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April 2024
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My Commencement Speech

Not that I’ve been invited to give one, but if I were …

By John Cadley

“IllustrationIllustration by Bart Browne

Faculty, alumni, parents, relatives, honored guests of the dais, and the security guard who gave me a ticket for double parking. (Uproarious laughter.) It is my honor to be here today addressing the Class of 2022. I was supposed to be here two years ago until the pandemic sent us all home to discover that 95% of the world’s business can be conducted in pajamas. (More uproarious laughter.) I actually forgot about this talk until the dean called and said, “We noticed you cashed that check we sent you in 2020. You owe us a commencement speech.” So here I am. (Wild applause.)

My remarks today revolve around an oft-quoted saying: May you live in interesting times. Well, you guys really got an A-plus on that one. (Whistles and whoops.) In fact, if things get any more interesting, they’re going to get downright aggravating, don’t you think? (Riotous laughter.)

And yet you’ve made it. Online classes, mask wearing, quarantines, cotton swabs up the nose, vaccinations, and worst of all, social distancing. When I was in college social distancing meant you couldn’t get a date. (Deafening laughter.) But you did it. Forget your grades. I think you young men and women should all graduate summa cum laude just for staying away from each other. (Standing ovation.) Not that all of you did. (Whistles and catcalls.)

Seriously, though … I see you sitting here before me with all your dreams and plans for the future, and I think of what my favorite philosopher, the American heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, said: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” (Gasps from parents and faculty.) Yes, I know—not exactly “Follow Your Bliss,” so let me explain. You don’t need me to give you hoary bromides about how to succeed in life. You know them. What you need to learn is how to handle failure and disappointment, because life will disappoint you. It already has. (Audience leaning forward in seats.) You just worked and studied for four arduous years to earn your degree, spending thousands of dollars in tuition and overcoming the enormous obstacles of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic in the bargain—while I, on the other hand, was handed an honorary degree virtually equal to yours 10 minutes ago just for standing up here and flapping my gums … and getting paid for it! How’s that for a punch in the mouth? (Stern looks from students, dean smiles weakly.)

Maybe you’re a philosophy major, in love with Socrates and Plato, yet somehow you end up managing a Marriott Courtyard in Toledo, Ohio.

I’m not saying this to discourage you. Your education is and always will be a pearl of great price. Just ask your parents. (Grim nods from parents.) I’m simply emphasizing life isn’t fair. Accepting this is true wisdom. It will save you from disillusion when you find out that dedication and diligence only pay off if they don’t make you look smarter than your boss—which isn’t hard to do, so be careful. It will spare you from the Where-Did-I-Go-Wrong guilt that comes when you do everything in your power to instill wholesome family values in your children, only to have one of them come home with a skull-and-crossbones tattoo asking for a motorcycle—and it’s your daughter.

It will protect you from the even more dangerous What-Did-I-Do-Right syndrome, which is what your own parents are experiencing right now. (Quizzical looks.) Normal as they may appear, at this very moment every one of them is in some stage of neurogenic shock at the realization that you’re actually graduating. That’s why they’ll be taking pictures later—to verify that they weren’t hallucinating.

Please understand—I’m not here to rain on your parade, or to steal your thunder, or to cast a dark cloud over your aspirations, or to dampen your spirits, or to keep going on with trite weather analogies. I’m here to toughen you for the battle to come, to help you learn the lessons of defeat that will pave the way to victory. Maybe you’re a philosophy major, in love with Socrates and Plato, yet somehow you end up managing a Marriott Courtyard in Toledo, Ohio. That’s okay. At the annual corporate meeting you’ll be the only one to hold a breakout session titled “Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason As It Applies to Off-Season Room Rates.” And that, my friends, has PROMOTION written all over it.

So please, by all means—follow your rainbow, grab for the brass ring, go for the gold, reach for the stars, shoot for the moon. Just remember to wear a mouthguard. (Explosive applause, ebullient cheers, cries of Cadley for President!)


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