Commencement Addresses

Graduation Remarks, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

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.

So. Baltimore.

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.

Congratulations again.

Especially to Molly Zinkgraf, who is off to the University of Wisconsin.  Go Badgers.



  • Excellent speech….I too greatly admired Bob Emler — had a blast, laughed a lot, and learned so much in his class a few years after you at B-CC. Great to know he was always so fine a teacher. He had the right blend of authority, rebellion, unpredictability, humor and knowledge.

    As a Tattler staff member — though not the editor-in-chief or possessing the same “blunt” (pun intended) tactics as you — I also recall the smell of alcohol around the adviser. (I remember her his name but will not mention it here.) He looked almost as peculiar as he acted! While perhaps your antics drove him to drink, he was still drinking three years later with our comparatively tame staff.

    I have no memory of Ms. Lynch. Perhaps my mind has blocked her out for my own welfare. Ms. Appleton was OK for me — though she once suspended my brother when he and a girl in the class threw each other’s books out the window.

    Fantastic to see Gary Zinkgraf mentioned here, as well as to see Randy’s comments — I second what he wrote about your family. It was, for me, a great neighborhood to grow up in.

  • Here I am in Nairobi, Kenya, just in after three months in Ethiopia which I soon return to. Treme and the Wire are the only two TV shows I have watched in the last 14 years. And I watched every episode on DVD. I had no idea that David grew up in my same neighborhood, I graduated from Whitman in 1972. Brings back some memories, that McDonalds’s across from BCC too.

    I had to wonder what kind of stories David would spin about Africa. I love it here.

    I had your book Homicide in my pile but not enough room to bring it with me this time, I will get to it.

  • This was wonderfully raw. Inspiring and humbling for anyone of any age at any stage in life. I’m curious – is there an audio file of this speech? I’d love to hear it.

  • I’m sorry I missed your speech. I’m sure it was good because I know what a sharp guy you are and you are usually the smartest guy in the room. I also know how much of a caring family that you have. I have really missed talking to you , Dot and Bernie and Linda. I did not know Gary that well. I have to laugh out loud when I hear my oldest who I call “Ms. Baltimore” talk about your work. It is a privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with someone who has touched so many in a positive way. Oh and by the way, just to remind you who I am, your poster Brad is an idiot.

  • You forgot to mention that you were the smartest kid I ever knew and had some of the most loving parents I have had the pleasure of sharing time with.I miss them and I also miss Linda.

  • David, I was in the audience as the mother of a graduate, and I myself graduated from BCC in 1977. I thought your graduation speech was brilliant – it was nuanced and at the same time strong. I appreciated the call to the graduates to be responsible for others, which seems an especially important message to this new crop of voters in election year, when the Republicans don’t often appear to care about being responsible for others. As for BCC in the late ‘70s, I, like you, have good memories of Mr. Davis. I’m not sure I learned much in my classes. I did appreciate that the student body was open-minded: that by high school, we had lost the cliques from Western Junior High that had been based on stereotypes (nerds, jocks etc). Or maybe it was the Leland kids who were more open-minded and made BCC a better place. At BCC, I wasn’t ostracized as a nerd because I liked classical music. I do remember admiring the truly “cool” kids who spent all day with a wet spot on their pants from sitting under the pine trees. And I remember that the door on the side of the school was boarded up because it got too cool from drug use! It’s still shut. I also remember liking the murals above the lockers for how each era had its own look – I think they nurtured my interest in history of music and how styles change. My class was the one that stole the sign in front of the school and gave it back to our shoplifting principal at graduation – truly funny! And I remember being on the school bus hearing that the Vietnam War had ended. Our era at BCC was a bit between-things (my younger sister’s class was famous for their slogan, “apathy shines in ’79!”). I’m sure the current graduates are much less apathetic after hearing your remarks! Thank you for them —

  • David, I was in the audience as a mother of a graduate.. I appreciated your tone and content and especially your phrase “you are responsible” yes in deed, they are.. we all are..from a friend, i later got the gist of the Holy Cross 2012 graduation speech by Dr. Paul Farmer.. you two were singing from the same song book.. we can not hear it enough Thank you again.. GO BARONS..

  • David – Really enjoyed your speech, particularly this line: “I tumbled through high school and into college without any sense that it could or would go differently.”

    My middle son is graduating from a California High School in about 6 hours. Can’t imagine the speech can top this one! — Robin, B-CC ’77

  • I grew up in the BCC zone and transferred to Whitman. I have to agree that not only did BCC have the best drugs, they could be conveniently obtained after hours across the street at McDonald’s. I was in the audience at DAR watching my oldest son graduate. My family thoroughly enjoyed your address. It was especially enjoyable watching the principal and superintendent squirm when you mentioned obtaining beer. If you mentioned drugs, they probably would have given you the hook. Underage drinking is now an excuse for the most heavy-handed police tactics by Montgomery County police. They have gone from being suburban police force that wore brown uniforms, to black clad paramilitary force ruling over two types of people. Criminals, and criminals they haven’t caught yet.

  • thanks for sharing this. would have loved to have been there. to hear it in person. lucky crowd that day.

  • I graduated in aught two. Our commencement speaker was Condi Rice (not so white, lumpy, or male) and I remember being more angsty and enraged than disinterested.

  • That, sir, is the finest encapsulation of Ms. Lynch I’ve ever heard.

    (I truly wish I had had the opportunity – made the time – later in life to visit and thank her. There are precious few educators who understand, and sincerely care about, their students.

    And I’d completely forgotten about Mr. Emler’s aim. Practice, clearly.)

    • Rregrettably, I don’t have much in the way of admiration for Ms. Lynch. To her assertion that I was the worst student in her AP history course, I will merely take an Alford plea. But her insistence to my parents, at a meeting called by her, that I was a bad person in general — this resulted from her becoming intensely emotional and antagonistic because of my battles over the content of the school newspaper.

      Her best friend was the newspaper adviser. I made his life hell and she returned the favor.

      She tried to fail me, but overplayed her hand. Eventually, someone from the history department was called in to review the substandard essay tests that suddenly required failing grades after the Tattler imbroglio. The tests were upgraded to Bs and Cs and Ms. Lynch was ordered to stand down from the crusade.

      From this vantage, I admire her loyalty and friendship, and yeah, as I said, I was mouthy little bastard. So no pride here. But that woman — who could be so supporting and affectionate with favored students, could also be thoroughly, embarassingly unprofessional when displeased.

      Bob Emler was a smart man. And a mensch. And a fine teacher.

      Appleton, Biedron, Ward, Motovitch. Mr. Davis, who died soon after in a car accident, tragically. There were a lot of great teachers there. It was a fine faculty and a good school. We used to say that Whitman had all the national merit scholars, that the Churchill kids had the money(as if we were ghetto), that the Blair kids had the ability to kick our ass and take our lunch money. But B-CC, we argued, had the best drugs.

      Hyperbole, I’m sure. As I said, we were a good school. Though I did smoke an awful lot of weed my senior year.

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