Oh, the things we endure for the sake of familial love: a snoring spouse, the clutter of children, an opinionated sister-in-law, and graduation ceremonies.
Graduation exercises are a lot of things, but mostly they are boring. I challenge anyone who has ever been to a graduation to say otherwise. I’m only there for one person, but all these other people expect my attention as well.
The exercise combines elements of a rite of passage with characteristics of an endurance contest, pitting attendees against overheated (or overcooled) auditoriums, crowded lobbies, middle-aged men who don’t use Flomax, and small doorways unable to accommodate large crowds.
There always seems to be an inordinate amount of time and little to occupy it. In the latest instance, seating began an hour ahead of the ceremonies (one never would say “festivities”), which required getting to the doorway a half hour before the doors actually opened. I could barely keep my envious yearning for a cell phone data plan in check. It nearly became full-blown jealousy, watching all those other people contentedly fill their time browsing the internet, checking Facebook, and whatnot.
The speeches are pedestrian, when not verging on nonsensical—that’s when you can remember what was said. Mercifully, most are unmemorable, so they hardly do any lasting damage.
Yeah, I know, wah, wah, wah. But I speak from some experience, what with me being a two-time graduation speaker.
The first time, I spoke at the eighth-grade class promotion at the Paul Robeson Elementary School in Detroit (nowadays it’s called an academy). I was the only white man in the building, which I took as a compliment. I still think someone who looked like the kids themselves might have been more fitting, but who’s to say, and some of the kids did attend our parish. I was flattered to have been asked. I had fun and I do recall the kids laughing, mostly in all the right places. That was a good graduation experience, if I do say so myself.
The second time was at a high school. I don’t remember saying a thing. I knew many of the seniors (my second son among them) and have stayed in touch with a couple. None of them remember what I said, and one of them doesn’t even remember I was the speaker.
I don’t regard that as unusual. What I recall best from my own high school graduation isn’t the speaker, but the suffocating odor of English Leather cologne clogging my airways. It was a new aftershave then and most of us boys OD’d on it.
My college graduation speaker was Jeno Paulucci; him I remember. A multi-millionaire food industry entrepreneur, he died in 2011, age ninety-three. He was once featured in an episode of Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but that was long after he spoke to us graduates so my college hardly bears any responsibility for it.
He was best known for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (sold to Pillsbury for $135 million in 1985), and before that he founded Chun King, which by the 1960s accounted for half of all prepared Chinese food sales. Well, it was called Chinese food. I never have figured out how the son of Italian immigrants got into canned Chinese food but, then, I’ve never heard of anyone—Italian or not—going poor underestimating American tastes. He sold Chun King to a division of a tobacco company in 1966, four years before speaking to us.
Memorably, he told my fellow graduates and me that money did not matter. I’d guess he said a few other things as well, but that’s what I vividly remember, and I am pretty sure most of us believed otherwise at the time. Few of us had jobs waiting.
I was lucky. Completely unrelated to my college major, I was off to be a newspaper reporter. That’s what happens, as Mark Twain put it, when you can’t find honest work. For everybody else, though, the unemployment rate was creeping ever upward that year, eventually touching a little better than 6 percent, and employers were cautious. The economy lost more than two hundred thousand jobs the month we graduated.
So, here was this guy capable of buying the entire college, faculty and all, with hardly a burp in his net worth, telling us with seeming incongruence that money actually counts for little.
Of course he was right; I remember that too. What did count then were the familial bonds forged in love and pride. The people who came to see me graduate, all the people who came to see their family member graduate, all of us were bound together for a few brief moments of affirmation and communal recognition. I regard that as enduringly significant.
Did I say it was boring? Well, yeah, gosh yes it was boring. But it was family, right?
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.