“You Are Not Special”

I finally (it has been an open browser tab for over a month) watched David McCullough, Jr.’s terrific 2012 Wellesley High School commencement address. “We have come to love accolades more than genuine achievement . . . building a Guatamalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatamalans . . . climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” I may assign it to this fall’s incoming freshman colloquia students.

All Addressed Up With No Place to Go

I practiced my commencement address at Agannis today, to get a sense of the acoustics and feel of the room.  Empty of bodies, it’s cavernous.  The delivery was fine, if weird without eye contact.  I scanned the empty chairs imagining them filled with students.  I keep tinkering with the speech, rearranging clauses, adding and subtracting words. A few days ago weighed in at a trim 962 words. New transitions and reinforcements of theme have brought it up to 1,017 words.  I wanted very much to keep it under a 1,000.  We’ll see.  I have 23.5 hours.

The theme?  I hate that question.  It’s about graduation, what else?  Not specific enough?  It’s about rejecting black-and-white answers and embracing gray area.  What does that mean?  You’ll have to hear the speech.

Groundhog Year

If I am asked to deliver a graduation speech I am likely to expound on Groundhog Day as a metaphor for teaching. Bill Murray plays a weatherman who lives the same day countless times. He wakes at 6:00 AM to the radio playing “I Got You Babe”, has the same conversation with the proprietor of the B & B, runs into the same insurance salesman, again and again and again. It is a fresh new day for everyone but him. He relives the day until he gets it right, becomes a better person and wins Andie MacDowell’s heart.

It’s just like teaching, minus Andie MacDowell and the groundhog. Every semester we relive our courses, discuss the same concepts, ask and answer the same questions, travel the same path, always trying to get it right. I do, sometimes, for a question, a discussion, even an entire class period, but it is hard to maintain. I have too little coffee or too much, I’m distracted by a pencil rat-tat-tatting on a desk, students are flat from the previous night’s brutal accounting exam. By April I am deconstructing the academic year and by May I am eviscerating my syllabi and rebuilding. If I come closer to getting it right for the year than I did before I am not too hard on myself. I don’t know the payoff if I get it right. Bill Murray’s payoff was waking up with Andie MacDowell on February 3rd. Mine will be waking up in September with 50-odd students waiting to discover the law.

I thought about this as I drove to Maine this evening. I wanted to be on the road by 2:00 PM but missed. I left home at 4:30, sailed north five exits on Route 95, then hit traffic that crawled all the way to the 95/128 north split. What should have taken 22 minutes took an hour. I was eager to arrive. Our Massachusetts home, in the midst of a complete kitchen overhaul, is dusty, gritty, and disordered, any of which by itself would make me cranky. Judy is in Italy for two weeks, I’m eating microwaved food, and I’ve been at my desk for weeks grading papers and wiki projects. Leaving at 4:30 it was likely I’d get stuck in traffic but the alternative was to leave later and review wiki projects for another couple of hours. I chose the traffic.

I arrived shortly before 8:00. I let the dogs out of the car, as always, when I opened the driveway gate. In the time it took to drive the final 150 yards Cleo located a stick and Chelsey a tennis ball, both buried by snow since last December. It was light enough to walk along the lake and inspect winter tree damage, nothing significant. The dogs retrieved from the lake, close-in tosses only. Every day is Groundhog Day for dogs. Rise, eat, poop, sleep, bark, run, sleep, bark, eat, poop, sleep. They always get it right.