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June 07, 2013

Graduation, 2013: the good, the bad, and the unprintable

by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Graduation speech

                                                                                                Photo by: Flickr_keithusc

Two of my kids graduated last week — my eldest son from high school, my daughter from middle school — so I’m awash in commencement sentiments:  “Reach for the stars!” “Be true to yourself!”  “Carpe Diem!” — and, of course, countless sports metaphors.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute of both ceremonies, and went through many tissues. But this year’s graduation double-header gave me plenty of time to think about the time-honored tradition of the commencement speech — and increased respect for the form.  In fact, a truly great graduation speech — one that entertains, inspires, and says something original — is a remarkable feat. (Although it's true that as a speaker you’ll rarely have a less judgmental audience: fond and foolish parents, over the moon with pride and prepared to be pleased by ever word.)

Ayn Rand and Thomas Jefferson

So how do this season's commencement speeches stack up? It turns out that a number of speakers managed to put a fresh spin on a well-worn tradition. A few highlights:

Michelle Obama took a swipe at the current grade-grubbing academic climate in a speech at a Tennessee high school:

"Do not waste a minute living someone else's dream. It takes a lot of real work to discover what brings you joy ... and you won't find what you love simply by checking boxes or padding your GPA.”

Stephen Colbert brought the house down at the University of Virginia with an irreverent joke about Thomas Jefferson:

“If anyone can do this, it is the graduates of the university that Jefferson founded. You are his intellectual heirs. In fact, some of you may be his actual heirs — we’re still testing the DNA.”

Federal Reserve Chairman  Ben Bernanke’s speech at Princeton has been called the best of the season:

“The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others … In so many words: You, Princeton Class of 2013, got lucky, and never forget it. You might end up Masters of the Universe, but you are not Randian supermen. You're here because you're smart, but you're smart because you're fortunate.”

Against the odds

My favorite graduation speech of all was given by a girl who wasn't so lucky. Chelesa Fearce was validictorian of Charles Drew High School in Riverdale, GA.  Fearce, who graduated with a 4.66 GPA,  spent most of her high school years living in homeless shelters with her family. That’s not all: her sister, who also graduated this year, was salutatorian at a different high school.  

In her speech, Fearce touched on universal themes, quoting Gandhi and praising her school and her classmates. But she also talked about her circumstances growing up:  “My family slept on mats on the floor and we were lucky if we got more than one full meal a day. Getting a shower, food and clean clothes was an everyday struggle.”

Listen to her speech:


Learn more about Fearce and her family, and send us your favorite 2013 graduation speeches, memorable moments, and personal stories!



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I was at a lecture and a professor who is now a director at our board said the following. "If you don't allow our children to graduate from our front doors they will be coming into your homes through the back doors." What she meant was that we must try to do all we can for our at risk students and give them at least a chance. We used to have Technical/practical high schools where these at risk students went to these schools to earn a high school in addition to an expertise such as plumbing, hair dressing, auto mechanics, carpentry. This way they at least had a chance in the real world when the graduated. However they shut down most of these schools in our board due to cutbacks.

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