Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Commencement 2024

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Graduates, congratulations. Finishing high school has never been easy, even when it’s just the usual twists and turns of making it through 9th grade PE with your self-esteem intact and surviving senior prom. In your case, the ride has had a few more challenges, and still, here you are.

Many commencement speeches offer advice about the life that awaits you, and how you should manage it—but you’ve already kind of been there and done that. Many of you started with some online variation of high school during the height of COVID, where learning occurred online, in person, or both. But you kept at it, the masks and the days at home eventually receded, and school became school again.

I’d like to say that was the end of it for you, but not quite. For many of you, going back to school was either weird—because you hadn’t really been to high school yet—or hard, because, for you, COVID brought changes to more than just the way you went to high school.

Despite all that, today is upon us, with you here in all your glory—and make no mistake, you are glorious. You cut up frogs in Biology, learned (then forgot) what a rhombus is, wondered what the big deal was with Hester Prynne, and, with any luck, had a teacher explain the history of the Supreme Court’s quill pens. As you sit here, you’re pretty sure none of this will be of help with your life, since you have no plans to be a biologist, mathematician, adulterer, or attorney. Since COVID taught you the lessons Commencement addresses tackle— don’t look for hard times, persist if they should find you, know you will emerge with a clearer sense of self—I’ll skip those, and allow me to decode the other stuff for you.

You cut up frogs to see how things work, and how seemingly unrelated things affect each other in ways you can’t possibly imagine. You investigate these seemingly unplausible things in life to make sure they’re real. I can’t think of a better skill to have when handling the politics of a workplace, or the laundromat in a college residence hall. Take nothing for granted.

You learned what a rhombus was to discover it is neither a square nor a rectangle, even though it shares properties of both. Seeing the sameness and difference of things at the same time—and respecting both-- is arguably the most important skill you will need in life, especially during an election year. Be steadfast and steady in your pursuit of both. (And yeah—it’s a diamond.)

Hester Prynne had problems in part because of what she did, but more because of who she hung out with. Move The Scarlet Letter to Walden Pond, and there’s nothing to see. Keep that in mind if peers make you think twice about the right thing to do, or who you are. Change is a natural part of life, as long as the desire to do so is genuine and from within. Remember that when drinking—and other things—call.

The 1700s Supreme Court supplied quill pens so attorneys could take notes. This stopped being useful, but the quill pens are still handed out, so attorneys have a souvenir of their big day in court. Change is sometimes glacial, and with unintended consequences. Remember that, advocate for the practical, and leave ample room for the romantic. It matters.

You graduate today, knowing much about who you are, and how to become even more of who you are. That’s a great way to commence.

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