by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
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:
"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.”
“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.”
“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!Follow @CMMatthiessen