Figure of Speech

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008




We give them at the start of things and at the end of things. Toasts at weddings. Eulogies at funerals. A college graduation, both the end of one era and the start of another, gets the mother of all speeches: the commencement address. This is where a graduate summons his best prose to motivate peers, where a famous person drops in to provide last-minute dispatches from the real world, all in an effort to pack inspirational gunpowder into a cannon about to hurtle an entire class into its future.

Speech: You'll do fine! Here's your diploma. Boom.

This is happening all over the country this month, and we're in the thick of commencement season here. Washington area colleges are catapulting armies of graduates into a tightening job market and a wintry economic climate. It's a hostile world, and maybe it always has been. But it's the commencement speakers' duty to herald the light at the end of the tunnel, even if Social Security is gone by the time the audience gets there.

Chins up, though. For those of us already out in the real world, and for collegians hungry to soak up some more inspiration, we picked the brains of seven people who spoke or were scheduled to speak at area schools. Read on to hear from them.

Words of Advice for the Class of '08 and Beyond

Students, distinguished faculty, proud family and friends: It is an honor to speak to you today and blah, blah, blah. Rather than sitting through a bunch of commencement speeches, we decided to do Q&As with seven of this year's speakers to get to the heart of the matter: What's your speech about, and what does it mean for the rest of us?

Julian Bond

Chairman of the NAACP and a professor at American University and the University of Virginia, Bond, 68, plans to give his latest commencement speech (he has made two dozen) today to George Washington University graduates on the Mall.

What have you learned about graduating seniors as an audience?

I've been to graduations where there's been some distraction -- luckily not caused by me but by a party spirit, and you wondered about the level of sobriety among these young people.

Do you have stock material after so many addresses, or does your speech change?

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