Ironically, June is both the month of the summer solstice and of America’s biggest annual blizzard. I don’t mean a weather event blowing in from the Arctic, but a merciless storm of words blowing from commencement speakers at high school and college graduation events.
This year, I was one of the blowhards, the chief speechifyer for some 260 graduates of my old high school in Denison, Texas. While it was an honor to be chosen as their ceremonial yakker, it’s also a truly humbling experience, since I was the person that the degree recipients and their 5,000 supporters in the audience were least interested in.
Plus, commencement pontificators are expected to offer some sage advice to guide the grads as they moved on, and I was all out of sage. So, I resorted to three admonitions I once learned from a West Texas cowboy: “Never squat with your spurs on;” “Always drink upstream from the herd;” and “Speak the truth – but ride a fast horse.”
Then I hit them with my main message: Now that you’ve had a dozen years in the classroom and earned this important credential, DON’T BE AN IDIOT! I used “idiot” in the same way that ancient Greeks originally meant it. Idiotes were not people with low-watt brains, but individuals who cared only about themselves, refusing to participate in public efforts to benefit the larger community – to serve the common good.
The Greeks, I told the students, considered such people selfish, contemptible and stupid ... and so should we.
The encouraging news is that this crop of graduates from Denison High nodded in agreement. After all, they’ve seen that the idiots are running things in Washington and on Wall Street, and the youngsters seem to be hungry for less selfishness and more togetherness as our society’s guiding ethic.
To stress the rich possibilities of a society working together, I noted that any of us who rise in life do so because many helping hands give us a lift. While this night of celebration belonged to the students, the achievement being celebrated belonged to the whole community – the families, friends, teachers, taxpayers and others who were part of the lifting.
I told them about Harrell’s hardware store, located near my home in Austin, Texas. It’s an independent un-chained, small-box store with a knowledgeable staff willing to help customers figure out how to do most any project. Harrell’s slogan is, “Together, we can do it yourself.”
Like most commencement droners, I urged the bright faces to do “Big Things” in life. But my point was that bigness cannot be measured in terms of personal wealth and self aggrandizement. Rather, only by joining with others in democratic actions can you achieve something bigger than yourself.
As Bill Moyers noted in an earlier graduation speech: “Civilization is not natural. It’s an accomplishment of culture. It is not just ‘what happens,’ it is what we make happen.” The proof of this was sitting right in front of me at the graduation ceremonies. When I was in their place in 1961, every single person in my class and the audience was a white Anglo. Our schools and town were totally segregated. On this night, though, the ceremony taking place was a glory of Anglo, African, Latino, Arab, Asian and other ancestries.
Denison became a better, more civilized place only because many people had dared to stand together to make it happen. The class of 2013 applauded this ethic of social progress, and they gave me hope that they and others like them will pull our country together again, e pluribus unum.