As I stand here at the chipboard podium of the future, looking out at your drunken, pierced faces shadowed by the tassels and one-size-fits-all mortarboards of the past, I‘m reminded of many things. Most of all, I’m reminded of my own face being looked and talked at by someone not unlike myself, now, someone spewing just such a meticulously plagiarized speech from just such a podium. It was a speech confabulated to inspire tears of mandatory hope through malicious nostalgia, a speech delivered with the same faux-folksy, melodramatic punctuation as that before which you now yawn.
And when I‘m reminded of my old face, I’m even more reminded of the words of my old painting instructor at UCLA. I remember his words just as plainly as if I‘d written them myself around 2 this afternoon. And I’d like to share them with you now.
It was in the late morning, in Dickson Hall Room 7209, a room heavily scented with linseed oil and mineral spirits, packed with paint and brushes and people of vast confusion, passion and uncertainty painting at 7-foot steel easels. At the western end of the room, a spattered blaster played KXLU (the Minutemen‘s “Political Song for Michael Jackson To Sing,” I believe, from Double Nickels on the Dime, a heroic album featuring fine sleevework by this issue’s cover boy, Raymond Pettibon). At the eastern end, another blaster played Bob Dylan‘s “Positively 4th Street.” People, there I stood, just as young and healthy as yourselves, painting my carcinogenic pigment powders and linseed oil onto a 52-by-43-inch unstretched canvas eventually titled Fuck Sex. I felt a familiar shadow fall beside me, a familiar hand on my shoulder and the familiar voice — the helpful, friendly, learned voice — of my instructor. “Dave?” he spoke softly, almost in a whisper. “Do you know where I can get some speed?”
As it happened, I did not. Despite the advice of instructors, peers and counselors throughout my undergraduate years, I seldom had an appetite for speed. My dealers were strictly pot-and-mushroom men, most of whom are now prominent attorneys. But on this day, my painting instructor’s words reminded me, as they still do, of the afternoon of my high school graduation. I spent the day in the library with my best friend, Ron, discussing our futures through a fifth of Jack Daniel‘s and a small pile of blow, for I was 17 and had an appetite for almost anything.
“Ron,” I said, emptying and passing the shot glass, “this is, indeed, the life. Here we are, class president and vice president, still jailbait, just hours before graduation from one of the lowest-ranked public school systems in the industrialized world, poised to accept the diplomas that will forever signify our ability to compete intellectually with almost any Western European third-grader or Japanese kindergartner. And in just a few short weeks, I’ll begin my summer career of operating a penny-souvenir machine in Long Beach as your parents pack your bags and kick you out of the house like a felon. Like a felon into this grand old world of ours. And Ron? All because of these caps, all because of these gowns. Yes.”
“Dave,” said Ron, emptying and passing the shot glass, “this is, indeed, the life. Here we are, lounging at our favorite table in the Antelope Valley‘s finest and only library, for the first time ever, sitting back, sipping Jack and snorting genuine CIA cocaine. And while five years from now I’ll spend the afternoon scraping ookey bits of my grandfather‘s brain off his study wall after he blows his head off with a .357 Magnum and another five years will pass before either one of us checks into a mental hospital, outside it’s a balmy 90 degrees with a light breeze and no clouds in sight.”
“Yes,” I replied and drank. And poured a shot for Ron, and Ron drank.
And “Yes,” said Ron. “Yes. Here we are, with our whole lives ahead of us, lounging at our favorite table for the first time ever, putting on airs, for reasons unknown, in the manner of Rufus T. Firefly, drinking, for reasons equally unknown, our weight in the whiskey of our forefathers, on our way to lives of chronic depression and poverty in this, the most magnificently oiled propaganda machine in the industrialized world, the greatest country anyone ever stole, a place where a man is free to profit from the misfortunes of others with impunity; where slavery, squalor and decay flourish as by and large acceptable side effects of corporate welfare; where, at the end of the day, those who‘ve worked hard and done right are rewarded with a Number Two Combo Meal. The greatest graduating class in the history of the civilized world.”
We spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of Jack Daniel’s.
So as I stand before the red sea of your eyes today, looking out at tomorrow‘s presidents, senators, oil executives, prison wardens, part-time administrative assistants, religious zealots, class-action suitors and so on, I have great, great hope. For the Class of 2001 will be the first graduating class ever whose every single constituent, dead or alive, possesses twice the raw intellectual processing power and thrice the humanitas of its nation’s president. Consequently, upon entering the workplace, most of you will find it impossible to afford verminless housing without taking on two equally unfulfilling full-time jobs. Consequently, most of you will require illegal chemical stimulants to stay awake long enough to perform both jobs. Fortunately, your federal government has stocked its cities with just such stimulants for just such purposes. (Franchises available; forms in the lobby.)
It all reminds me of a very, very funny story in which two somethings walk into a bar and get good and drunk and say some very, very funny things that have, unfortunately, slipped my mind. But these very funny things had, I assure you, a moral. And the moral is that without the ceremony of graduation, there would be neither caps nor gowns, nor would there be opportunities for those of us whose egos seek the backsides of podiums to bore you with vacuous reminiscences — such as mine, here, today — that will train your big, strong, creative brains to become American brains, to sit still and shut the fuck up while complete idiots run your lives.
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Those of you unable to attend any of today‘s actual graduation ceremonies will find serviceable transcripts at http:web.hep.uiuc.eduhomeg-gollinphysics_graduation_speech.html, www.colonial.netcchswebgradation_speech.htm, www.research.att.com~lorriepubsgrad.html, www.wits.ac.zaalumnigrads.htm, www.english.upenn.edu~afilreis50ssavio-speech.html, www.calpoly.edu~mcolonspeech.html and at thousands of other Web sites simply by entering the search terms “graduation speech” (including the quotes) in the proper field of any popular general-Web-search engine. They’re all about the same. As are the speeches.