Graduation speeches: What are they meant to do? I suggest they congratulate and challenge. Speakers try to get the attention of young people and their families and friends with catchy phrases -- that they may remember for at least a few minutes. For all I have attended, it hard to remember who spoke much less what they said.
At Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales and St. John the Baptist where I preach I wonder how many folks are listening or even know who I am. A parishioner thanked me for my homily. That day I didn’t preach.
Sometimes people do remember.
It was May 16, 1976 at the University of Notre Dame. Vernon Jordon, the president of the Urban League was the commencement speaker. The father of my classmate, Father Jim Doherty, CSC, former pastor of St. John the Baptist, North Bennington was there. Jim’s dad was very upset with the talk. Jim is a native of Boston and the speaker mentioned "Racism" in Boston. When we returned to the seminary for refreshments his dad disappeared not to be seen until the next day. Jordon’s talk touched at least one person.
Last year, George Saunders, an English professor, gave the commencement speech at the Syracuse University in 2013. His talk went "viral." For you non-computer people it means becoming extremely popular in a very short amount of time. The theme of his talk with kindness. How can one become more loving, more open, less selfish?
George talked about Ellen who was his classmate in seventh grade. She was shy and short and had difficulty making friends. She didn’t stay long. He regrets not reaching out to her with kindness.
Grace Duffy was my "Ellen" in my grade school at St. Cecelia’s Clearwater, Florida. She was overweight and shy. After school instead of staying for athletic and/or social events she would go to her parent’s grocery store. She had few friends. I would ride my bike by the store but not stop to say "hi". A few years after high school graduation I found out she had died. I too regret not being kind to her.
What’s the problem?
A book of short essays came out 25 year ago. It is called "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." It mentions holding hands and sticking together Š and yes Š taking a nap in the afternoon. It is a good read today Š Your assignment is to read it. You can get it on Kindle.
So as you listen to boring commencement speakers, recall George Saunders’s advice to graduates, be kind.
I give you another assignment... Write a letter to yourself dated five years from now. State what you are doing and how you got there. Hopefully it will be filled with kindness to those you meet along the way.
Oh, by the way, class of 2014, I wish you happiness, all the luck in the world and a beautiful summer.
The Rev. Bob Wiseman, CSC, is pastor of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington and St. John the Baptist in North Bennington.