The greatest commencement speech ever

I know that the headline of this post is open to debate. What I like in a commencement speech may not be what you like in a commencement speech.

But for the sake of non-school reform argument, I’m going to declare for the moment that the greatest commencement speech ever was not the famous Steve Jobs speech of 2005 at Stanford (“Stay hungry, stay foolish”) … and it was not the 1941 Winston Churchill speech at Harrow School (in which, incidentally, he did not, as famously reported, stand up, say “Never give up, never give up, never give up,” and then sit down)  … and it was not the one Dolly Parton gave at the University of Tennessee in 2009 (“What has worked for me may not work for you… wigs, tight clothes, push-up bras”) … and it was not the one Jon Stewart gave at the College of William and Mary in 2004 (“Thank you Mr. President, I had forgotten how crushingly dull these ceremonies are”) … and it was not the one Kermit the Frog gave in 1996 at Southampton College (“As we say in the wetlands, ‘Ribbit-ribbit-kneedeep-ribbit,’ which means ‘May success and a smile always be yours … even when you’re knee-deep in the sticky muck of life.’”) And it wasn’t any of these other hilarious speeches.


(Nick Tomecek/AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily)

The greatest commencement speech ever was the one that has long been attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, but that was really a column written by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune about a speech she would have liked to give to a graduating class.  It includes this famous line: ” If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.” Somebody decided to post it on the Internet as a Vonnegut speech at MIT in 1997, and it became an urban legend.

Here’s the speech that was never given by Vonnegut or Schmich:

 Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Correction: Adding dropped ‘s’ on end of Steve Jobs’ name.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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