Graduation speaker: ‘Listen closely and talk back clearly’

Thank you very much. Superintendents Richards and Canty, Principal O'Donnell, members of the school board, members of the faculty and administration, parents and friends, honored guests and graduates, current and past author-figures at large wearing daring capes in bold colors and taking copious notes — I know you're out there — thank you for inviting me to speak at today's fabulous, not at all haunted, graduation ceremony. (Please excuse me, I suffer from an extreme case of Time Warp; they tell me it's an occupational hazard).

As an English teacher, I'm very surprised and honored to present this speech, but as the guy who often said whimsical things to you in the hallways, I'm worried about your, I mean my decision-making skills. I'm especially anxious about me today because I plan to present my speech in a frothy, futuristic format that I like to call Infotainment Interactive. Yes, one side of me has worked very hard to prepare you to think more deeply, read more closely, and distinguish between rational and emotional appeals, but my other side approves this playful message.

Graduates of 2002, (students hold up sign that reads "2012") today marks an important transition from the pleasures of childhood to a more active engagement with a world that you did not choose and that will sometimes confront you with challenges, forcing you back on your own resources. You will enter this world with whatever learning strategies you have cultivated through academic, athletic, and a vast variety of other extracurricular opportunities, and with the support and blessings of your friends, coaches, mentors, teachers, and families. But you will also enter this world after consuming more entertainment than any other generation that has ever "crawled upon the face of the earth."

You are a generation that has been remotely controlled by cell phone, and not only have you been programmed and supervised, but you have also received innumerable messages from your parents, peers, and unnamed people who want to sell you stuff. Your consciousness has been shaped by gadgets and shows, games, movies, songs, videos, and commercial appeals. Based on what you tell me, your personal experiences often seem insignificant compared to the "fun," mediated experiences you derive from popular entertainments. As the writer David Foster Wallace observes, contemporary TV shows and advertisements often borrow the self-reflective and ironic techniques of modern fiction, so that a young, hip audience remembers the name of the product, even as it recognizes the emptiness of the advertisement and its own superiority. In this way, commercials create a cult of irony and deploy a purely negative strategy that neither articulates nor affirms any values.

My purpose today is to remind you that the agenda of most entertainments is to sell you something you don't need, but not because I imagine some sales-free utopia outside in the world or inside my own speech. I know you cannot escape from the marketplace, from rhetoric, or from the pursuit of pleasure, but I would like you to resist manipulative persuasions incompatible with your own interests. Since the images you consume can corrupt you, I encourage you to think more critically. I urge you to continue developing a willingness and ability to make sense out of the world for yourself. While I would enjoy addressing how literature provides the best available means toward this end, since great works of fiction often concern pain and hardship, I have no plans to discuss any literary "hot-shots" today. Instead, I will focus on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, a novel that consistently hits a nerve with many of my students.

Holden is a modern anti-hero, a member of a "lost generation," and he's not entirely reliable. His coping strategies, for example, are famously inadequate: he dwells on the past, he fantasizes about revenge and escape, he isolates himself, and he frequently faces bullies from a position of abject teenage vulnerability. The entire novel recounts what Holden calls three "madman" days in what one contemporary reviewer described as a "lost weekend." In short, Salinger creates a digressive narrative that pushes his readers to make sense out of someone like them, someone with an incomplete, fragmented, and wounded teenage psyche who confronts the contradictions of popular culture and the adult world. You might say the madness is the method.

Holden deserves a second look because he shares a problem with many of us and with today's graduating class — the omnipresent and often destructive influence of mass media. The novel, however, ultimately rejects its various seducers, and reminds us of the role culture can play in helping us to perceive, organize, and confront the uglier, harsher, dare I say it, more real sides of life, including change and mortality.

At this juncture, I know that some of you might wish me to rally your spirits and push you onward toward your glorious futures, but since I'm a "uniquely nurturing" secondary teacher of literature, my customary topic is suffering and loss. You see, I subscribe to Plato's Theory of Recollection, which asserts that infants are born knowing everything and then proceed to forget it all.

Think about it. Babies feed and sleep almost constantly. They never have to put on their own pants. They whine and cry whenever things don't go their way, and they let loose whenever they feel like it. Exactly! Their lives are a lot like the lives of high school seniors during these past few months, I mean days before graduation, but they're smarter, much smarter; they've got to be. Got to. (Students hold diapers in air.)

What follows from this Platonic insight is that after the certainty of infancy, life is often beset by confusion, and on occasion you may feel abandoned and even bewildered. (Students hold two large signs that read: "We reject your developmental schemes".)

Come to think of it, just a few months ago, during two separate full weeks of power outages, many of you felt abandoned and bewildered while you were sitting in the darkness or waiting for your parents to amuse you with shadow puppets by the fire. Similarly, just four years ago your biggest problem was deciding what to wear on your first day of school — as if it mattered!

In contrast, today you're wearing the same outfit and many of you are holding car keys and feeling giddy to leave your parents behind. You feel confident now because you know that according to recent surveys, I mean studies, the vast majority of graduates enjoy college at least twice as much as high school, and since college classes meet less than half as often and cost only between four to eight times more, you are very excited to plunge like a ping pong ball into a large cup of, umm, the future.

Please note that it is precisely excessively delighted young people such as yourselves who often retreat from this potentially productive uncertainty, from this healthy anxiety that impels you to forge in the "smithy of your souls the as-yet-uncreated" values and beliefs that shape your own conscience. Some of you might even be tempted to emulate a charismatic older college classmate or leader, but rest assured that I have a modest and affordable way to enable you to avoid this recurring temptation. The inflatable parent-style authority-figure is inexpensive, fits easily into the smallest of dorm closets, and induces perfectly adjustable levels of guilt. The inflatable parent can help you resist the influence of older but less wise peers and classmates. By just the click of a button, you can hear familiar and life-enhancing sound bytes such as, "Do your homework," "Take out the garbage," and the perennial favorite, "Is that a dress, or an eye patch?"

During your future moments of doubt and confusion, moments when you can no longer recollect the wisdom that you once possessed as infants, you may long for an adult you can admire, one who can guide you through your trials and tribulations. I know that I did when I was your age, but the quality of reverence was never strong in me, and so I transferred my yearning to my reading. Perhaps as a result I've become as ironic and confusing to others as I once was to myself, but I'm hopeful that you will find a way to transform your ambitions and desires, your work and your play, into an activity that allows you to forget yourself and forge meaningful relationships with others.

I'll stop before intellectual indigestion sets in or you leap "over a sea of peanut butter" to the golden snark-land of hasty delusions, but before you go, I would like to remind you that sometimes it's better to avoid the cynicism, coolness, and ironic distance fostered by the media. Instead, allow at least part of you to retain Holden's retro-fifties desire to affirm authentic values and his retro-sixties nonconformity. You need to discover your own version of Holden's Estelle Fletcher album, one that arises from your own irreducibly mysterious inner spirit, and your own version of old Mr. Spencer's Navajo blanket, one that arises from the traditions of a family rooted organically in a particular time-period, community, and region.

Most importantly, my pesky young graduates, I would like to stress to you that even though it is good and right that your families wish you to become successful; that is, more well-fed and better groomed, more polite, more responsible and civic-minded, and happier, the one main thing I tried to give you was questions, and the only thing I ever expect from you in return is a word — well, maybe 500 words — about the last play you saw, about the last friend you made, about the last vote you entered, about the last idea you contemplated, or maybe even about the last time you tried to change the world, because even though many of you can no longer escape my voice inside your head, or the voices of my colleagues, or even more, the past and present, mixed up, crazy voices of our contradictory and contentious culture, you can make them yours — all you have to do is listen closely and talk back clearly as if your life depends on it. Your life depends on it.

Thank you so much for your kindness and patience. Thank you also for our honest and inquiring conversations in the classroom, and our wacky-delightful chats in the hallways. Lastly, congratulations, you "inconceivably" beautiful, Class of 2012!