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A college commencement speech you’ll never hear

Post by Brian O'Neill on May 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm with No Comments »
May 25, 2014 6:53 pm

If I were a snippy kind of guy, the fact that I didn’t receive a single invitation to deliver a college commencement address might irk me. But I’m not. Sniff.

Outside of a handful of web-surfing insomniacs I recognize that few people have heard of me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to contribute to the graduation zeitgist (whatever that is). This is the speech I might have given, if anyone had asked.


University of Puget Sound commencement/ TNT photo
University of Puget Sound commencement/ TNT photo

Hey kids. Thanks for inviting me to speak at the commencement of the class of 2014. You guys look great in those caps and gowns, which as you have already discovered have the added benefit of hiding that fifth of tequila with room left for a bartender to pour it.

I want to congratulate you on all that hard work over the last (pick one) four/five/you gotta be kidding me! years. But I don’t want to talk to you about yesterday.  I want to talk to you about tomorrow.

Let me ask you a question? What are you going to do when you wake up in the morning as a new college graduate, or to be more precise, as the newest member of the swollen ranks of the unemployed?

I’m guessing some of you already have a spot-on answer. For those of you without a job offer, some are knee deep in the search. And then there are those among you who haven’t even thought as far as the mind-blowing hangover they’ll have when they wake up tomorrow wrapped around a moist porcelain bowl.

Face it, up until now you have only been living on the edge of reality. Whether you emptied your parents 529 account, worked part-time or borrowed your way through college, that sea of money was always on the outgoing tide. Well, starting tomorrow that tide must turn.

And there’s more. All the institutions that supported your progress to this point – from the overworked hospital staff that birthed you to the under-funded school district that educated you, from the political system that heaped debt on your shoulders to the criminal justice system that held back the marauding hordes – are due for a rotation in personnel.

Believe it or not, people get worn out.

That’s where you come in. Sure, we all know that you’re special. We totally expect you to rocket to fame and fortune in a few months as singers, athletes or actors, or at least become billionaire hedge fund managers. After all, those trophies on your wall weren’t just for showing up, am I right?

Ahem. So, when your bubble does burst, remember this – there is honor in service.

To serve, of course, means to do work on behalf of others (click on the link in case you thought honor only referred to tough classes). For example:

  • A nurse served your pregnant mother, monitoring her condition (and yours) while providing kind words and ice chips
  • A teacher served you by wiping away yours tears on that first day of kindergarten, and later by force-feeding you Shakespeare until you finally saw the genius trapped behind the weird dialect
  • A politician served you not only by raising your taxes, but also by diverting the revenue to schools, job creation and public services (it wasn’t enough – maybe you can fix that?)
  • A police officer served you by writing you a speeding ticket, and despite all your complaining it means you’ll never experience the high speed crash that would have destroyed your life 

These are just a few examples of public service careers. Before you decide that one of these might work for you, however, a word of caution. You won’t get rich.

It’s true. Aside from a tiny percentage, none of these professionals will earn anything better than a middle-class salary. Not that a decent wage is a bad thing, of course, but if you do enter the service realm the fantasy of living on a yacht in the Keys or driving a shiny new Maserati  might be on hold for, roughly, forever.

But life is about trade-offs. Just as your parents traded in a world cruise so you could attend college, you might also decide that the satisfaction in helping to plug the leaks in health care, education, politics or criminal justice is worth the trade-off in champagne and caviar. And if you take a chance, you just might find your passion and, thus, your calling.

So tonight, congratulations. Go forth, eat drink and be merry. Tomorrow is a work day.

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