Opinion » Bill Cope

You Commence, Girl

Getting graduation goopy


Once again, in line with a tradition that goes all the way back to when I first made myself available to deliver emergency commencement addresses, I have not been called on to deliver a commencement address. Emergency or any other kind.

Of course, it's early. Some schools aren't done for another four ... five days yet. So much could happen to a scheduled commencement speaker in four or five days, yes? Airport delays, bird flu, an untimely DUI arrest, a gastric bypass surgery that went wrong, a subpoena to appear before Congress ... just one such incident could send some hall of academia somewhere into a desperate and frenzied search for a substitute. This is precisely why I started my enterprise, Commencement Addresses 'R' Me. I did it out of the goodness of my heart, really, for I believe no graduating youngster should have to suffer the absence of a 10-to-20-minute speech on how much they don't know yet.

With that said, though, I am announcing here and now that even should an emergency arise, I cannot and will not be doing any at-large commencement addressing this graduation season. Even should Yale or Harvard call, I can't go. As they say, I am "indisposed" ... only not in the "going to the bathroom" way.

You see, my own youngster is graduating this weekend, and I cannot allow myself to be distracted from that momentous occasion by whatever your kids are doing. Yeah, yeah, how wonderful it is that your Tommy or your Melinda Sue is also graduating ... or getting married ... or is up for parole ... whatever. Now excuse me, but I've got someone I truly care about to pay attention to.

In appreciation of her achievements (as well as gratitude for her getting through 13 years of public school without so much as a single expulsion or late-night call from the police), I've written her her own private commencement address. You all are welcome to read it if you wish, but please, don't take from it any inspiration, messages or maxims you think might apply to your life. This is between her and me, and it's probable even she won't understand what I've tried to say. But maybe someday she will. And maybe it's when she needs to the very most.

To the graduating class of Annie:

First of all, we should both thank the educators of Meridian Elementary School, Meridian Middle and Meridian High School. Like public education in general, the Meridian District may have its problems, but they did a damn fine job on you, daughter—from Ms. Gangwer in kindergarten right on through Misters Blattner and Wilder, your FFA advisers. (Folks, I don't know how the rest of your charges turned out, but I couldn't be happier with the work you did on my kid.)

Now, young lady, I ask you to think back to last fall when, as drum major for the marching band, you conducted the closing number from the Bernstein/Hellman adaptation of Candide. I was thrilled when I learned what you were doing. That musical has been one of my favorites since I first heard it as a student 40 years ago, and it's unlikely I will ever get through the final song, "We'll Make Our Garden Grow," without tearing up. As you know, I am particularly sappy when it comes to certain music—"Danny Boy," "Somewhere" from West Side Story, that Earth, Wind and Fire tune your mom and I always dance to ... to name but a few. How many times have I heard you say, "Gosh, Dad ... you're such a big baby," when you noticed I was crying through something we were hearing together?

That's why I didn't tell you that "We'll Make Our Garden Grow," is another one of those songs. As you stood on the podium conducting your band through the finale, I didn't want you distracted with the thought that your big baby dad was behind you, in the stands, bawling his eyes out in front of a thousand kids you go to school with.

But now that you're leaving Meridian High and won't be seeing most of those kids again, I can tell you I was extraordinarily sappy during those performances. I was bawling over not merely the music, but the sight of my beautiful, beautiful daughter directing that beautiful, beautiful song. I guess you could say it was like a perfect storm of sappiness. The only thing that could have made it any sappier is if your grandparents could have been there to see you—if I could have watched both you and the pride in their eyes at the same time. Had that happened, I'd probably still be out there sitting in the football stands, sobbing like a French mime.

One other thing missing from your band's performance were the words to that song. It wasn't anyone's fault. It is the nature of marching bands to leave out the lyrics. And in all but the rarest of examples, lyrics never match the majesty of the music they go with, anyway. (That's why it's always smart to write operas in Italian or German, so that no one knows what mundane things those tenors and sopranos are singing to such exquisite music.)

But "We'll Make Our Garden Grow" is the exception. Dorothy Parker's lyrics complement Bernstein's music like a butterfly on a flower. Here you have this guy, Candide, who's been through about everything horrid there is to go through—earthquake, war, disease, murder, slavery ... he's sort of Voltaire's version of Job. Yet in the end, Candide seems to figure out that life isn't about trying to figure out what life is about. In the end, what matters isn't what you understand, but what you do.

(Albert Camus said it a bit more succinctly: "You will never live your life if you are looking for the meaning of life." I suppose I could have just given you his quote and let it go at that. But you know me ... why stop at a dozen words when a thousand makes a column.)

So, Ann, here is the lyric that goes with the song you directed—the song Candide and his friends sing in lieu of finding any meaning in their story. Don't think of it as advice. Over the past 18 years, I've given you all the advice you could probably stand to sit through, and you'll be getting plenty more in the years to come, I'm sure. Just consider this as a little graduation present, that's all. I can't even say for sure I know what it means. All I know is that I am touched every time I hear it.

"We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good/ We'll do the best we know/ We'll build our house and chop our wood/ And make our garden grow/And make our garden grow."

If you can't use it right now, save it for later. And later on, if such words (or the songs they go to) ever get you all teary and sappy, welcome to the big baby club, daughter.