Delegate Every Mountain

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, June 19, 2005

Commencement Speech to Class of 2005 at [deleted to avoid embarrassing reputable institution]:

I am delighted to be back here at my high school alma mater, because I had fantastic times here, and because I can shamelessly recycle this speech for use as a column later, allowing me to loll around in the Florida surf while my editor back in Washington remains imprisoned in her sad little office.

When I was a student here in the mid-1970s, everyone was either a hippie or some kind of alternative, mutant version of a hippie. Everyone felt that going to class was optional, that perhaps it might be better to wander down to the creek and become one with nature. And I'm just talking now about the teachers.

The students did not tend to be what you would call "scholars." Back in those days, we didn't have AP courses, or even, so far as I can remember, tests. I'm not even sure we had grades, as that might have interfered with the creation of a beautiful, egalitarian society. I seem to recall that when we got a term paper back, instead of a grade it would just say, at the top, "Groovy."

Some of us spent an inordinate amount of time in the school parking lot. You have to understand that in those days we didn't have the Internet, or computer games, or cell phones [continue with ritualized old fogey lament about lack of technology during Dark Ages, as students start yawning], and for the most part we didn't have any spending money [pause as students gasp]. But we did have a parking lot. The really cool people even had cars. The rest of us just sat on the curb.

The people with cars would sometimes drive us around town, and we would ask ourselves the same questions, over and over: Where should we go? What should we do? We had no place to go. We had nothing to do. There was always a rumor of a party out by the country club. The rumor was always false. Eventually someone would say, "Let's go back to the parking lot." And we would go to the parking lot, and hang out, and it was almost like having a life.

Also we would walk through the woods to [deleted for libel reasons] Deli. In those days, you wouldn't be served beer at [deleted] unless you looked at least 14.

That was a problem for me, because during the entire time I was in high school I was small for my age. In fact I would have had to grow dramatically to become small for my age. I looked like a line of stem cells. I grew a little, and then merely looked like everyone's little brother, but then my friends got even bigger, and more mature looking, and I looked like their son.

In the 1970s, we were highly conscious of not living in the 1960s anymore. We were post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. We were pre-computer. We were in this odd lull in human history, what is known as the Gerald Ford Years. The No. 1 band in America was the Bee Gees, but we also listened to more elevated, classier forms of music, such as KC and the Sunshine Band. "Get Down Tonight" was not just a song, it was a generational philosophy.

Living for the moment has its rewards, but life insists on shoving us into the future. Supposedly we get wiser, and thus I'm supposed to offer advice. Usually the advice you hear at a graduation is something along the line of "climb every mountain." I think that's a bad idea. You need to learn to delegate. You should learn to say to people: You take that mountain, you take that other mountain, I'll monitor the situation from headquarters.

You also hear people say, "Follow your passions." Terrible advice. Down that road lies trouble. You should regulate your passions. If you see someone very attractive, for example, that's an immediate red flag. That attraction is the universal warning sign implanted by 10,000 generations of human evolution. Don't even learn that person's name.

People will tell you, "Reach for the stars." That's a prescription for self-delusion. A better idea is to reach for the low-hanging fruit that everyone left behind. Don't wait for Mr. Right when you've got Mr. Reasonably Acceptable right in front of you. Scavenging has its rewards.

The truth is, most commencement advice is bad advice. And most of what people say at commencements isn't true. You vow to stay in touch with your close friends, and you won't. You say you'll never forget these moments, and you will.

But here's the good news: Childhood is an arbitrarily defined period. You are always a child, in a way. You always learn. Always change. Always reinvent yourself. You will always be graduating from one part of life to another. Who you are in high school doesn't have to be who you are for the rest of your life. That's just one option.

Whatever you do, there will come a day when you'll go back home, drive through the parking lot, have a laugh -- and then keep on driving.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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