Monday, May 12, 2008

It's Commencement Time Again

Once again it's time for those boring commencement speeches. In honor of this occasion I present one that's not. Boring, that is.

Barnie Day Remarks
Southampton Academy Graduation
June 3, 2006
Good evening. Thank you very much. This is a big evening for Southampton Academy and I am pleased to be a part of it.

I want to begin with a housekeeping chore that we must get out of the way first. I want the graduating seniors to repeat after me. “Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad.”

Raising a kid is a difficult undertaking. Part of the difficulty seems to be a built-in dichotomy. On the one hand, as parents we want nothing so much as to raise you to be an independent thinker, to stand on your own hind legs, so to speak. At the same time, we expect you to believe everything we tell you. Those two positions are not always compatible.

My guess is that at some point every parent here has looked at you with this thought: “This fool cannot possibly be my kid. Somebody switched them in the delivery room. We got the wrong baby.”

Here’s the thing: Despite all the stupid things you’ve done, they’ve loved you anyway. Isn’t that a miracle?

Their love is boundless and unflinching. It is unconditional. You will never encounter the likes of it again. If you live to be a hundred, you will never find the love your parents have for you in any other embrace.

There is another group of people here this evening that we must pay homage to—the faculty and staff of this wonderful institution.

Teaching is a high and sacred calling, yet as a society we continue to under-appreciate teachers, undervalue them, and underpay them. Every one of them here at Southampton Academy could do less work and make more money doing something else.

Not only have they put you into the game of life, they have cheered you on incessantly. They have found joy and sadness when you found it. They have lived with you, laughed with you, cried with you. And make no mistake, they have loved you, too—and on some days looked at you with this thought: “I am glad this fool doesn’t belong to me.”

Please get on your feet and join me in a round of applause for the faculty and staff of Southampton Academy.

My favorite observation on writing was uttered by Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach.

“We learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to larger things.”

Even as a small boy, I could never get past a hornet’s nest without throwing something at it. Most anything would do—sticks, rocks, pop bottles, shoes—but my choice was always a brick if I could find one.

Bricks are harder to throw—and you have to stand closer—but you can do some damage with a brick.

I don’t throw bricks now. My arm is shot. But I do throw words once in a while. It’s what political columnists do.

A love of words came to me as a child - spoken words. I didn’t grow up in a household with a lot of books - but I did grow up around extraordinary talkers - gifted talkers, a gallery of them - artists who painted with spoken words, with language.

Words and their clever usage were the coin of value in my house - finding new ones akin to putting jingle in my pocket. It still is. The use of them, though, was not a frivolous thing, not a lightly taken exercise for me.

Baseball players, pitchers, gloves clamped in their armpits, always work the slickness from new baseballs before they throw them. The use their naked hands and do it with some intensity.

Words are best done that way, too—rubbed, and understood, measured for fit and feel and balance. You never want to throw a word until it’s ready. Believe me, I’ve done it. They nearly always miss their mark and ricochet into the stands.

Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the near - right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.

An interest in politics, something insatiable, started early, too. Like so many interests did for me, this one began with newspapers. I know this is an exaggeration—but I cannot remember not reading a newspaper.

When I was a small boy, my folks pulled off something magical. They bought a subscription to Life magazine—just in time for the run - up to the 1960 election.

I distinctly remember, as a kid, standing shirtless, nothing on but shorts, barefooted, dust at our mailbox warm and powdery in the summer sun, looking at that magazine.

I was your age in 1968. It was the year I began paying attention politically. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gunned down in 1968. The war was still raging in Vietnam. In 1968, we were still a long way from civil rights for all Americans.

When I was a kid, discrimination was openly expressed in public signs that read “White Only” or “Colored Only”. Some days now I think the same thing is expressed in terms of ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’

Today we debate immigration policy. In 1968 women were not admitted to the University of Virginia. That didn’t come about until 1970 - largely due to the efforts of Alan Diamonstein, who served in the House of Delegates from Newport News for 33 years.

I got my first job in 1968, after school, working second shift, loading trucks at a factory that made aluminum siding. Cam Johnson was a black man who worked on the loading dock with me. He was about 40, but he looked 65 - from doing hard, manual labor his whole life. He had worked second shift on that dock for eleven years. In fact, he had helped build that factory. He had carried bricks and mortar to the bricklayers and when they got it built, Cam got a job there.

In eleven years he had never missed a day of work. Cam Johnson couldn’t afford to miss a day. He had six children to feed and clothe. He was a gentle man. Not educated. Not militant. He didn’t know politics from theoretical physics. Cam Johnson just worked. I was a white boy, just a kid, and Cam Johnson was a black man with a wife and six children and we worked on the dock together.

We did exactly the same job. We loaded boxes of aluminum siding onto trucks, Cam on one end of the box, me on the other. The only real difference was our age, the color of our skin, the responsibility we had for other people and how much money we were paid. They hired me at $1.85 an hour. Cam Johnson, with six children, who hadn’t missed a day of work in 11 years, was making $1.80 an hour. He showed me his pay stub one day.

It was then that I understood about the food Cam brought for his supper every night. Half the time it was a pig ear sandwich. Two slices of bread, with mustard, and a boiled pig’s ear. Cam didn’t eat pig’s ears because he preferred them over ham and pork chops. A pig’s ear was all Cam could afford.

So what to do?

I did the only thing I thought I could do. It was the way my mother raised me.

I went to our boss, a beer-bellied, red-necked cracker named Harold, and I put it to Harold like this:

“You either give Cam a raise or cut my pay. I’m not working for more than he’s making.”

Harold looked at me like I’d spoken to him in Egyptian. And I said it again. And here’s what he said to me:

“You must be one of them stinking Democrats!” and I smiled at him and said, “I must be.”

Cam got the raise, by the way. Dime an hour.

When my friend Jerry Flowers asked me to speak to you this evening, I began to jot down a few things that I wanted to say to you on this departure.

Some of them you will forget before you leave here this evening - -some you will remember years from now. I give them to you in no particular order.

  • Know first that life is not so much some destination. It is the trip itself that matters. This is not a dress rehearsal. You’re not going to get a lot of do-overs. This is the real deal you’re in.
  • Impatience is a good thing. Impatience is what drives us. Impatience is what effects change - but know that you won’t get any real brains until you’re about fifty. My sixth grade teacher told me once: “Son, it’s what you learn after you know it all that really matters.”
  • If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what your plans are.
  • Keep art in your life. Long-term, it is art that endures, not wealth, not might. Art is how we know the ancient civilizations that have come before us. It is how we know Persia and the Aztecs, how we know the ancient Egyptians. Keep art in your life.
  • Get yourself a good dog. A good dog will always be glad to see you. There will be days ahead when you’re going to need somebody who is glad to see you. Get yourself a good dog.
  • From time to time, commit to an irrational act of kindness. Make yourself do it. It will come back to you over, and over, and over again.
  • Live below your means. You cannot borrow yourself out of debt. You cannot spend your way to a savings plan. Less really is more where material things are concerned. It is a great blessing in life to want what you have. But, of course, if you’re into materialism know that you can marry more money in five minutes that you can make in a lifetime.
  • Call your mama once in a while. You owe her. It is the least you can do. Call your mama.
  • Read 2000 good books. Amazon-dot-com lists over a million titles. If you read a book a week throughout your life, you’re going to have time to read about 2000. Don’t waste your time on trash. Read 2000 good books. And if you never read another thing in your life, please, read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
  • Speak to the people who wait on you. Speak with kindness and respect to those who serve you. And don’t just speak to them. Thank them. They have lives. They’re human beings, too. It is not asking a lot. Speak to them. The only difference between you and them is one of circumstance.
  • Don’t trifle with someone’s heart just because you can. Hearts are tough resilient wonders, but they are fragile, too, and easy to break. Don’t trifle with them.
  • In the years ahead, if you find yourself in need of a cheap lawyer or a cheap accountant, you don’t need a lawyer or an accountant. Cheap lawyers and cheap accountants get you into more trouble than they can get you out of.
  • Laughter is a good thing. And conventional wisdom is mostly just conventional. People will tell you that you should never go to bed mad with your spouse. I guess it’s better to stay up and fight. Or this one: you should never criticize someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. What that means is that at least you’ll be a mile away when the trouble starts, plus you’ll have their shoes.
  • Always stop and examine the truth when you stumble over it. Don’t pick yourself up and rush on as if nothing happened.
  • A word or two on the social graces: the fork goes on the left, the knife and spoon on the right. And, guys, please—put the seat down.
  • Consensus is overrated. If you get ten people to agree to do something stupid, where are you? Don’t trade away your independent judgment just for the sake of getting along.
  • And finally this one. God gives some people talent beyond what He gives others. I don’t know why. I do know this. If God has given you such a talent, you should use it. I believe He will take it away from you if you don’t—and give it to someone who will.

I wish you Godspeed as you leave here this evening. We all do. This institution has given you the tools you need. We expect you to use them.

You leave good days behind you here at Southampton, but believe me when I say this: your very best days still await you.

We are proud. We are envious. Our hearts do go with you.

I am going to sit down before I wear my welcome out. My parting shot is this—and if you remember nothing else I’ve said this evening, remember this one.

Nothing shrinks to greatness - not organizations, not companies, not countries - and not you.

You cannot sit on your backsides. The world doesn’t owe you anything. If you want a meaningful life, you must pursue it with purpose.

Of all the people here this evening, only you can reach your potential.

I have in my possession three words that will help you. They were given to me by a great man. This evening I give them to you. I hope you will cherish them, for they will comfort you always.

Pope John Paul said: “Be not afraid.”

Be not afraid as you go forward.

God bless and keep you. Thank you very much.

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