They don’t usually vote on the graduating senior least likely to be invited back as the commencement speaker, or for any other reason. But if they had, I was certainly a favorite for the class of 1978. Nonetheless, the powers-that-be at my old school inquired, and because one of my great childhood friends, Gary Zinkgraf, was going to be there to celebrate his daughter Molly’s graduation, I took the gig :
First off, I imagine some of you out there – if you’re familiar with my writing, my rhetoric or my general demeanor – are wondering, can he do a high school graduation? I mean, on an occasion such as this, a certain decorum is required, right?
Well, truth is I am under contract at HBO, and the network requires me to use at least one profanity every ten minutes in every possible venue. So those of you expecting pristine commencement remarks, well, you’re shit out of luck. But I’ll try to hold it down as best I can.
On the other hand, anyone out there worried that I’ll take into account the relative youth of the graduates and pull punches, offering up only the usual platitudes about life journeys and to-thine-own-self-be-true and that kind of nonsense – you needn’t worry either.
The truth is it really doesn’t matter what I say here today, does it?
Thinking back on my moment in a Baron cap and gown 34 years ago, I have vague recollections of some lumpy old white guy speaking earnestly about life’s journey, and taking chances, and following your bliss. At least, that’s what I think he said. I’m not quite sure. Because, really, I was goofing around with the kids sitting near me, and not listening all that much. My mind wandered that day, contemplating where I should try to buy beer on a really bad fake ID, so that I’d have a six pack or two to take down to Ocean City. That is, if I could convince Terry Montgomery to convince her parents to let her go down to the shore with me. That, I will admit to you, constitutes the entire contents of my mind as I sat at my Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School commencement half a lifetime ago. If more than a handful of you out there this morning have thoughts more ennobled than that, well, a hole has been punched in the known universe, as I understand it. School’s out. Summer’s here. So when is this guy going to stop talking and when do they call our names and give us the scrolls? And when do we roll out of here?
All of which makes me the lumpy white guy. I’m now him. And I’m supposed to stand here and pretend to instruct you in the deeper meanings of life. And you’re supposed to pretend to listen. Christ.
Well, here’s the thing.
I don’t yet know the meaning of life. I’ve been a journalist, an author, a television producer and an opinionated, argumentative gadfly for a while now. I’ve seen some stuff. I’ve read some more. I’ve kicked the can with other folks who have seen some stuff and read some. And you know what? When it comes to big questions – why are we here, who are we supposed to be, how are we supposed to live – I know precious little.
I know that man’s natural state is disorder, that we go day to day, year to year, pretending to a plan, and charting our progress, but in the end, we can only control so much of our lives, much less the world around us. I know that most, but not all of us, want the same things for ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our world – and by and large those things are worth a fight. I know that luck matters and circumstance matters; hard work and endurance are required, but they guarantee absolutely nothing. I know the world isn’t close to fair enough to those who labor in it. And I know one thing above all. And it’s this: You are responsible. For everything. For yourselves, for the people you know and love – of course. That’s the easy part. But it gets harder in that you are responsible for the folks you don’t know and love, for people you have never met, for people who don’t know and don’t love you. We are all responsible. All of us. For our community. For our society. For our country. For our world. And that isn’t platitude. Because to me, that responsibility is terrifying, it’s epic, it’s almost too big for the ordinary human heart to bear.
Most, but not all of you, are going to college. To learn some more, to make it more likely, perhaps, that you might negotiate this world successfully. But let’s be honest for a moment: All of you are starting on that road from a public school of notable excellence in a county known for the quality of its education system. Why are you here in the first place? Why not elsewhere? Why you and not someone else?
Well, guys, what can I say? You happened to fall out of the right womb, demographically and geographically. Your parents – I see them out there, muttering, wondering if I’m ever going to say anything warm and fuzzy this morning – your parents did a helluva lot right to get you to this part of the world, to secure for you the extraordinary jump start of a superior education, of a life of relative personal safety and suburban ease. And my guess is, they’re not done yet. They’re the kind of parents that are going to be there for you, conspiring for your future, for many years to come.
How do I know? Well, hey, I caught the same break. And Montgomery County thirty-five years ago was no different for me as it is for you. I tumbled through high school and into college without any sense that it could or would go differently. Certain things were assumed for my life. The guardrails were all there. The airbags all worked. I might come through with a few dents and scratches, I might screw up here and there, but by and large, the risks I was asked to take were for the most part moderate and plausible. I was going to have to work some, and get a little lucky, sure. But for real, I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. I mean, damn. Nice work if you can get it.
So let’s not pause more than a moment or two to reflect honestly about my time at B-CC. Because it wasn’t pretty. A fine English teacher by the name of Bob Emler threw a copy of “Brave New World” at my head, waking me from slumber in his first-period class. It was a paperback, but still. And Kay Lynch called my parents in to assure them that I was not only the worst student in her AP history class, but quite possibly a very bad person, as well. I was not merely indifferent to grades, I was willfully indifferent – which is a notable phrase if you think about it. I knew I was headed for the University of Maryland. And back then, there was no big honors program at College Park, and the in-state requirements were such that with a decent SAT score, I was guaranteed admission regardless of grade-point average, extracurricular activities or even minor felony convictions on a county rap sheet.
In short, I was a skinny, mouthy pain-in-the-ass. If I did anything at all notable in high school, I got hold of your Tattler, the school paper, and I pissed some more people off. I am being honest when I tell you that by spring, there was some evidence, olfactory in nature, to claim that the newspaper adviser had taken to drink. At College Park, I did pretty much the same, and eventually, I landed in Baltimore, as a newspaperman, which is about as well as a mouthy pain-in-the-ass ever does.
What was Baltimore to a kid from Montgomery County? It was another world, another America. Maybe not all of the city, but those quadrants that had been left behind, those people living at the margins of a deindustrialized society, in a country that no longer had any use for them? There were places in that city that stunned me, that shook something loose inside me. And guess what? It isn’t as if Baltimore is some third-world nightmare. The west side of Baltimore has fundamental problems, but it isn’t, say, the vast slums of Karachi or the war zone of Mogadishu. It’s an American city, not forty miles from here. And Northeast Washington isn’t ten miles from here, for that matter. But the distance is greater than that, isn’t it?
Well, you know where this goes. You’re so sure of it now that I don’t even need to spell it out, do I? Right, this is the part about responsibility.
Some of you have had great hardships, I’m sure; all of you have struggled at points, no doubt. But you sit here in this grand auditorium as proud, achieving representatives of a functional society, of an America where human life is not systemically marginalized, of an America that, by and large, still requires and uses its well-educated elite. I didn’t graduate from B-CC, or college for that matter, as a particularly naïve sort. I wasn’t any more callow than the next fellow. But landing in Baltimore and learning a city like Baltimore from the ground up changed me in ways that I have been addressing ever since. It started the process of actually growing me up.
So what am I saying? Do you all need to move to Baltimore, or Mogadishu, or Karachi and flagellate yourselves because you happened to be born and raised and educated in better circumstance? Of course not. That’s not what this is about. No one’s asking for cheap, useless guilt here. No, this is about empathy, about a shared sense of humanity, about – and here it comes again – responsibility.
This world needs you. If not you, then who? If not the children of a viable, functional America, then who? I wouldn’t dare tell any of you what to do with your futures, and I wouldn’t dare suggest that you must be for anyone other than yourself first, that you are not first responsible for making yourselves whole and safe and secure.
But these times – your times, I’m sorry to say – call for more, a lot more. And I do worry that those of you coming of age in one of the most affluent, most cohesive jurisdictions in America may be a little bit shocked – as I was shocked – to discover how much need there is. Franz Kafka, a fellow who knew a little something about long odds, once famously warned that “we are free to shut ourselves off from the suffering of the world. It is our right and it is in our nature to do so. But perhaps,” he added, “this is the only suffering that we might have avoided.”
Believe that. In the end, when you, God willing, are lumpy and old, you may find that the harshest judgments on your lives will be your own. And whether you admit it now or not, the only judgment that will matter, the only metric on which you can stake any real meaning for your lives is this: Did I leave the world better than I found it, or worse?
That’s it right there. That’s all I’ve got for you. The Talmud declares that he who saves one life, it is as if he saved the whole world. Sounds hyperbolic, I know. The world is a big place, and no one person can ever be responsible for more than a few shards of it. But all of us are destined for moments when it will be harder to do the right thing, when empathy and conscience will cost, when someone other than ourselves, our family, our friends, or even our tribe might be vulnerable. How all of you here come to that moment, and how you act in that moment – this is the question. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and guess what, you all were born at the right time, in the right place, to the right people. When it comes to what’s right, you already know the difference, even without the diplomas.
I’m out. And in a few more minutes, you’ll be free. And if you’re headed for the shore, as I once was headed for the shore, drive safe. I hope all of you outshine my own fading memories of this moment, because yeah, in case you were wondering, I got the six-packs, no problem. But in the end, I didn’t get the girl.
Life can be that way sometimes.
Especially to Molly Zinkgraf, who is off to the University of Wisconsin. Go Badgers.