8:17am

Sat May 21, 2011
Simon Says

Pomp And Circumstance And Tried But True Clichés

It's graduation season. Politicians, philanthropists, philosophers and movie stars fan out for the next few weeks to give commencement speeches: Bill Clinton was at NYU on Wednesday, Stephen Colbert goes to Northwestern in three weeks, Tom Hanks visits Yale tomorrow. I wonder if Mr. Hanks can resist saying, "Life is like a box of chocolates . . ."

President Obama gave the commencement speech at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis on Monday. Just three years ago, only half of the school's students graduated. But students and teachers worked hard, and this year's graduation rate is over 80 percent. The president of the United States told the graduating seniors, "I could not be prouder of what you do." Great speech.

Last year Al Gore charmingly confided to students at the University of Tennessee that he couldn't remember his own 1969 commencement speaker at Harvard. "I just remember the weather and the feelings of excitement and relief," he told the students to wild applause. "And the parties."

Stewart Udall, the former Secretary of the Interior, gave Harvard's commencement speech in 1969. You'd think a man who invented the Internet would know how to Google.

Even I get asked to give commencement speeches. It's a privilege. People call you Doctor for the day, and ask you to take a look at something on their neck. You meet smart professors backstage, and you get to hear them talk without paying tuition.

And it's gratifying to run into a bright, smiling young person on the street or in an airport who say they remember you as their commencement speaker, and see that they're not being led away by police.

A few years ago, I opened a commencement speech with a few jokes about what I thought were plainly graduation clichés: "Remember, education is a journey, not a destination! Today is the first day of the rest of your life!"

But several students later shook my hand to tell me how much those opening words had meant. And I realized: graduations, like weddings, funerals, and World Series parades, are one of those days that make clichés ring true.

If any graduates are up early, let me offer a few thoughts as they step into these arduous and exciting times.

Let life change you. You've worked hard and learned a lot. But if you live well, you're going to know love, loss, confusion and failure—life's truest teachers. Real life can shatter certainties like a delicate cup in a tornado. Keep learning. Be inconsistent. Don't have a rich, full life only to wind up at 40 with the same convictions you had when you were 20. Let life in.

And remember—today really is the first day of the rest of your life. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Related program: