Henry Rollins: I Got an Honorary Degree, Which Is Hilarious
Photo by Heidi May
Last year, I was given the Ray Bradbury Creativity Award by Woodbury University in Burbank. I went, accepted the award from the university’s president, addressed faculty and staff, and shook a lot of hands.
As I was about to leave, the president asked if I would deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of 2015. I said yes.
Weeks before graduation day, May 10, I started preparing. I tried to imagine what it would be like to go out into the adult world today with a degree — an interesting proposition, and potentially a disappointing one.
I recently got a letter from a young man with a degree who works at a popular grocery chain. It’s not what he trained for. He’s frustrated, but beyond that, he’s scared.
As I started drafting the speech, I wondered what a college graduate might think was going to happen and what they were prepared for after leaving campus and entering a highly competitive working world.
I thought about what a commitment a college degree must be. You’re putting thousands of dollars, years of work and a lot of expectation into an extremely uncertain environment. I tried to find something I had committed to in my life with that much risk and couldn’t find anything close.
To take a shot at college — to not only believe in yourself but to believe that there will be economic stability and employment opportunities waiting for you — is to really put a lot on the line. Blocking out the “you’ll never make it” whispers that must assail some students takes courage.
I went to high school to get it over with, never once considering what I would do when I hit the real world. For the last 30-plus years, my life has been a prolonged ricochet, bouncing from one thing to another — moving, but not always with a great deal of calculation. This has made for some interesting-to-awful situations. So far, the former has edged out the latter.
As a younger person, the concept of “a career” was alien to me. It seemed to go with banker or sales executive, those paths you might take in hopes of a comfortable, event-free life. It was like setting the A and Z in your life and then spending the rest of your time walking from one to the other, with almost every step choreographed.
I see now that a lot can happen along the way and that a plan isn’t the worst thing to have. It’s not for me, but I am unable to put it down as I used to. I feel quite the opposite at this point. I think it takes a lot of integrity to define your future and go for it.
Suddenly, it was the night before graduation day. I went over my short speech again and again. Too hopey changey? Too “back in my day, we…” for people who never knew a world without cellphones?
But I liked what I had written and decided to stick with it.
The next day I was up at 0600 hrs. to be on campus at 0745 hrs. As I approached the university, there were cops, road cones and what looked like music-festival traffic. It took me a moment to realize that it was for the event. All my preshow adrenaline kicked in.
I was taken to a holding area where I met Woodbury’s new president, David P. Dauwalder, as well as professors from different departments. After that, I went into the room where the caps and gowns were and suited up.
Soon I was in line behind the president, walking to the stage. I looked out and saw all the students and, beyond them, a sea of parents and others. I immediately went into production mode. What kind of mics, where are the monitors, where is that buzz coming from, are we under a flight path?
The president opened the proceedings and brought the first of three students to the stage to speak. One of them, a girl who had come from Sri Lanka to attend, barely looked at her notes as she spoke about the dream she’d had since she was young to get a great education, and how she had come here to do it. She was fantastic. If the future is full of people like her, things are going to be great.
Minutes later I was up there speechifying. The university asked for seven to 12 minutes, so I kept it brief. The note that ran through the 1,300 or so words was that this is the century that determines all the others that follow, and young, innovative, curious people like them will be the ones who shape it. I said that I hoped they would solve problems, not accept them, and that they would always see their progress in the progress of others.
After I finished, I was given an honorary degree, which is hilarious considering what an appalling student I was. Then the best part of the whole thing started, and it was quite a lesson. The graduates were called to the stage, got their certificates, took a photo with the president and exited. More than 400 students of an incredibly wide ethnic demographic passed by me and I got a read on the future.
The world outside of America is getting smart and doing it quickly. These young people are decisively and ambitiously grabbing the moment and will absolutely be defining the future. Meanwhile, we are having cave-drawing arguments about two men getting married and heaping layers of fear-based ignorance on the good work of scientists, as we pull back into the comfort of our brutal past.
In a few hours, I got a clear picture of where things are headed. Stay exceptional!
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