So I graduated from college yesterday which is a whole thing and I’m feeling lots of things, but during the seemingly interminable commencement exercises was a particularly interesting moment for me. Our valedictorian spoke for a solid five minutes, and I can not tell you what they said. They opened with thanking the elder wizards in regalia behind them, and a sheepish platitude of “we made it!”, which is sort of the greatest hit of college addresses, an easy way to get in some crowd participation.
But the rest? I don’t think it even registered, and I when I had sat back down from getting my diploma placeholder I couldn’t help but have a little daydream of what I’d say if I was valedictorian and had a chance to speak to my peers, professors, and the shadow council of trustees that actually dictate how a college operates. Here’s what I jotted down:
Important: Do NOT thank the board of trustees, the president, or anyone else before starting. Put glasses on the end of your nose. Channel Paul Giamatti as much as possible. Aging makeup optional.
“A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”
This is a line from the 2016 Marvel movie “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, said by the cyborg superhero Vision after he agrees with the villain’s statement that the human race is doomed.
We are doomed, and we are not beautiful because we last. Our moments are fleeting, and your commencement today will be but an impression upon your neurons by this time tomorrow. Your college years will be wisps to grasp at, fog that you will swim through to get to other memories as your life becomes full of them. And that is beautiful. The imperfections and the inexorable movement of life are features, not bugs.
Higher education as an institution is full of bugs, however. What was once the dream of a way to advance knowledge in a populace has become simply another qualification in our hyper-capitalist society, and at a price that entrenches many of us in life-crippling debt that will follow us for the majority of our lives. To be clear: we pay for college not simply with our time and money, but with our sense of self-ownership in a society that both requires and actively disdains the idea of intelligence, institutional or individual.
So, while we will not last, and while our existence is compromised by the imperfections and inexorable momentum of reality, there is no reason to think we are any less than beautiful. Memento mori.
Scan the audience slowly for a beat. Do a small bow like you just finished a run at a community Shakespeare theater. Exit stage opposite of the one they told you to.
I can see why they wouldn’t ask me to speak. I can imagine them editing it out of the DVD release.