As the first line of the following says, I graduated from Gould Academy a million years ago. Gould Academy is located in western Maine, nearly in the foothills of the White Mountains, and when I was there, that million years ago, it was a trifle on the alternative side, although it's gone rather more upscale since, at least to the superficial eye of a briefly visiting alumna. I was an only child and a Navy brat; my father retired in my early teens and we moved to a tiny island off the Maine coast, where I felt almost entirely at a loss. I was a space cadet, those years on that island. My parents sent me to boarding school for my senior year of high school as a last resort, to see if I could be cranked back down from Waaay Out There in time to get me into a good college, since in their eyes a respectable degree from a good college was an absolute requirement for any kind of success in adult life (I don't agree with this, but that's another story). Anyway there was a lot riding on my single year at Gould, not least the remains of my sanity.
And it's not preposterous to say that Gould saved my life. I don't look back on that year with any pleasure I was not a nice person to have around in those days but I look back on it with intense, if cringingly embarrassed, gratitude. So when, a million years later, they asked me to come back and give the graduation speech, I barely thought about it before I said 'yes'. (I'd been back several times in the intervening years. Lucia Owen, who appears once or twice in the following, was my English teacher that year I was a student at Gould her first year there too, although from the other side of the desk and after my first book was published she was the first person to invite me to come Be A Writer to a few classes of her students. That's another story too how I went in, feeling a little like I was walking over my own grave, to talk about Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, and got a lot of blank faces as I blithely referred to details of the fairy tale. I finally asked how many of this class of twenty or so kids knew the fairy tale... and two or three hands went up. Oh wow. I can't even imagine a life that doesn't have fairy tales in it almost as far back as you can remember. That was, please note, years before Disney's disgusting movie came out. Now when I talk to a school class about Beauty and the Beast I have different explanations to make like that my Beauty came out first, and that no version of the original fairy tale has anybody named Chip in it.)
Anyway. I said that I was honoured to be asked, and that I would certainly come over from England and give them their commencement speech. I hate writing speeches I've said this several times in various places on this web site, so any of you who are getting tired of this remark should also be beginning to plumb the depths of my loathing and this one was important because I actually wanted to say something, about being a teenager, about growing up, about expectations, about learning, and about how nothing is ever quite what you expected....
And just by the way, I had to stop talking for a standing ovation from the parents, at the end of the paragraph that begins 'If you want to tuck your children in bed every night'.
I graduated from Gould Academy a million years ago. The spring of 1970, to be precise; less than a year after someone from planet Earth walked on the moon for the first time. In the summer of 1969 we all thought weíd have colonies on Mars in thirty years, and personned space probes boldly going where no one has gone beforeóalthough that was in the pre-New Generation days when Jim Kirk only spoke for the guys. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, but the Russian government wouldnít let him go to Stockholm to pick it up. Lillian Hellmanís An Unfinished Woman and Joyce Carol Oatesí Them won National Book Awards, but we were reading Richard Brautigan and Hermanne Hesseóand Frank Herbert and Robert Heinleinóand, in my case at least, The Lord of the Rings, for approximately the hundred-millionth time. The Female Eunuch was published in London in 1970, although it took a year to cross the Atlantic, and another year to fall into my hands: there is a depressing argument that our generationís feminism was born out of the ruins of the sixties; but I find most arguments about feminism depressing, since it seems to me that ordinary equality among people of all races, genders, and creeds should be a straightforward given, and not a thorny political issue.
1970 was also four years before Nixon resigned. He did resign, you know, just ahead of the hot panting breath of the impeachers, although those of you who didnít live through it might be forgiven for not remembering this after the solemn reverential hoohah over his death. Kent State happened in 1970: when unarmed demonstrators against Nixonís decision to invade Cambodia were fired on by the National Guard, killing four. That was perhaps the real end to the sixties, not the mindless inevitable rolling over of calendar years. This is all ancient history to you, of course, like World War II was to us. Perhaps you read Despatches and Going After Cacciato the way we read Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse Five.
It was an interesting time to be aliveówith reference, perhaps, to the old Chinese curse Ďmay you live in interesting timesíómore interesting, perhaps, if you werenít stuck going to school. The graduates of 1970 were slightly too late to be full-ranking members of the sixties generation, although some of us tried. But I was deeply, deeply uncool in those days. I was about as uncool as you can get and still be scientifically classifiable as homo sapiensóI hope Lucia Owen is the only person present who remembers me in those days; almost thirty years of friendship since has, if Iím lucky, softened her memories of the adolescent I wasóand my awareness of anything going on in the world was a very hit or miss affair. But I can tell you that one of the shaping facts of my young adulthood was Vietnam, as, perhaps, homo sapiensí last chance to get it right before we kill the planet looms over you now.
I grew up in jolts, little and big. Iíd had an odd childhood, and I think I graduated from high school rather dumber about the world than most of my contemporaries. I went to college after Gould, but I didnít stay there long; I had this notion, not entirely bogus, that I wanted to see a little more of life and a little less of the insides of classrooms. My boyfriend and I moved to Washington DC. My boyfriend had just been thrown out of the army for an eye condition that had existed before he went in; they threatened him with a dishonourable discharge if he made any fuss about the fact that theyíd made his eyes worse. This was my first direct experience of the American military-industrial complex, and the moral was clear: theyíre bigger than you are, and you canít win. This had a bigger impact on me than the Kent State killings; or rather, it suddenly made Kent State seem real. Iíd been raised to believe that the police, the army, the government, were the good guys; Iíd been paying enough attention, even in my teens, to have some doubts about this, but Kent State was just too extreme, there must have been some mistake about the news as it came to us. This much smaller incidentóIím not going to call it minor, because it wasnít minor to my boyfriend, who might have been blindedómade a kind of stage curtain go up for me at last. The real world wasnít a painted backdrop with a lot of clever perspective. This was it. And it wasnít necessarily friendly.
Some of the shocks of life in the real world were initially muffled; rather than signing a lease the two of us moved into a spare bedroom in a big house that had somebody elseís name on the lease. We moved into a tiny efficiency apartment of our own after we came home one evening to several police cars in the street and most of the windows of our house knocked out by one of the other tenants, who was having a bad acid trip; mercifully weíd missed the scene with the ambulance that had taken him away. We decided having our own lease would be less hassle. It was when we finally got it, but getting it wasnít easy; nobody wanted to rent to an eighteen- and twenty-year-old with entry-level jobs and, of course, no resume citing hard proof of our reliability. Several landlords and -ladies offered to take us if our parents would countersign the lease. No. But this was another shock: that people who didnít know you would assume the worst. That if you were young and poor and without any reinforcement people were less likely to give you a break, even though you needed one.
I liked earning my own money, paying my own bills. That was terrific. It made me feel that my life belonged to me at last. What wasnít terrific was that I didnít earn very much, and the bills took most of it. I started out liking working in an office, knowing the shape of the days, of the weeks; I liked it especially after I bought my motorcycle, a second-hand Kawasaki 350, rebored for racing, nothing could touch it between zero and fifty, and you had to take care starting from zero to keep the front wheel on the ground. I spent money I couldnít spare to buy motorcycle leathers, so I could stalk into my workplace creaking interestingly, and carelessly fling my helmet on my desk. I liked being a little bit of a grown-up and a little bit of a rebel.
What I found that I didnít like much was the job itself. Thinking was not merely spurious, it was discouraged. I didnít have a lot of respect for my brain, but it pestered me unmercifully when I stopped using it. I was a transcriber for the Ward and Paul steno-reporting firm yes, we reported some of Watergate, although I wasnít assigned any of it. And as it happens, our apartment was around the corner from the police station where the first rumbles of the Watergate scandal broke; and my boyfriend was working for a PR firm with strong ties to the Republicans and to the Nixon White House. We were that close to important things happening, and yet we wereóI feltójust as muffled from them as if we were still wrapped up in the cotton-wool of school. But where was the way out, or in? All I knew how to do was look things up in libraries, and ĎMaking the world a better placeí isnít on the prospectus in most continuing-ed courses.
As it happens I stuck trying to be what I thought of as a standard grown-up for less than a year, and then I broke out by going in. I started writing down the stories in my head. Iíd been writing, stories and poetry, most of my life, off and on, but while I wanted them to be good and moving and importantóand publishableóI didnít think they were, and I can tell you from the scraps of them I still occasionally unearth from the bottoms of ill-kept filing cabinets, they werenít. But, where I was then, nineteen years old and living in an efficiency flat in Washington DC with a dead-end job and no prospects, I needed to do something to let what I vaguely thought of as my real self out. I was lucky; writing was what I needed to do; and all you need on the outside to be a writer is a piece of blank paper and something to write with. Someone with a gift for 80-foot welded steel sculpture has a problem, starting out.
I was also lucky in that I wrote my first saleable novel at twenty-four. That was Beauty, which many of you have read. So I didnít have to hang around being anguished about what I wanted to do with my life for longónot that it stopped me anguishing. In the first place, Beauty didnít earn enough money for me to do much more than buy the Encyclopedia Britannica and some bookcases to put it in (this was in the days of thirty volumes rather than two CD-ROMs), and you have to go on eating and buying the raw materials of your chosen trade even if you have found what you want to do with your life. And in the second place what if Beauty was a fluke, and I couldnít do it again? Because by then I knew I wanted to go on writing. That I would spend my life writing, if I could. By then I was also back in Maine, and had returned to college after all, as much to prove I could as anything else. I graduated from Bowdoin, where I had wrested my BA from the old-boy network that in those days held the English department in a grip of iron: I went to class in my motorcycle leathers, carrying books like Shulamith Firestoneís The Dialectic of Sex and Kate Millettís Sexual Politics conspicuously on top of my textbooks. I shot out of that commencement day swearing that nothing on earth would ever get me into an institute of higher learning again. Even tangles with rabid wolverines and military-industrial-complex bureaucrats were to be preferred.
What should twelve or sixteen years in school teach you? Itís a lot of years for learning. I majored in English lit in college, both as an excuse to spend another few years reading books, and because reading was the only thing I knew of that I was good at. My English husband, Peter, went to Eton during his junior high and high school years, where, at least in those days, what you studied was classics. ĎElectivesí was not a term you heard ringing round the corridors of Eton in the 1940ís. Studying classics is supposed to teach you to think; according to Peter, chiefly what it teaches you is to study classics, and not even necessarily very well: when Peter got to Cambridge, his tutor gently suggested that he go into some other academic area. Peter read English: six years at Eton hadnít helped Peter discover anything he was good at either. He went on to become an editor at Punch, to marry, and have four children. The third one was born literally into his hands because the midwife didnít get there in time; midwives, hearing hysterical husbands on the phone saying ĎItís happening fastí, tend to think theyíre exaggerating. This was in the mid-sixties; fathers were not yet being encouraged to be there for the birth of their children; Peter hadnít been for the first two, and he had no clue what was going on or should go on. Why couldnít they have taught us some basic obstetrics? he shouted as he grappled for a grip on a slippery newborn.
Chiefly what I had learned, by the time I graduated from high school, was how to go to school. How to write really big so filling up the space for a three-page essay took fewer words (I suppose you write on computers now, with standard printer settings? There are a few disadvantages to the modern world); where your peak of retention comes for last-minute cramming, so you know to start studying for the history final, three days or six hours beforehand; how rubbing steak on your algebra homework still wonít make the dog eat it. Iíd only been here for a single year, so Gould hadnít had much time to work its magic on me, although the single most important thing I did learn in school happened at Gould. No, Iím not talking about learning to read; I would have learned to read if Iíd never been near a school, although I think itís likely Iíd never have learned to add and subtract. This wasnít that kind of learning; it was a revelation, an epiphany, and it was merely this: that the things you learned in your classes connected with each other, and even, maybe, with the world outside. What a concept. All those semesters and all those classes werenít just throwing rose-petals into the abyss because the federal government has declared that we have to go to school and the capitalist society that votes it in or out has declared that a college education is a requirement if you want to do anything that pays better than raking lawns. This primary, fundamental discovery didnít happen to me till halfway through my senior year. It really was one of those moments when the gates of the universe open and you get a fast, wild, provocative look at whatís out there. But it seems like a long wait and a lot of work for one glimpse, however profound, of the way ahead.
What I didnít understand is that you learn a lot, in and out of school, in those twelve years, that never shows up in your grade-point averages. I venture to guess that you know more than you think you do about many things (although less, I predict, than you think you do about other things); but the important things will never be weighed in pounds and ounces nor charted on graphs, in or out of school. Youíve learned to tie your own shoelaces and do up your own buttons; youíve learned to tell time on a clock, and how far off your birthday is, and whether or not your Aunt Gladys is the type that goes on sending you checks every year even if you donít write to thank her, or if sheís the grim old-fashioned kind that stops the checks if you donít acknowledge them politely. Indeed the most important part of what you have learned is about how people are: youíve learned, whether you use the knowledge well or not, how to infuriate people and how to calm them down, how to make friends and how to make enemies; and how what works with one person may not work with another. This is really more important than the exports of Brazil, although your fifth-grade social studies teacher would probably protest. Everything you do in this world, in this life, everything you are or become, is, to a greater or lesser extent, done in response to the people around you. You are shaped, led, deflected, frustrated, helped, and taught by everyone you come in contact with, whether you are a bank president or one of those people who collects grocery carts out of the parking lot. Be proud of all that youíve learned about people, because it will stand you in much better stead than the exports of Brazil, and possibly even than Algebra II.
And the person you know best is you. Your parents, your teachers, and your friends, often with your very best interests at heart, have told you who you are and what youíre goodóand badóat; and, if youíre a human being like everyone else I know, at least half the time you believe them because itís easier than doing the thinking for yourself. Also because there are bad moments when youíre utterly convinced that you canít do anything well and raking lawns is probably too intellectually challenging, and in those moments itís nice to listen to someone who believes in you, even if all theyíre telling you is to pull up your socks and get on with it. Note, by the way, that I seem to be addressing the less self-confident among you. This is partly because thatís who I both was and am, and so I know more about it, and partly because there is no high golden road through life, and the over-confident will learn that soon enough. Iím much more interested in telling the nervous and quailing that while the road may not be golden, the view is terrific, and worth the journey.
I have said that the person you know best is you, and thatís true; but it is also true that you, each one of you, is a bottomless quest, and that the more you learn the more there is to learn, and the pursuit of self-knowledge is the hardest work of all, and knocks spots off digging out old tree stumps with a pick-axe, an occupation I also know something about. There are a lot of ways of saying what Iím trying to say: Follow your heart, follow your dream. Listen to your gut, listen to the still small voice; above all else to thine own self be true. Find a cliché that suits you, and hang onto it. If the career counsellors looked at your test results and told you you would be a brilliant accountant and you know, simply know, that you want to work with your hands, look into schools for farriery or therapeutic massage. If you adore history, and did your senior thesis on the battle strategies of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte, but the idea of eight more years of school, a PhD, and an academic career makes your heart sink, maybe you have a brilliant future in designing computer games. If everyone has been assuming, because youíre so like your Uncle Brian and heís a doctor, that youíre going to be a doctor too, but if you don't know what you want to do, then go get a job as a dishwasher until you do know: your indecision is a warning, and you must heed it. Let me remind you that you have to live with yourself first. Itís great when you and your friends and your family and your career counsellor all agree with each other; and it can be very difficult when they donít. Polonius was a prosy old bore, but he had a point. Youíve got time now to make mistakesóand itís a good thing too, because you will make someóand youíve also got time to fix them, to look around, to try again. But if you donít listen to yourself some time, you are going to wake up at 3 a.m. one morning when youíre thirty-five or forty-two or sixty-eight and think, my god, whatís happened to me? Whatís happened to my life? And the answer will be terrible.
Thereís another thing to consider, which career counsellors and career counsellorsí tests do not measure, which has to do with what else you want to do with your life besides work. If you want to go home after work and dig in your garden, you should probably not become a war correspondent; youíll be away a lot, and weeds and wildlife are opportunists. If you want to become editor-in-chief of Random House, youíd better not move to Idaho. If you want to become Miss Bench-Press Universe and need to pump iron six hours every day to get into the finals, youíd better not become an English teacher, because you spend too many evenings and weekends marking papersóask Lucia.
And if you want to tuck your children in bed every night, then there are a lot of things you donít get to do or be. If I could have one wish for your generation, then I would wish that you collectively convince the business world that having and raising and caring for and listening to and playing with your children is just as important as earning forty-four squillion dollars in the next fiscal year. I have this pie in the sky notion that if we took the welfare of our own young more seriously then a lot of whatís wrong with the way we rule the world would be changed as a result; because we would have learned to care, really care, about the future.
So listen to yourself now. But as you listen for words of wisdom to float up out of your unconscious and begin to feel a little panicky when all you seem to be receiving is Ďboy, I would kill for a pizza right nowí remember also that itís okay not to know everything. Itís not only okay, indeed, itís a very good thing. If you knew everything now, imagine how boring the rest of your life would be. Itís perfectly true that you know some things now that people who have been grown-ups a lot longer than you have forgotten or never learned, but all that means is that old people can be stupid and ignorant too. Look forward to the things you donít know, and donít let any patronising fatheads let you feel bad for not knowing something, for asking questions, for coming at something at yet another new angle for the umpteenth timeóunless, of course, itís the teacher who has taught and re-taught you that same geometric proof about eighty times this term and you still flubbed it on the exam, in which case some impatience may be pardoned. But personal growth allies itself with no time schedule. Thereís no shame in being a chambermaid for ten years while you take the freshman requirements of six different majors at the community college; and with all that to draw on your dinner-party chat will be a lot more interesting than almost anybody elseís. You may find out that being a chambermaid and taking courses at the local community college is what you want to do with your life. The world needs chambermaids and good conversation as well as senators and scientists. And, just by the way, being a chambermaid or a janitor or a raker of lawns is a great way to keep eating while saving your mental and moral energy for the great novel youíre writing.
Look forward to getting old: if you look forward to it honestly then youíll be making a shape to your life that will satisfy that anticipation when you arrive. Itís true that the knees start to crumble and the jowls sag, and thereís not a lot you can do about it, and itís very dreary and frustrating and starts making you think about death and mortality in ways you canít imagine at eighteen. But itís also true that thinking, including thinking about, dare I say it, the meaning of life, improves with practise. I say this to people of all ages who want to know what they need to do to become writers: Practise. Writing, like anything worth doing well, takes practiseómore practise than you can imagine. So donít imagine. Just do it, and go on doing it. Thinking, being, working, feeling, livingóall of these take practise too, to do them well. Time and effort and sweat and energy and love. Youíll look back at the oddest things and discover they were important. When I was quite small, we lived for a few years in Dexter, New York, and while we were there we attended the United Presbyterian Church. I did not have a happy childhood, and I learned very early to hang bits of myself on things I found inspiring. Mostly I found these things in books, but sitting quietly in church and looking at the rather dingy and ordinary stained-glass windows there turns out to have been another of the little havens I made for myself. I saw those windows again for the first time in nearly forty years when Peter and I had an excuse to drive through upstate New York four years ago. I couldnít have told you what those windows looked like, and I donít suppose Iíd thought of them since we left. But I looked at them as a middle-aged, stable, optimistic, reasonably successful grown-up, and suddenly saw a straight clear road back to my childhood and the child I had been, and understood that three years of looking at those unremarkable windows had given me my love of certain kinds of line and colour and light, and a belief in the existence of beauty even in the bad times.
You never know. Thatís possibly the main thing about life at any age. You never know. I left Maine with my tail on fire, shrieking that I would never go back, not once but three times. When I returned that last time, blushing profoundly, I bought a house. I bought it by accident too. My then housemates had decided that they were leaving Maine with their tails on fire shrieking that they would never go back (which, so far as I know, they never have), and I had discovered, to my even more acute embarrassment, that rather than going with them I wanted to stay there. A friend told me there was a little house she was sure would just suit me for sale. Donít be idiotic, I said, I donít want to buy a house. But she took me past it, and I found myself hurrying home to call the realtor. Iíd signed the contract by the end of the next day. I didnít mean to live in it full timeóthat was in the days I was doing a lot of business travelling, and spent a lot of time as well in New York Cityóbut it was a place to leave stuff, like the thousands of books I seemed to collect everywhere I went, and a place to catch up on my sleep in between more interesting occupations. During the first few years that I owned my little house thatís what I did; came and went a lot. And then half-unconsciously I found myself staying in my house more and more and going away less and less; and I found myself calling my house Ďhomeí; and then I realised that Iíd settled, that Iíd put down roots, that I was there for good.
I was in my late thirties, and Iíd figured my life out at last. Finally. What a relief. Well, there were a few loose ends, like the apparent fact that I was too much of a humourless feminist ball-busting bitchópardon meóever to find a nice man who would stay interested in me much longer than my first outburst on the state of gender politics in our time. Under this cranky exterior there beats the heart of the sloppiest Romantic, as anyone who has read any of my books knows. But I was content and learning serenity, in my little lilac-covered cottage on the coast of Maine. So then Peter happened. Peter happened, by the way, in a weekend; my romantic nature slipped its bridle and bolted. Iím not sure what Peterís excuse is, since heís far more pragmatic than I am. At any rate, at the end of July I was settled in Blue Hill for the rest of my life, and by the beginning of August I had promised to emigrate to England.
If some godlike ironist were in charge of my life, heóor, I suppose, she, although this seems to me far more a male sort of humourócouldnít have done much better than to watch me get my life organised and labelled, begin to feel comfortable about the things I knew and then whisk me up and dump me in England with a new husband. Most thirty-nine-year-olds have gotten used to what they know, and to the shape of their lives; of course this is also mid-life-crisis territory, but thatís another story for another speech on another occasion and if youíre lucky you wonít ever need to hear that one anyway. The point is that youíve kind of half-forgotten what itís like to learn certain kinds of things, like driving, like learning to navigate across country you donít know by matching the map on your knee to the street sign outside the car windowósupposing of course that they do match; and what to do to defer hysteria if they donít. Youíve forgotten what itís like to feel responsible for buying your own groceries and your own toothpaste because youíve been responsible for them for so long itís like eating and brushing your teeth. Youíve forgotten that Ďthe beginning of the rest of your lifeí feeling. Hereís a story I often tell about my very first morning in England as Peterís fiancée: heíd picked me up at the airport and driven me down to Hampshire. We stopped in the little town nearest our village to buy food; and we went first into the greengrocerís. You know what a greengrocerís is? Itís what you might guess it to be, a small shop that sells only fresh fruit and vegetables. Peter chivvied me gently inside, handed me a basket, and said, Why donít you pick out some oranges? And left me. And I stood in the middle of the aisle, clutching my basket like a shield against dragons, and thought, Oranges? Oranges? What does he mean, pick out some oranges? This is England, I donít know how to pick out oranges here....
A lot of my friends were slow to understand the culture shock of the beginning of the rest of your life. Even the ones that had been in another country for a term of school or seconded to an overseas company for a year didnít understand; but theyíd gone away knowing they were coming home again. Iíd been to England as a tourist several times; I knew about driving on the left; I even knew about greengrocers. But itís different when you live there. When it really is the beginning of the rest of your life. When youíre on holiday, and you run out of toothpaste, and you go to a strange-looking shop with a strange lay-out and shelves full of strange brand names, itís a little adventure, itís a part of being away from what you know, away from the familiar and the safe. When youíve just moved to a foreign country and you run out of toothpaste and you go to a strange shop to choose a new brand for the beginning of the rest of your life, itís still an adventure all right, but itís not St George and the dragon, itís Piglet and the Heffalump. Youíll have some Piglet and Heffalump days. And when you do, donít let anyone tell you you shouldnít, or that youíre being silly or stupid. Either theyíve forgotten, or theyíre aliens from outer space who didnít read their notes on human development carefully enough before they landed. Being a grown-up is a strain. Itís worth itóitís much better than being a kid, as I assume most of you have noticed alreadyóbut itís still a strain. And there are things you donít even realise youíre learning. Take driving. Learning to drive on the left is the least of it, if you move to England. The steering wheel is also on the wrong side, so youíre in the right relationship to the road and other drivers, although if youíre right-handed, changing gears with your left hand may rattle you for a little while. But Iíve lived in England now for seven years and itís really only been in the last two that my eye will automatically pick up the road signs and directions I need. Road signs are different colours, different shapes, use different methods of emphasis, and tend to appear in different places. Youíre better equipped for this sort of accretive learning at eighteen than I was at thirty-nine; but the principle that a surprising amount of learning goes on even after you think you know somethingóand that that learning takes energy and brain spaceóstill pertains.
This is a high school graduation speech, and so it has to have a point. Hereís the point: you are both more and less than you think you are. This is a good thing, because opportunity lives in the indefinite places; and with opportunity comes discovery and with discovery, sometimes, if youíre lucky, comes joy. Most of the ways you have learned to measure yourself so far, as graduating high school seniors, are at best very limited in their application, and at worst totally bogus. Good grades, for example, donít mean much but that you have a gift for getting good grades. Itís only a gift, like other gifts. If you have a gift for, say, funny voices, this will help you if you are trying to make a career out of being a stand-up comedian; itís not going to be a lot of use if you want to be the first person to be made partner before youíre thirty in your prestigious law firm, and if it leads you to do imitations of the senior partner at the Christmas party when youíve had a little too much to drink, it might do you some harm.
The most important learning tends to go on in the cracks and the indefinite places. If you are going to be an engineer, then you need your maths, and that particular thick heavy wodge of book-learning will be of great and indeed necessary use to you. But there will be other things just as important to you as a degree with honours, even if youíre an engineer: how to find a place that will use you to your highest bent, for example, and how to recognise the possibility of being so used when you find it; how to present your best side without lying about your worst; how to handle your limited time and your limited energy, and to live with the knowledge that there is always more to life than you have time and energy for.
Iím supposed to stand up here and tell you to go out and conquer the world, arenít I? Iím not going to. The world is big and heavy and its inertial force is prodigious. Get in its way and itíll squash you flat. Donít try to change the world, because youíll only break your hearts. I think something happened to my generation, the late- and post-sixties generation: which is that we watched the sixties fail. Watching Nixon forced out of office a few years later was too little and too late. A lot of people broke their hearts in the sixties; and a lot of them, I suspect, then went on to become soulless stockbrokers and rapacious real estate developers and laboratory-results-obsessed doctors who believe that human beings are the sum of their symptoms. And hippie derelicts who still talk about Woodstock in their cups. The revolution failed, and whatís left is to give up or earn a lot of money. Maybe itís just that this has been the pendulum that has swung over my youth and middle age; but there is a wasteful human pattern of youthful idealism having the stuffing kicked out of it over the years till each generation wakes up one day and realises their hair has gone grey and their children despise them for their lack of idealism, and the world is still a mess. This is a terrible waste.
Just as the important learning tends to go on in the cracks and indefinite places, then the important doing does too. Choose your battles. Do what you can with what you can. Every one of you has a great welling spring of life force waiting for your conscious will to hold its nose and jump in. Find it and jump. Keep putting one foot in front of the other during the bad times; itís how you get out of them. Donít get careless during the good times and think that youíve got it licked forever, because you donít. Think. Work. Feel. Believe in the good and hate the evilóbecause there is evil in this world, donít doubt that any more than that there is goodness. Make time for your friends because love cannot exist in a vacuum or in theory; we need each other in practise and in flesh. Learn to get along with people outside your own age and your own peer group; there are always a lot of them around. And good luck. Good luck to all of you. Maybe you will change the world while youíre busy doing other things; in which case I hope I live long enough to see it.
Welcome to real life. I hope youíll enjoy it, with all its boils and blisters and marshes and mires, as much as I do.