You in Thirteen Years: An xoJane Commencement Speech

I have some advice. Or, some ruminations. For recent graduates, certainly, but also for everyone else.
Publish date:
June 14, 2012
letters to past and future selves, commencement, the future

Tonight we're gonna party like it's...


As of this month, it’s been 13 years since I first commenced from college. The commencing was purportedly supposed to continue into some strange and nebulous place called the “real world.” It didn’t sound like such a great deal to me, so I in my panic made a rash decision to go to grad school. Three times.

The conclusion of my graduate education did not end my higher education involvement. Living as I do in a metropolitan area with over 60 colleges and universities and over 300,000 college students resident from September to May, I’ve never broken the habit of counting the beginning and ending of each year by these markers.

This city changes like no other city does -- in the spring, the students leave, go home for the summer, to take crap part time jobs an catch up with high school friends, and Boston goes to sleep, quietly spread out in the too-brief warm summer sunshine, reclining lazily in wait for their return come the fall.

There is an energy to the student population, and they conduct that energy through one another like a giant power grid of enthusiasm and anxiety with occasional surges of drama and narcissism. That energy runs through Boston’s streets during the non-summer months and it is frankly exhausting -- exhausting enough that I am grateful for their summer vacation by the end of May, but then by September I have started to miss them.

It’s not really college that does this, to be fair: It’s youth, and a specific blend of desperation and privilege one finds amongst people of a certain (traditionally college-going) age.

Graduation is a particularly electrifying time. You’ve finished school -- finished school! the day we have dreamed of since that first morning in elementary school that we realized school was not all happy game-playing fun times but that getting up really early sometimes kind of sucks -- and the big empty future stretches out before you, blank and terrifying as standing at the edge of a very high cliff, with no sign of help on the horizon. Things are both exciting and bleak when you’re 21. Now more than ever.

I have some advice. Or, some ruminations. For recent graduates, certainly, but also for everyone else.

You think now that at some point in the future, be it near or far, you will one day look around and realize you have finally gotten your shit together. I’m here to tell you that day never really comes. I’m sorry. Odds are good you will become more capable, more adept at life in general, but while I have yet to reach old age myself, I have it on good authority that virtually no one ever feels completely secure in everything they’re doing (and this is OK, because what a boring life that would be!).

I know we all grow up in our individual circumstances, some of us more adult at an earlier age than others, some of us more sheltered or less responsible, some of us parenting ourselves and some of us parenting our parents -- but I think we all have this idea of adulthood as a tangible state of being in which we definitively know what we’re doing.

Except even the so-called adults you’ve spent your life looking up to don’t know what they’re doing, most of the time. They’re just better at faking it than you are. They’ve just worked harder and longer and thus accumulated a bit of authority such that you have to listen to them, because they’re your professor or your boss or your arresting officer.

This is not to say that they have nothing to offer you -- obviously I think they do, as I am writing this to you now -- but that they might be less alien than you think.

I am 35 years old, and when I was 21 I expected to have my whole life nailed down by now. 35 seemed like the very spot where youth died, where your responsibility piled up until simply out of necessity you had to be fully confident in all your decisions because if you weren’t oh my god you’d go insaaaaane.

(It turns out my sanity bends a lot further than I thought, because I’ve not broken it yet.)

I had thought that adulthood by its nature would somehow make me wise and patient, a person who folds the laundry as soon as the dryer’s done, a person who fully understands how mortgages and health savings accounts work. That hasn’t happened. I talk to my parents and I realize a lot of this stuff never happened for them either, at least not as an automatic switched-on upgrade upon reaching a certain age.

And I’ve realized an important truth, having spent so many years running from the “real world” as a grad student and then so much time attempting to embrace it fully as a 9-to-5 office employee:

There is no “real world.” There is only here and now.

The thing that you recent graduates have that many of the rest of us have lost is hope -- yes, even in such murky economic circumstances as we’re all currently facing. It seems that 53% of recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed, and that’s pretty startling.

When I graduated college, the prospect of moving back home again was a horror too paralyzing to even consider (not so much because my home was terrible, as because it was so far away, and because I had a misguided belief that returning to my father’s house would make me a “failure”), but for many grads right now, this is a normal state of affairs, and an absolutely necessary one.

And still, you have hope. Hope is often the province of the young -- or at least the younger -- if only because age inures us against the nigh-intoxicating effects of an overabundance of hope. It is difficult to dwell on big dreams when you barely have time to fold laundry or read the explanatory literature that came with your UTTERLY MYSTIFYING health savings account.

Sure, we keep our lofty youthful desires nearby, but at some point we stop believing they are possible, and make the necessary compromises we need to make to get by. If you’re me, 10 years later your dream will call you at your dull day job with the voice of Jane Pratt and present itself like the biggest most luscious sweet cherry you’ve ever seen and just beg you to pick it. For many, however, this day doesn’t actually arrive without a lot more effort than I had to undertake.

I bring it up because I think I have things to learn from you recent college grads, and recent high school grads, too.

I will not lie and tell you these are the best years of your life because if that’s true it’s pretty freaking depressing.

But you have a sense of your own potential that will fade as the years go by -- you have a belief in your ability to do anything, and maybe even to do it well. Convention does not hold you back, nor do practical concerns; when I was 18 I moved from Florida to Boston for college, to a city where I knew no one, had no family, and I just trusted in my ability to thrive. More than that, I was EXCITED about it. Today, the thought of moving somewhere alone, where I don’t know anyone, seems terrifying, if not straight up impossible.

Embrace this time, graduates! Embrace it in all its uncertainty and freaking-out-ness, wallow in the blankness of your future, in the unknowable destinies that await you. Because life can become very staid and very solemn when you know exactly what to expect of every day. That’s not for you; you want to live with joy and anticipation in every moment.

You want to pay attention today, because one day in the future you’ll be idly flipping through channels when you’ll come upon the local access station, which is showing a recording of your current adopted hometown’s high school talent show. And you’ll watch it.

Awkward dancing at the talent show.

You’ll watch boys sing impassioned cover songs to the girlfriends they’ll likely be dumping next week, you’ll watch kids do dance routines and silly skits from old (“old” meaning “2004”) movies, you’ll watch the three MCs that take the stage between acts make jokes about their imminent graduation, and you’ll feel the tension and anticipation in the room, like every one of these teens on the cusp of adulthood is held back by a hook and a thin rubberband twisted tightly, and none of them are quite sure when that hook will let go and they’ll be catapulted into a larger world they both crave and fear.

Two girls will do a salsa, one of them will mess up repeatedly, and the crowd of students will still cheer, because they’re not cheering the performance, but rather they are cheering for their friends. These kids will cheer for anything, no matter how bad it is, no matter how flawed or unprofessional, because they know each other and it’s enough to be excited to see a friend onstage looking fearless and awkward at the same time. They are unworried by mediocrity, and are satisfied to do things that are fun and feel good.

When was the last time you cheered like that? For anything? I bet you don’t even remember. Sure, at 18 you were already hyper-critical of everything, but your criticism did not expect its object to suddenly snap to and fix everything -- you were critical for the sake of being contrary, because it was entertaining. Because you could.

You did everything with passion back then, you threw yourself into everything with blind faith that you would land on your feet, and sometimes you succeeded and sometimes you catastrophically failed, but wasn’t it something to go about life that way?

You put yourself out there, even when you were scared, because you didn’t know how else to live. You were insecure and you knew it, and you weren’t trying to feign otherwise. You did not retreat to your comfort zone because in youth you don’t really have comfort zones, you are at least a tiny bit awkward about everything some of the time, and even when you ran from that awkwardness you could never get far.

This is what I can learn from you, the very things you must now abandon as you strive for some kind of adult life: how to be foolish and impulsive, and how to dream big and reach far. These are things we forget in time, and now I must look back to remember them. Enjoy this time, because while odds are good your life will eventually gain the stability you might long for, it will never again be the same as now. And as frightened and unhappy and insecure as you feel at this moment, someday, a strange little part of you will miss it.

Finally, a request: Let's keep graduating. All of us. From one thing or another, from a destructive relationship or a negative mindset, from a stage of life or a former career. Let's never take for granted that our lives can change, that we can change, and let's make those changes come from the same place of forward-looking hope and far-reaching optimism that so many real commencement speeches rely upon to motivate their audiences. Let's not be afraid to close a chapter and move forward, no matter where we are in life. Let's never give up on happiness. Ever.