up and said that “life is like nothing I’ve ever heard of.” A pretty good statement, in my opinion, but not one that would be very comforting to a nervous grad.

So, to all the graduates who have forgotten what was said at their commencement (along with most of what they learned while studying for finals), I would like to offer some reassurance. The real world is not all that bad. For one thing, you will now get paid for doing your job, instead of paying to go to class. If you were the studious type in college, you will now probably have more free time (at least until you have a house, and kids, and the like). Sure, most jobs will put a cramp on your ability to stay up until 4 a.m. every night, since you are expected to be “in class” much more than 15 hours a week. But, you will also have much less homework, and most of you will never have to pull an all-nighter for your job.

For those who are worried because they still haven’t found a job: well, having a job is kind of overrated, anyway.

So try not to worry. Everything will work out fine.

And if it doesn’t, there is always grad school.

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