Pomp and circumstance
When Loren Cassatt asked if I would consider making the commencement speech for the Aspen High School class of 2004, I thought she was joking.
Loren is the librarian at the high school. She and I worked together years ago at The Aspen Times. Loren has a wry sense of humor.
After she assured me this was all legitimate, I agreed to join the list of candidates and assumed I would not hear another word, that the class would choose someone more notable, more prominent, more mainstream. They didn’t. Two weeks later, Loren informed me that I was the class choice. Gulp!
There are at least four Paul Andersens in the valley, and I assumed the class had made a mistake. I certainly didn’t see myself as commencement material. Weren’t those speakers usually celebrities, politicians or big business success stories? Me, a humble scribe, sending off a graduating class into the big, bad future seemed ludicrous.
As a writer, I have fulfilled thousands of assignments, but this one stumped me. I didn’t know these students at all. The last high school graduation I attended was my own – 35 years ago – in 1969. There was a gulf of change between me and those seniors wider than the Grand Canyon.
Suddenly, my friends and family became speech coaches. “Look professorial,” urged one friend. “Don’t say ‘um’ or ‘ya know’ or ‘well, anyway …,'” coached another. I pictured myself at the podium with cap and gown, a pince nez propped on my nose, spouting a stream of generic platitudes from a parchment scroll. The image was mortifying.
I frantically composed a speech that would summon the great truths, the dreadful topics of commencement speeches ever since Adam and Eve graduated from gardening school. I recited my first draft to my wife and son, my focus group.
“Hark, oh noble graduates … (my wife shot me a questioning look) … you are facing an uncertain and tumultuous future … (‘Duh!’ moaned our son) … These are troubling times … (‘Double duh, Dad!’) … The weight of the world is upon your shoulders …!” Boos and hisses ended the rehearsal.
Next, I e-mailed friends for advice, hoping someone would infuse me with the art of oration – maybe even send a speech I could plagiarize and be free from this burden. I began wording excuses rather than speeches, wondering how I could get out of this. The honor had become a horror.
One friend, a high school principal, said I should limit my speech to three quick points. “Get in, get it done and get the hell out,” he said. Another friend urged brevity. “Give ’em the shortest commencement speech in history: ‘Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.’ They’ll never forget it!” he enthused. And they’ll never forgive it, I thought.
High school teacher Kathy Klug saved the day by inviting me to meet with a representative group of seniors. They described themselves in words that impressed me with high ideals and great expectations. I saw in them a remarkable unity, a diverse community ready to embrace the world and change it if they could. I found in them faith in the future, and that is saying a lot today.
The week before commencement, I visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall exhibit in Aspen. When I graduated from high school in 1969, the Vietnam War was killing Americans. Thirty-five years later, another dubious war is killing Americans. Here was a link across three and a half decades, a bridge spanning the generation gap.
On Saturday, the Music Tent was hushed as I stood at the podium. The words came. My fears dissipated. The honor became a tremendous gift that I’ll never forget.
I ended the speech by holding up a bag of dust from Ground Zero, from 9/11. Upon this dust, I said, the future will be built, and it will be built by people like these high school seniors, people who understand about diversity and unity, responsibility, respect, love and community. I thank those seniors for teaching me that such idealism is still alive.
Paul Andersen also thanks Loren Cassatt, whose faith exceeds his own. His column runs on Mondays.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.