It’s one of life’s funny little ironies: Graduation season brings on a nearly irresistible urge to give advice … at the very moment when impending graduates are least likely to think they need to listen.
Exactly 50 years ago, I was in those bright young mortar-boarded and begowned whippersnappers’ shoes. Fresh from the hallowed halls of ivy in a tiny outer North Dakota town, I — along with the other 15 luminaries of the Class of 1967 — was convinced I was ready to take on the world.
Our tiny procession stepped into the superheated gymnasium with hearts full and hopes high. This was our moment! As the band played a ragged rendition of our school song — “cheer, cheer for old Streeter High” — a heavily perspiring crowd of parents, grandparents and antsy younger siblings rose to their feet and applauded us. We knew this, at last, must be the start of something big … a conviction symbolized by finally being permitted to walk across the gleaming basketball floor in street shoes.
That was the first — and last — time I was tapped to share my august thoughts with those on the verge of being launched into the world. My deep grasp of the human condition — honed by 17 years in ZIP codes of no renown whatsoever — was summed up by the fact that, within seconds of returning to a folding chair on the edge of the stage, neither I nor anyone else could recall a single word I’d uttered.
After that inauspicious debut as an inspirational speaker, it comes as no surprise that this spring marks the 49th consecutive year in which no one has asked me to headline their commencement ceremony. Such a shame! Not only do I still possess that yellowed Streeter (N.D.) High School diploma certifying that I knew absolutely everything my teachers could imbue … life has taught me a critical thing or two that Mr. Lund and Mrs. Nenow somehow missed back in the classroom.
Naturally, like pretty much every adult who sees seniors strolling across the stage, I feel an almost cosmic compulsion to give advice to the tender young sprouts of 2017 … even knowing full well they’re no more inclined to listen now than I was.
1. Your parents know a lot. Yes, really. Though you doubt it now, someday you’ll utter the most beautiful words in the English language: “Mom (or Dad), you were right.”
2. Your parents don’t know everything. Try not to rub it in too much. Try especially hard when you go home on break as a college freshman. This is traditionally the moment when offspring are at the absolute peak of obnoxiousness, drunk on a semester’s worth of higher education. If you can’t resist the urge to show off your new smarts out of respect and consideration of their feelings, do it for self-preservation. Research proves these are the moments when even patient parents are likeliest to contemplate sacrificing their young.
3. If high school social life has left you feeling dark and tattered, don’t give up! College is bound to offer many more opportunities for despair. (Oh, not really. It gets much better.)
4. Ninety percent of success, in college as in life, consists of showing up. In 26 years of working with college students, I’ve noticed something almost mystical: Attendance is an almost foolproof way of predicting grades.
5. Don’t just sit there. Speak up! Whether what you say is brilliant or confused, you’ll get more out of the experience if you actively engage. Don’t worry so much about whether your peers will think you’re showing off or cozying up to the professor. If you want the answer, ask the question.
6. Boredom is optional. It’s up to you. Dig a little deeper. You may be surprised.
7. Stop apologizing for your work. When you’re asked to share, don’t start out by declaring, “This isn’t very good ….” Chances are, you’ll be so persuasive that listeners will agree with you. Say it loud and proud, and hope for the best.
8. Your teachers have already heard every excuse in the book. Moreover, they probably tried the same bogus tales themselves — and told them better. In particular, be cautious about ginning up a grandparent’s funeral again to explain missing a due date. Some of us keep count.
9. When you fall asleep in class, everyone else can still see you … even if you slide way down in your seat. There’s no better way to make an impression.
10. And your teachers have a pretty good idea what you’re doing with that iPhone. When a student stares intently at their crotch and smiles, it’s the better explanation.