My 2014 Speech to the Graduates

May 9, 2014

This year the commencement speech of the University of Catalpa was scheduled to be given by the assistant deputy undersecretary of the Fish & Wildlife Department of Rhode Island. Due to an unfortunate cancellation I was called in at the last minute. What follows is a transcript of a speech I mostly made up at the podium.

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2014, I’m glad none of you tried to get out of this by calling in a fake bomb threat.

Every year I hear at least one story about a student calling in a fake bomb threat to get out of taking a test. It’s not something I would recommend, or that I can even condone, but I can understand where it comes from. Tests put a lot of pressure on students, especially really big tests. The possibility of failure is treated as a threat, so the student who responds with a threat is merely applying the lesson learned, but in a really bad way. Threats are counterproductive, and yet they’re still a cornerstone of the educational system. Besides, even though it’s bad to call in a bomb threat, even a fake one, students who resort to such extreme means must know that at best they’re just delaying the inevitable. Eventually they’re still going to have to take the test. I assume they’re just trying to get more time to study. It’s the wrong thing to do, but done for the right reason.

I never look into the details, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in at least one of these cases the student who called in the threat was about to take either the SAT or ACT. Almost everyone who goes to college in the United States has to take one of these tests, and how well you do can be a major factor in which college you go to, which, in turn, can affect the rest of your life. So the possibility of not doing well becomes a huge threat. Maybe you faced those tests suffering under a large and unnecessary amount of stress, not realizing or just forgetting that these tests are one of a myriad of factors colleges look at, and that your future success or failure is going to be determined by a lot more than who signed your diploma.

Almost all of you, I’m sure, took either the SAT or the ACT. Many of you took both tests. I did. First I took the SAT and did pretty well on it, although it’s hard to not do pretty well on a test that automatically gives you three thousand points just for spelling your name correctly. You’d be surprised how many people I went to school with blew that part, or maybe you wouldn’t if you knew some of the people I went to school with. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to take the ACT as well, maybe because it’s a more accurate representation of life for most of us, since it starts you off with negative fifteen points. After taking both the SAT and the ACT I felt DOA, tried to get an MRI, ended up going AWOL, got hit by an SUV driven by someone who was DUI, called AAA, and briefly played for the NCAA before my parents reported me to the DEA, but that’s another story. The worst thing I remember about the SAT and ACT is being told that these tests could determine my entire future. Imagine your entire promising career being wrecked by something as simple as accidentally using a number three pencil. The pressure was enormous, at least for those of us who cared about our future and who weren’t mature and worldly enough to recognize that a single test would not determine our destiny. In fact I think that was the real lesson of the SAT and ACT: try to do well, but there’s much more to life than filling in empty circles. Telling young people their whole future could be determined by a single test is like putting them in front of a big pit full of spikes, and saying, “Before you graduate you have to jump over this. Good luck. Hopefully we’ll see you on the other side.” The best and brightest will be the ones who say “This is bullshit” and walk around the pit.

Some of you may be naïve enough to think you’re done with tests now that you’re leaving school. Except, of course, those of you who are going on to graduate school, where you’ll sometimes be the ones assigning the tests. This is because while you’re working toward your Ph.D. you’ll be working as the assistant of a professor who should have retired ten years ago, and who died three years ago, but, because he’s got tenure, still comes in and takes naps in his office.

For those of you who think you’re done with tests I have bad news. Life itself is a series of tests. The good news is most of life’s tests won’t be like the tests you take in school.

Something I hear about a lot these days is the makeup test, the chance to retake a test you’ve failed or just done badly on. Are makeup tests real? Have you ever taken a makeup test?

[Pause]

Hello?

[Pause]

Okay, I guess you weren’t expecting audience participation at a graduation ceremony, and the people behind me are getting antsy, so I’ll move on.

I like the term “makeup test”, because it’s exactly like makeup. If you were aiming to look like a supermodel and instead it’s Bozo The Clown staring back at you in the mirror you can wipe it off and start over. I don’t think we had makeup tests when I was a student. Or maybe we did and I just didn’t know it. I was a senior in college before I learned that you could call up the reference desk at the library and ask simple questions, or get help in searching for answers to questions. I didn’t realize that librarians could do more than just tell me to be quiet. They did ask how I got a pizza up to the third floor. I didn’t know at the time I could ask them questions too. If I needed to know when Orson Welles died for a paper I was writing I thought I had to go to the card catalogue—that’s what we called “computers” back then—and hope that there was a biography that had been written well enough after 1985 to give me the exact date. Once I learned that librarians were there to answer questions, though, I took full advantage of the service, until one of them screamed at me that unless it was information I really needed he had better things to do than try to figure out how much pudding it would take to fill the Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas.

There are those who say that makeup tests shouldn’t be allowed, that they encourage students to be lazy, or not prepare. Sure, some lazy people are going to try and game the system, that’s going to happen no matter what. Some people are going to want to re-take a test they’ve done badly on because they’re diligent, hard-working, and determined to improve themselves. Chances are once you cross this stage and pick up your diploma you’re never going to need to know the quadratic formula ever again, but that diligence and willingness to keep trying are qualities that will be rewarded is something you should have learned, and, going forward, apply in every aspect of life.

The mere existence of makeup tests, even in school, where so many things are presented as either pass or fail, is really a more accurate reflection of what you’ll find as you go out into the real world. Very few of your future experiences will present themselves as a pass-or-fail test, unless you’re being made to jump over a pit full of spikes. Whatever job you’re in you may screw something up, and, while it’s possible you’ll get fired, it’s also possible there’s a way to fix the mistake, and even if there’s not you might just get a warning not to let it happen again. If you do get fired there are other jobs. And in life, outside of whatever you gotta do to pay the bills, situations where you have a choice between just one path or another are going to be very rare. You’ve probably had to read the Robert Frost poem about how taking the road less traveled made all the difference at least a dozen times, but what did he know? He picked one path and stuck to it. Or did he? The older you’ll get the more you’ll understand the wisdom of the immortal words of Led Zeppelin: there are two paths you can go by but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on. Life itself will be a series of tests, but the difference between the tests you take in school and the ones you face in life is that most of the tests you face in life won’t have simple right or wrong answers. Most of the time they’ll be multiple choice tests, but you have to figure out what the choices are yourself, and A and C may be right, but for completely different reasons, or B might seem right, but in three years you’ll find it was the wrong answer. And you won’t be graded by someone else. In most of life’s tests you won’t get a grade at all.

And you have to accept that sometimes you’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes, no matter who you are, you’re going to fail. When it comes to the things that are really worth doing, the things that really matter, most of us don’t get them right on the first try. There are some exceptional individuals who will excel at something, but don’t be fooled into thinking that things automatically come easy for them. Mozart was playing the violin at the age of four, but his father started making him practice while he was still breastfeeding. But I’m also not going to tell you that failure is a good thing. It’s become popular among adults to say “Embrace failure”. This line is being fed to us by the same pop psychologists who, in five years, will be telling us, “Hate failure! Knock failure down! Kick it in the teeth! Kill! Kill! Kill!” and then they’ll be dragged away by legitimate psychologists. Telling you to embrace failure is like telling you to jump right into a pit full of spikes. What I will tell you is that you shouldn’t look at failure as a threat. Accept that failure is part of life. Accept that you can and should move on. Life is a test, but it’s not about getting the right answers, but how you react when the results come in.

Thank you, and good luck.

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