Are graduation speeches just pretty?

I’ve been to a lot of graduation ceremonies. As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, I attended other people’s high school commencements for fun (and to support my friends, of course). Kids and parents alike are happy to be there, to celebrate the end of something, the beginning of something, or both. It’s a day to be proud. It’s a day to laugh. It’s a day of speeches.

I can’t tell you how many (high school and university) commencement speeches I’ve sat through. Too many. How many can I remember? Not many. Pretty close to not any.

I remember fragments of certain speeches. Usually someone will talk about the root of the word commencement, which has to do with beginnings, not endings. The person speaking will talk about how the people graduating are the future, they can make real change, and they should be themselves. There’s usually a funny or cute anecdote thrown in for a few laughs. The best part is when the commencement speaker says something like, “You probably won’t remember this speech, but if you have to remember one thing, remember this…”—even that one thing I was supposed to remember I don’t remember.

So do graduation speeches do any good? Are they just pretty prose? Are they just a way to fill up the time? I know my high school graduating class was little more than 100 students, so the reading of the names and handing out of diplomas certainly weren’t enough to be the whole program. They had to put those speeches in there to make it a ceremony and not just a blink of the eye.

Don’t get me wrong. If I were asked to speak at my school’s graduation, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d say all the regular cheesy stuff and throw in an anecdote for good measure. I just wouldn’t imagine the kids would actually remember my speech or have it change the way they think about life.

I’ve been to speeches that I’ve remembered and been affected by; they just haven’t been graduation speeches. Maybe graduation is a bad time. Kids have their minds on other things (like partying?). Either way, since I’ve either been attending or been working at schools my whole life, I’m sure I will get to enjoy a lot more pretty speeches. Maybe one will stand out from the rest and really be memorable. Maybe. Could be today.

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  1. I love public speaking – but I hope that I never have to give a graduation speech. There are so many emotions buzzing through the space. My undergraduate graduation speech was delivered by Mayor Leppert. Students hated it but parents loved it. The one thing I liked about his speech was the 2 – 3 minutes he devoted to the idea that people need to take personal risks if it means that another person might succeed. (educatorblog.wordpress.com)

  2. A friend of a friend of mine at another school graduated at the top of his class and was given an opprotunity to make a commencement speech.

    The audience had just sat through two other speeches which preached “these are the best years of your life” again and again.

    And so this fellow, this friend of a friend, said, in a calm, almost soothing voice “I had a speech like that prepared, but I’m going going to read it. Look, if you believe that these are the best years of your life, and that they’re over, you should shoot yourself now. But they’re not. This is just the beginning; the real world has so much more to offer.”

    He made a quote at that point that was something like “any man can be the master of his own backyard”, and my friend didn’t really understand it, and didn’t give adequate context for me to interpret it – or the original speaker.

    A shame I didn’t see it, that would have been one of the memorable ones.

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