It’s that time of year again. College campuses across the country are filled with students cramming for finals. And in a few short weeks, they will be shooing graduates off the stage and into the “real” world. I’m a little wary of this “real” world, especially since no one’s reality is the same.
That aside, I thought I’d share this commencement speech with you. Even though we all may have graduated long ago, the message is still quite relevant. It was delivered in 2007 by Dr. David Strain.
And, just for the record, I have tried Dallas Skaggs’ hooch…
I never knew a road
From which the whole earth didn’t call away,
With wild birds rounding the hill crowns,
Haling out of the heart an old dismay,
Or the shore somewhere pounding its slow code,
Or low-lighted towns
Seeming to tell me, stay.
Lands I have never seen
And shall not see, loves I will not forget,
All I have missed, or slighted, or foregone
Call to me now. And weaken me. And yet
I would not walk a road without a scene.
I listen going on,
The richer for regret.
Roughly twenty-two years ago–to the considerable inconvenience and discomfort of your mothers, I might add–you set out on the road Richard Wilbur speaks of in his poem “The Sirens,” which I just shared with you. Roughly six years before that, I sat where you are sitting today, a college-graduate-in-waiting. It was a rainy, humid day in an aging gymnasium without benefit of air-conditioning. Some chap whose name I never quite caught made some remarks I never quite listened to about the “real world.” When I was your age, when I sat where you sit, I thought that was a total load of rubbish. Well, now that I’m more than twice your age, I know it is.
In every conceivable sense, you’ve been in the real world from the moment your mother ceased screaming and, after a brisk slap on the fanny, you began. I say that because every fork in the road you set out on that day has both determined the routes open to you and cut off other routes. You are where you are today through twenty-two years of real-world choices. And though we academicians are fond of the term “commencement,” you’re not really “commencing” anything. All that will happen once those on the platform this morning finish imparting our final bits of wisdom is that the restrictions on your driver’s license will officially expire. (And through long and close experience, most of us have a pretty good idea of how much attention most of you have ever paid to restrictions of any sort.)
So let’s not talk about the road behind you, shall we? Let’s talk about the road ahead. Having spent nigh on fifty years travelling it, I have a fair amount of eminently practical advice I could give you. However, most of it would just bore the bejeezus out of you. And the part that wouldn’t bore the bejeezus out of you, I’m not about to give in public. So in bringing final greetings from my colleagues, what advice can I give? Simply this:
Since quite a number of you appear to be taking my advice already, let me repeat it for you: Get distracted.
A couple of qualifications. First, please note that I did not say “get easily distracted.” For unless you first have a focus, you’re not distracted but aimless. Second, I suspect that not all of my colleagues would agree that, even with that qualification, I’m giving you good advice. However, while there are those among us who love Interstates, I am not among them.
Mind you, I’ve spent a fair amount of my life on Interstates–metaphorical and even literal. In fact, on the latter score, I’ve made no fewer than forty-seven trips, over the last twenty years, to or from the east coast. Most of them in an Escort. Virtually all of them in the company of dogs, cats, or Dr. Heil. Once with a macaw. At some point or other, my Escort and itinerant veterinary clinic have traveled down 35 of the 46 Interstates east of the Mississippi. (And two of the ones we’ve missed run for less than 30 miles.)
Now, the logicians among you may think you’ve detected a contradiction in my reasoning. For while I’ve told you that I dislike Interstates, I seem to know them exceedingly well. Do I contradict myself, then? Not at all. I simply dislike airports even more. Granted, if one really must get somewhere in a hurry, airports are a necessary evil (rather like committees). Moreover, since my friendly American Airlines AAdvantage page informs me I’ve racked up 239,636 frequent flyer miles over the years, I’m not exactly averse to airports. Still, if I’m not in a hurry, I’ll drive before I’ll fly. Were I more easily distracted than I am, I would no doubt drive only back roads. However, as I said before, one must maintain some focus in order to get distracted. Moreover, there are numerous back roads in Tennessee and West Virginia onto which a man who wears blue glasses and drives a ’98 Escort with 183,000 miles and an iffy record of oil changes deems it imprudent to venture.
So, having gotten modestly distracted myself with all that rot about Interstates, airports, and the sound of distant banjos, I’ll now return to my point. The road ahead of you beckons. If, after we’re finished here, you load up your suburban assault vehicles and take Rogers Avenue out of town, you can drive 1,101 miles on I-40 in one direction, 1,454 miles in the other. With that in mind, some of you will down numerous cups of bad coffee, torture your bladders, and clog your arteries with the fare of endless fast-food joints–all to avoid getting distracted. But to what purpose? So as to arrive early in Barstow, California?
For what it’s worth, I would give you rather different travel advice. For one thing, answer Mother Nature when first she calls, not when she finally insists. For another, drive into town and eat some real food. For a third, if you come to a scenic overlook, stop, get out, stretch your legs, overlook. In short, get distracted.
Virtually nothing I value in my life came about as the result of the great master plan I once drew for myself. If you can believe it, thirty years ago I wanted to return to Mountain Home, go into banking, get wealthy and influential, and become the first Republican Senator from Arkansas since Reconstruction. (If any of you just heard a strange noise, it was probably the sound of David Ray gasping.) All that I value–everything and everyone that I love–has come about, shall we say, as the result of changes of plans.
Be open to those. Granted, sometimes you’ll make a real pig’s breakfast of things. A few years ago around Christmas time, I was driving down I-81 in western Virginia when I noticed on my map a road running parallel to the Interstate that was lined with green dots. In RandMcNallyspeak, of course, this meant that it was a “Scenic Route.” After dodging a passing Buick, I was able to adjust my trifocals so as to determine that this string of green dots ended just south of I-66, which I planned to take into Washington. Needless to say, all that was more than enough to distract me. So I took the first exit that would lead me over to the road less travelled. Now, though I’m a humanist by both training and disposition, I’m not so ignorant of science as to be unaware that, all other things being equal, temperatures tend to be lower at higher elevations. Nevertheless, this fact caused me no concern as I wound around the hairpin curves that gradually took me from the Shenandoah Valley to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Nor was I concerned as the day’s light dusting of snow began first to cover the ground and then to turn into ever more substantial accumulations. In fact, I remained indifferent even when I began to encounter intermittent ice patches along the green dots, even when those patches grew less intermittent. It was a glorious winter day, I had escaped the tedium of the Interstate, I was driving through breathtaking scenery, mounds of pristine snow were piled high along the tree-lined roadside, and I was even going to miss rush hour on the Beltway. It was only when I came to a sign that read “Plowing Ends 1 Mile” that it occurred to me that it might be rush hour on the Beltway before I got back to I-81.
So has mischance cured me of distractions? Never. Over the course of ten years as an administrative drudge, I have helped to hire roughly every fourth person seated among the ranks of the faculty this morning. Unless I got distracted by something during his or her interview, I’ve asked each two very simple questions: 1.) When was the last time you tried something new? and 2.) When was the last time you failed at something? People who never try anything new never get off the bloody Interstate. As for people who never fail, they are even worse: they get off only at rest areas. As far as I’m concerned, it takes a little more spunk than that to teach at Ozarks. For if you aren’t open to distractions, you’ll simply never begin to fathom the deep joy of watching undergraduates grow up.
So get distracted. Have a go at that free 72 oz. steak in Amarillo. Read blogs you dislike. Try sudoku. If your idea of the outdoors is Boston Common, visit Strawberry Bluffs. If your idea of a city is Dallas, visit Boston Common. Watch a presidential debate and pay attention to the no-hopers. Watch a film with subtitles even after you’ve earned your last convo. Sample Dallas Skaggs’s hooch. If you love Sanjaya Malakhar, lay off the hooch. If you hate Sanjaya Malakhar, keep sampling it until he begins to grow on you . . . .
For, in the end, if current rates of life expectancy remain constant, those of you in today’s graduating class can anticipate, on average, 20,452 more sunsets. If you’re too focused to get distracted by any of the next 20,451, don’t expect the last one to amount to much . . . .
The choices I have made in my life–my distractions from the road, my inability or unwillingness to maintain the the laser-like focus of some of my old friends–have cost me, yes. However, as God is my witness, it’s a bill I pay cheerfully again and again and again. For as my old friend Mr. Wilbur summed up the matter,
I would not walk a road without a scene.
I listen going on,
The richer for regret.