[This is one of the Review’s more popular pieces, especially around graduation time. From a graduation speech delivered at Washington’s John Eaton public elementary school in 1977. At the time, the school went through the 8th grade.]
SAM SMITH 1977 – The title of my speech is “The Future Lies Ahead.” This pretty much sums up what people are meant to say at graduations, so I thought I would take care of it in the title and move on to some other business. It has always seemed to me that graduation was a little late to be giving advice but perhaps a few random notes may be of some assistance.
First of all, parents: they’re middle-aged, right? And Peter Ustinov says that the trouble with middle-aged people is that they’re too far away from either of the most important mysteries of life: birth and death. My father used to say that the reason that grandparents and grandchildren got on so well was because they had a common enemy. For myself, I think one of the problems with parents is that they can never decide whether you should be in the White House or in jail. They exaggerate both their expectations and their disappointments. But remember that most of this exaggeration comes from two sources; hope and love. They have higher hopes for you than anyone other than yourself and this is nice. But you know your hopes often disappoint you and that’s hard enough. It’s even harder sometimes to deal with someone else who has high hopes for you, and I’m sorry to say it doesn’t end when you leave your parents. At 39, I still find dealing with other people’s expectations difficult. John Cage, the experimental composer, once said that when people finally approved of what he did, all they wanted him to do was repeat it. He wanted to try something new, but the pressure was to just do it over again. This kind of dilemma will follow you to your grave, so relax and learn to live with it.
Love is also a two-edged blade. It provides warmth, humanity, and comfort, but it also demands and takes. Remember that Mr. Spock didn’t understand love because it wasn’t’ logical. In fact, especially with your parents, its manifestations sometimes seem to border on mental illness. Which is why, perhaps, so many people go to psychiatrists looking for love.
I can’t tell you how to deal with this conflict except to recognize the unavailability of the free lunch. If you want to go through life with complete freedom, unimpeded self-expression, then you also have to be ready to go through life lonely. If you want to share in love and community and mutual support then you have to be willing to give up something of yourself in return. Parents offer love and hope but in the process become like that definition of the English House of Lords – indefensible and indispensable.
Second, a note on being a teenager: Adults conform just as much as teenagers do. The problem is that teenagers are asked to conform to both adult and teenager values at the same time. This can be a little confusing. But there’s something else wrong with the setup. Adults tend to regard your age as the ragged, unruly end of childhood, rather than the beginning of adulthood. Go back a couple of centuries and you’ll find 16-year olds who were captains of ships and 14 year olds who were serving as apprentices or doing a full day’s adult work on the farm.
You are capable of it, but if you were to drop out of school and try to find a job in what we adults strangely called the ‘real’ world, you wouldn’t have much luck. Why? The truth is that we need people to stay in school as long as they can in order to keep the unemployment rate down. It is not our social system but our economy that has determined that there be no useful role for teenagers. Now adults don’t want you to discover this so when you start demanding something meaningful, they may give you freedom rather than responsibility, and when the sort of aimless freedom that adults sometimes grant young people backfires in a car accident or a drug bust, we blame the teenager. It is, of course, stupid to ask young people to find purpose in life when the system is specifically designed to deny them a useful function.
Well, pretty much. If we ever get in a war again, you’ll find the country suddenly finding a place for you – on the front lines. I would think a country that can trust its teenagers to defend it in time of war could find more useful roles for them in time of peace.
But we adults won’t fight this battle for you, although we have taken a few steps, like lowering the voting age. You’ve got to figure it out for yourselves and make us listen. And, you only have a few years in which to do it. Then, you, too, will be too old and may begin to stop caring.
Third, a note on failure: Everyone tells you how to succeed, but I bet you get damn little advice on how to fail – which is strange, because if you’re normal, you’re going to spend more time failing than succeeding. Try to learn the difference between the failure that comes from laziness, indifference, or stupidity and that which comes from other sources.
For example, there’s the failure that comes with trying to do something that you won’t be able to do right until tomorrow or the next day or next year. Those of you who took part in the musical yesterday know what I’m talking about.
It took many hours of voluntary failure to produce one hour of success. And now that you’ve succeeded, you perhaps have the courage to fail again so, you can succeed at something even harder next time.
Then there’s the failure of the just cause. Most good causes started out as lost causes. If no one had been willing to fail at a just cause, we would still be fighting in Vietnam and eating at segregated lunch counters and the women in the Eaton class of ’77 would not be expected to go to college.
Finally there is the failure that is not yours; .but the judgment of other people Don’t let other people tell you when you’ve failed. Listen to them but not at the exclusion of your heart or own judgment. Other people are poor judges of your success or failure.
One last note: I’m sure people have asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There are two things wrong with that question.
First, I know and you know that you are right now. If you put off being until you’re fully grown you may discover that it’s passed you by.
Second, adults usually want you to respond with a noun: I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, an investigative reporter. You can fool them by answering with adjectives like I want to be warm, useful, and happy. It is, after all, those sorts of wants that will matter most in the long run. If what you want to be is only a noun, you’ll probably end up like that and the sadder for it. But if you pick the right adjectives, you can end up like Frank Skeffington, the political boss hero of The Last Hurrah. In the last scene he lies on his deathbed and an unctious Roger Sugrue intones, “Well, the one thing we all know is that if Frank had to do it all over again, he would have done it differently.” Frank Skeffington raises himself from his bed, looks the guy in the eye and says, “Like hell I would,” and dies. Happy.