As commencement approaches…

His Honor the Adjunct Consul General of the French Republic, His Honor the Vice Consul General, Distinguished Members of the Board of Directors, Madam School Head, Esteemed Colleagues of the Faculty, the Class of 1994, its Family and Friends,

I have a confession to make: I have always loved graduation ceremonies.  I love to hear the regal chords of the entering processional as the faculty and graduating class take their respective places.  I love graduation drag: the sartorial splendor of long, black gowns which absolutely suffocate a person with distinction; the smart, square-topped caps with tassels dangling off at a capricious and even rakish angle: Mr. DeMille, we are ready for our close-up.

Finally, I love the real purpose of this ceremony.  Here, we gather the graduating class one last time and make it squirm under the afore-mentioned gowns as speakers after speaker invoke—in two or more languages mind you!—the class’s duty to sort out and correct everything that all preceding classes have screwed up.  Indeed, the perpetrators of this ceremony are doing more than just celebrating an academic rite of passage; more nobly yet, we are dumping the mess we have made of things into younger and, we hope, cleverer hands.  If all goes well here this evening, the class of 1994 will leave the podium depressed and anxious, while their elders depart with the refreshing and heart-warming sensation that only passing the buck can create.

In adding my contribution to this endeavor, my experience as a history teacher could not help intruding upon the proceedings.  Through my research of the topic, “Advice given through the ages to innocent youth by guilt-ridden adults,” I have gathered a small collection of documents which may give us a special historical understanding of one generation dumping onto another.

We may start our time travel in medieval Western civilization, when a certain physician wrote to his two sons, who happened to be studying at the University of Toulouse.  Dad the doctor is full of wise recommendations which reflect the concerns of his times.  He does not spare the public works of Southwestern France when, for example, he states solemnly, “Remember about the well water of Toulouse.  Wherefore boil it, and the same with the water of the Garonne, because such waters are bad.”  Not content with prescribing steps to avoid contamination through water, our good doctor adds helpful tips on avoiding flea infestation, leprosy, the common head cold and poor digestion.  Clearly, university study could be treacherous in medieval Toulouse.  This letter offers some wise parting words from parents to children today, although we would probably emphasize water purification less and condoms and Prozac more.

Another source comes very close to the wise words of the medieval doctor, only this time the testimony is a fictional one.  This inter-disciplinary leap from history to literature is a challenging one.  I will risk it, however, since the excerpt is from Mr. William Shakespeare, who was as good a chronicler of his times as he was a poet.  To demonstrate the Bard’s historical worthiness, I have chosen Polonius’ speech to his son Laertes from the play Hamlet, that wonderful dramatic piece in which, as American musical theater describes it, “A ghost and a prince meet, and everything ends in mincemeat.”

Polonius’ predicament is similar to the medieval doctor’s; he too is sending his son Laertes off to university in France, only this time to Paris instead of Toulouse.  Perhaps the waters of the Seine are sweeter than those of the Garonne, since Polonius does not warn Laertes about boiling his water.  The perils of study at the Sorbonne seem more ethical than physical, as Polonius’ advice is much more directed to his son’s social conduct.  Whereas our medieval doctor counsels his sons in appropriate attire to keep warm and dry, Polonius advises Laertes to dress to impress.  “For,” states Polonius, “the apparel oft proclaims the man, and they in France of the best rank and station are of a most select and generous chief in that.”

This recommendation on wearing the appropriate power suit is the most practical advice that Polonius offers.  Otherwise, Polonius tires his son’s ears with all the good advice that few mortals ever consistently put into practice.  Yet with all his bombastic, pontificating drivel, Polonius’ last piece of advice is not only the surest but also the most challenging:

This above all: To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Such advice is perhaps Polonius’ last great moment, as he ends up two acts later skewered at the end of Hamlet’s sword, and dismissed by the mad Dane as “… a foolish prating knave.”  Up here on this podium, however, I can identify with the human condition of poor Polonius.  Unable to extricate himself from the machinations of Denmark’s greatest dysfunctional family, he leaves his son with at least one wise maxim, perhaps in the subconscious desire that Laertes will succeed where his father failed.

I certainly do not pretend to be any better off than poor Polonius, with the exception that I might do a better job than he did of keeping my sword envy under control.  Otherwise, I am at a considerable disadvantage compared to my Shakespearean counterpart.  Polonius had, after all, one of the greatest writers of all time providing his script.  Without old Will to ghost-write for me, I must fall back on the historian’s gathering of cultural relics which might inform us of past mistakes and point us to a better future.

Indulge me in one final cultural relic; being an official friend of Dorothy’s, it is one of my favorites.  I am referring to Victor Fleming’s film version of Frank Baum’s story The Wizard of Oz.  In the film, Judy Garland plays twentieth-century America’s answer to Odysseus.  Like the Greek hero, Garland’s Dorothy has a whole string of wild adventures in her quest to return home.  Finally the good witch of the East shows up at the end of the story only to tell Dorothy that she could have avoided all those troubles along the yellow brick road.  Dorothy could have gone home whenever she liked by clicking those ruby slippers three times and saying, “There’s no place like home.”

When Dorothy protests that someone should have told her this, the good witch Glenda observes that Dorothy would not have believed that anything so simple could get her back to Kansas.  The adventure of the yellow brick road alone empowered Dorothy to click those heels and hurry back to Auntie Em’ and the farm.

Whether we liken ourselves to the daring braggadocio of Odysseus or the humble vulnerability of Dorothy, both characters represent the adventure upon which you, the class of 1994, are about to embark.  Along your individual yellow brick roads, you will experience the Scarecrow’s quest for knowledge, the Tinman’s pursuit of love and the Lion’s search for courage.  Most importantly, like Dorothy, you will seek that elusive refuge called home, where wisdom, love and security converge upon one special place.  No one here, including myself, can tell you where that place for you will be, because only the adventure of getting there can help you locate it.  A pair of magic ruby slippers would be more than nice; they would look fabulous with our black gowns.  Without them, however, we must hope for the ability to understand wisdom where we find it, give and accept love when we find it, and maintain great courage especially when it seems we cannot find it.  Class of 1994, I recommend with love and humility: Follow the yellow brick road.

[Delivered by Peter Bell to the graduating class at French American International School, San Francisco, 17 June 1994]

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