Commencement 2011: The Speeches

I love graduation speeches. I think it’s because they make familiar words urgent again: Take Risks. Fight for What You Think Is Right. This is Only the Beginning. Never Give Up. Listen to Your Parents. Don’t Listen to Your Parents.

On the heels of seeing many of our students and friends graduate and leave Cal for new times, here are excerpts from some of the best (and most hilarious) graduation speeches of the season. Most of them are concerned with the inevitability of adversity and the necessity of creativity and humor in confronting it. Some assure graduates that uncertainty can be freeing.

You can guess which ones made me cry.

(Hint: all of them.)

“Don’t ever let anyone get into your head, especially yourself.”

– Michelle Obama at Spelman College

“When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.”

– Jonathan Franzen at Kenyon College (edited for the New York Times)

“As students of English, we’ve learned more than just a specialized vocabulary for talking about the things we read. We’ve learned the importance of continually interrogating our own practices and those of others with the aim of making them better. In the process, we’ve developed the kind of mental flexibility that allows us to think with others, even if we don’t always arrive at an agreement.”

– Candace Cunard at UC Berkeley’s English department graduation

“I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough…if that’s all you have in mind, happiness, I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it’s a trivial one.”

– Toni Morrison at Rutgers University

“You never know what is around the corner, unless you peek. Hold someone’s hand while you do it. You will feel less scared. You can’t do this alone. Besides it’s much more fun to succeed and fail with other people. You can blame them when things go wrong…And as always, please don’t forget to tip your waitresses.”

– Amy Poehler at Harvard’s Class Day

“…there is something that you must remember: Don’t go where I come from.”

– Elie Weisel at Washington University in Saint Louis

“If Rebecca Black can sing, then so can I.”

– Alaine Caudle, valedictorian of Doniphan West High School in Highland, Kansas

“I am here to tell you, that you are stepping into a world that is riper, more pregnant with newness, new ideas, new beats, new opportunities than most generations of journalists before you. You are lucky to be you, very lucky, though you may not be feeling it at the moment.”

– Robert Krulwich at UC Berkeley School of Journalism

“The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

– David Brooks, New York Times, May 30th (It’s not a graduation speech, but I had to include it because I liked it so much.)