Around The Rim Country

Advice for the graduating senior


Since commencement speakers are usually ex-presidents or other semi-notorious has-beens, I'm hopeful one of these Mays they'll work their way down to me a battered and beaten newspaper columnist who, like most commencement speakers I've heard, has learned absolutely nothing about life that is worth sharing.

And while most people consider public speaking a fate worse than death (according to an actual study of fears and phobias), I would welcome an invitation to deliver a commencement address. But alas, graduation has come and gone in the Rim country, and once again I have been bypassed as a commencement speaker.

Fortunately, I have a forum not available to most rejected commencement speakers the friendly confines of "Around the Rim."

In fact, one of the best creative writing assignments I've ever come up with for my students at Eastern Arizona College most of whom are mature adults is to write a potential commencement address that incorporates all the lessons they've learned in life, most often the hard way. Even if you have no aspirations as a creative writer, you'll find it a most enlightening exercise.

To help my students get started, I provide them with two outstanding examples by writers who did the very same thing. The first is a column by Paul Greenberg for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate about a commencement address he actually gave at Subiaco Academy, a college prep school in Arkansas.

It focused not on success which he believes is highly over-rated but on his "own field of expertise: failure." He told the graduates they were looking at a lucky man. "Because it's a wonderful thing to experience failure early in life. And to have it over with.

"After a great failure," he continued, "nobody expects anything much of you anymore. Your calendar is cleared for the rest of your life."

More seriously, he added, "To fail can be a great thing, a humbling and illuminating experience, an education all its own. Failure will show you who your friends are and, more important, who you are.

"Failure restores perspective. It obliterates earlier obsessions."

The other example I give my students is by Michael Kelly, editor of the National Journal. Right up front he says that he intends to depart from the usual uplifting stuff because it is "divorced from the realities of life."

Kelly then proceeds to enumerate and advocate tongue-in-cheek, of course all the things that are wrong with our society. "As you go forward," he says, "remember that the main thing is to go forward.

"Work, work, work. Litigate, litigate, litigate. Consume, consume, consume."

In one of my favorite passages, he writes, "Make money. Make as much as you can, as fast as you can ... Look out for number one ... Carpe diem and carpe the other guy's diem too, when he's not looking."

Had I been asked to give the commencement address last week at PHS, I would have been sorely tempted to quote from both Greenberg and Kelly; the former, because I believe he is right on the money about learning the most from the things we get wrong, and the latter, because a little irreverence can help you get your point across before people doze off or space out.

But if I expect my writing students to come up with a commencement address that captures the essence of what they have learned about life, then I should be able to do as much myself.

So here are some pearls of wisdom I would, if asked, pass on to the graduates of Payson High School:

You have crossed over the line, and are no longer allowed to whine, "But there's nothing to do in this town." You are now part of the problem.

Things are never as black and white as they seem. Those black and white signs on Tyler Parkway that say "25," for example, are impossible to take literally.

And last but not least, dear graduates of Payson High School, the words of wisdom you will find most difficult to believe: As much as you desire to make a "beeline" for the lights and pleasures of the big city, the day will most surely come when you will yearn to leave some major metropolis so you can live the simple life in a small town just like Payson.

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