I have no recollection of who spoke at my high school graduation. I remember it was hot for June. I recall the sun pounded down on us, as we lined up alphabetically outside the gymnasium, sweating like lascars in purple academic robes. I don’t remember much else.
It was miraculous that I was even able to post for the ceremony. The night before, I had drank a vast quantity of something called Blue Nun, a dangerous member of the liebfraumilch family, a really nasty, sweet German white wine that results in savage and debilitating hangovers. Liebfraumilch means “my scalp is on fire” in German. And sure enough, on graduation day my scalp felt like it was on fire. Sounds were much louder. I was dizzy. I was unbearably thirsty. My tongue had something wrong with it, too. Forty years later, I can remember the taste in my mouth. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, knowing that I would never drink again helped.
I was an eccentric, bookish high school student, a loner, and a year younger than my classmates. I had been accepted early at a university in faraway Chicago and never looked at a book after that acceptance letter arrived in October. What was the point? I spent the rest of my senior year in the school library reading British magazines like Punch and watching documentary films, or drinking coffee in a greasy diner called The Majestic that was kept by an elderly Lebanese man. I thought I was quite sophisticated. My closest friends were the school’s most notorious dope smoker and his sidekick, a fat girl built like a stevedore.
The week leading up to graduation proved to be an occasion for some merriment and misbehavior previously unknown to me. I vividly remember skinny-dipping in a lake with several very bad girls whom I had long been very curious about but had never dared approach. Blue Nun took care of that problem. Blue Nun was the introvert’s friend, a great social emollient.
A few bottles of Blue Nun and I was something of a ladies man. Apparently I knew how to smoke? Dissipation came easily to me. I was a natural. And I was a quick study. The week before graduation was one long bacchanal. It involved riding in a Volks-wagen bus— fortunately I was not driving. It involved The Doors and the doors of perception. And it involved inhaling. I remember it vividly even if I can’t conjure the name or face of the graduation speaker.
The War in Vietnam was going full tilt then. I had a 42 in the lottery and was classified 1A, almost certain cannon fodder. When I started high school, people still believed the domino theory. Hell, if we don’t stop ’em in ’Nam, they’ll be in Bangor next. When I graduated from high school, the times they were a’ changing. By the time I got out of university four years later, the war was hopelessly lost, and the draft canceled, thankfully. The only thing Richard Nixon ever did for me.
The world seemed very uncertain. It was hard to find a job. People were worried. People were not happy. There was war.
Today the world seems uncertain. It’s hard to find a job. People are worried. People are not happy. And we still have war. The wheel of life goes round and round. A lot of people believe this is a bad time to be young. But I don’t think it’s ever a bad time to be young.
I am thinking a lot about graduation now because my daughter is graduating from college this spring. And graduation naturally reminds me of the Marx brothers’ film “Horse Feathers,” the best assessment of academia available, although it was made in 1932. The American Film Institute rated it among the top 100 comedies in the history of film and ESPN noted it was the best representation of college football ever brought to the screen (even if it was preposterous). Set on the campus of Huxley College and centered on a football game between Huxley and its rival Darwin, it features Groucho Marx as college president Quincy Adams Wagstaff. Everything you need to know about the halls of ivy and college football is contained in this 68-minute film, the basic premise being that higher learning is a hoax and so is college football. They ought to show that film on orientation day to freshmen.
Graduation also reminds me of the venerable student song “Gaudeamus Igitur.” You’ve heard it a thousand times, perhaps on WBJC-FM, Baltimore’s classical radio station. They play it every hour, between Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo.”
Long popular in Europe, it pops up in Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” and in the operetta “The Student Prince,” and is often used for comic effect (as it should be). But it’s a better song than Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” a leaden piece always played at graduations. It speaks to long ago memories: Blue Nun white wine, bad girls, skinny-dipping and the chimes at midnight. Its first two lines translate roughly from the Latin to, “Let us rejoice while we are young.”
And that’s all that graduation speakers really need to tell their audiences. Forget the debt. Forget the job market. Forget the war. Remember only to rejoice. You will be young just once.