Commencement Advice: Read and Travel

Radio reporter Alice Furlaud recounts her experience giving the commencement address to the graduating class of 2007 at Massachusetts' Chatham High School.

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It's an old American high school tradition to have a guest speaker of some distinction on graduation day. A week before last, our reporter Alice Furlaud gave the high school commencement address in the elegant Cape Cod town of Chatham. It's taken her until now to recover from the experience enough to tell us about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Pomp and Circumstance")

ALICE FURLAUD: The Chatham High School band launched into "Pomp and Circumstance" and the faculty in black gowns and mortarboards filed into gymnasium to sit with me in the front row. The 51 graduating students - girls in white caps and gowns, boys in royal blue - marched solemnly up to the stage. I was so impressed that I almost forgot how this all began.

It began on January 22nd with an e-mail from a science teacher who said she was the co-adviser for the graduating class of 2007 at Chatham High School. She wrote, quote, "Our students have been looking in vain for a commencement speaker. Is this a task you have ever considered taking on?," unquote. It was pretty clear that the bottom of the barrel is being scraped. But I answered, I'd accept with pleasure. I ended, but shouldn't you keep on trying to get someone really distinguished. Three weeks past and then another e-mail came from the teacher saying that the class thought I would be a wonderful choice. She went on, quote, "as for distinguished, we have had distinguished and they are dull," unquote.

Well, who could resist such disarming frankness, and it sounded easy. I've given a lot of lectures and the e-mail had said this one should be only 15 to 20 minutes. I could give these young people some useful advice based on my prejudices, of course.

(Soundbite of song, "Pomp and Circumstance")

FURLAUD: I liked that science teacher a lot when we met, but after I proposed some tentative ideas for the address, she decided that eight minutes would be long enough. Fine with me. My speech came early in the proceedings right after the principal.

Mr. PAUL R. MANGELINKX (Principal, Chatham High School): Welcome to Chatham's 136th commencement ceremony.

FURLAUD: And the class president Jessica Lucas, who after her speech as salutatorian, introduced me.

Ms. JESSICA LUCAS (Class President, Chatham High School Class 2007): It is my honor to introduce our guest speaker tonight, Ms. Alice Furlaud.

(Soundbite of applause)

FURLAUD: I started off with gusto and abandon.

(Soundbite of recorded Alice Furlaud's speech)

FURLAUD: Today's the day to be like Auntie Mame(ph). Mame told the orphan after (unintelligible) she's just about it, I'll show you a world you never knew existed. You're going to live, live, live. Unfortunately, I can't promise any such thing…

That didn't seem to grip the students but I went on to compliment them on their achievements including a collection of their poems, which I had with me. There were a lot of powerful poems and several of them were by an outstanding poet, Gillian Howard. I read a savage(ph) one of hers called "The Bag."

(Soundbite of Alice Furlaud's speech)

FURLAUD: The soft music plays with a loud roar as the child becomes dead, splashing brilliant color, almost magenta, on a Monday morning. Two months, three weeks and four days later, it's Christmas, and the perfect disaster of everything above culminates itself into a trashy, tacky, classy pink leather bag. Now if that hasn't turned you all into vegetarians, I don't what will.

That led to my favorite subject - needy animals. But after going on a bit about bringing homeless creatures in from the cold, I could feel a chill coming from my audience. So I launched into an anecdote I plan to use in an emergency.

(Soundbite of Alice Furlaud's speech)

FURLAUD: A few years ago at a Gallup-National Public Radio dinner, I was sitting next to Walter Cronkite. He was the keynote speaker. He politely asked me what I do in the radio. I had to think a minute, what did I do I in the radio? Finally, I said, I'm the only reporter known to have recorded sexual intercourse between two indigenous French tortoises. He looked a little appalled and turned to the woman on his left.

FURLAUD: By that time, I could see that everybody, except maybe the boisterous young people up in the balcony, was wishing my allotted eight minutes could be reduced to two. Besides, it was a hot day and the gym was heating up. I rushed through the part about tortoise mating being sexual harassment and went swiftly on to recommend reading books and traveling to faraway places. I read Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Travel," and ended…

(Soundbite of Alice Furlaud's speech)

FURLAUD: Bon voyage in all of your lives.

(Soundbite of applause)

FURLAUD: When I got back to my seat, there wasn't a single encouraging glance or a whisper from the teachers on either side of me. It was clear that my speech was a resounding flop. They're followed a very long, very hot, two hours.

Unidentified Man: Benjamin Patrick Gallagher(ph).

(Soundbite of applause)

FURLAUD: Speeches followed awards, students gave presents to teachers, students gave roses to parents. Valedictorian Marcella Vokey gave a fine mercifully short speech.

Ms. MARCELLA VOKEY (Valedictorian, Chatom High School): Class of 2007, good luck with your travels, wherever they may take you.

(Soundbite of applause)

FURLAUD: She will go to MIT. When the 51 diplomas were finally handed out, the graduates rushed to the exits at the back of the gym, hurling their caps into the air. The whole audience followed them while a pop recording listed in the program as the recessional played full blast.

(Soundbite of music)

FURLAUD: For a while, I was left alone in front, near the stage, and standing there, I realized with relief what a tiny cameo role mine had been. Those brand new graduates have forgotten my speech and didn't care if it was a flop or not. They were on their way into the real world to live, live, live.

(Soundbite of music)

For NPR News, I'm Alice Furlaud on Cape Cod.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

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