Wear sunscreen. Err in the direction of kindness. Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer.
It's graduation season, so there's no shortage of life-changing advice for young people — like the lessons above from journalist Mary Schmich, author George Saunders and TV screenwriter Shonda Rhimes.
A funny thing happened at our Star Tribune lifestyle team meeting as we brainstormed story ideas around this rite of passage. Turns out, about a third of us in the room had delivered a speech at our high school graduation. (It's probably not a coincidence: Writers gonna write.)
Two of those former teen orators were our Variety columnists, James Lileks (Class of '76) and Laura Yuen (Class of '95). They asked each other what they remembered about the wisdom they dispensed on their commencement stages, and whether they'd still stand by those words today.
Laura: How did you end up speaking at your graduation?
James: Fargo North High School had two speakers. One was chosen on academic merit. The other was elected. I got the latter slot, and repaid my fellow students' decision with a high-handed and utterly unnecessary oration about our generation's aesthetic deficiencies.
Laura: Oh, dear. I'm glad I know James 2.0.
James: Well, maybe 1.5. I was rather blunt: We had no grasp of history or art! We listened to disco versions of classical music, read stupid books about wise seagulls, and generally squandered the rich tradition we had been handed!
No copy survives, for which I am grateful.
Laura: What did people think of it at the time?
My speech coach loved it, but she would: She had a rather dim view of mid-1970s culture, as well. I remember some hard looks from classmates and the yearbook's evaluation: It said, with lips pursed, that my philippic was "a departure from the traditional speech that speaks for the class," or words to that effect. (The yearbook is buried deep in a box along with the shameful graduation pictures that show I once had more hair and wore brown corduroy.)
Laura: Vintage James! Do you think you would give that same speech today?
James: In retrospect, I was right. Disco Beethoven was wrong on every level. Catchy, but wrong. Still, who needed to hear that on graduation day? Who needed some puffed-up scold berate the auditorium on a glad day of ceremonial triumph? Good thing the other speaker was more upbeat, full of hopeful notes about going forward, with a wistful glance back at the wonderful times we'd shared.
What did you talk about?
Laura: It was about how the four years of high school were like running the mile in gym class, with each lap representing one year. It was actually my friend Jason's analogy, but I ran with it.
James: If I remember gym class from my portly childhood period, one lap actually took about a year. Did you save a copy?
Laura: I knew my parents had a video recording of it — on VHS. When I learned we'd be doing a column on our speeches, I racked my brain about how to get my hands on a VCR. But when I went to my parents' basement, a typed-up version of my speech — the actual copy of my speech that I read from the podium — was sitting in a box! It was double-spaced, with two spaces after every period. Ugh, that dates me.
James: That's the only way. I will die by that, and the Oxford comma. Did anything surprise you about the speech?
Laura: I forgot how much I hated running — and school — at that age. I said both activities were at times "exhausting, mundane and downright pointless."
James: Ah! So you threw a few elbows, too.
Laura: It got better. The first year, or lap, is a breeze. The second lap, you're still riding high, deluding yourself into thinking you can finish it in six minutes. Third lap, you're running out of gas, and by the time the fourth lap begins, you don't care about a thing. You just want to get out of there.
James: So you turn on the gas, because otherwise you're going to fail and have to repeat that lap.
Laura: Touché. The main point of the speech was about the company we keep. Some people make you want to run the mile alone, but if you're lucky, you'll find the people you want at your side. I had a friend named Tracy who was a good runner, and on Lap 4, she'd tell me to start taking bigger steps. "Hang in there," she'd tell me. "We're almost done." They were magical words that carried my feet across the last bend.
This is what I said: "You realize that the only thing that makes the mile bearable are the people. The people are what make the mile what it is."
James: Would you stick by your speech today?
Laura: I absolutely would. It's eerie how 17-year-old me sounded a lot like the 45-year-old me. My advice to graduates would be whatever path they choose in life, to find their people. Relationships along the way are what make the journey worth taking.
Would you add anything to your speech if you could?
James: See you all in 30 years at the reunion at the Holiday Inn, where our petty rivalries will be dissolved in the ocean of time, and we'll all feel a strange and unexpected bond of deep comradeship. Except for that guy there in the third row. He's still a jerk.