Help 'Ask Amy' Write A Commencement Speech

Amy Dickinson will give a commencement speech at a Maryland High School. Help 'Ask Amy' draft her address. Instead of delivering a bucket of cliches, she asks you: What should she say to hold captive an audience of young people?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Have fun, be nice to people, work hard. Thousands of students at commencement ceremonies in high schools and colleges across the country will sit through mouthfuls of advice about life, career, family, friends, money - too much of it recycled from Dr. Seuss. "Oh, the Places You'll Go." But what if you have to give the speech?

Amy Dickinson dispenses advice to millions of people in her "Ask Amy" column syndicated by The Chicago Tribune, but next week, she delivers a speech to the class of 2010 at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland. Today, she needs your help. What should she tell teens as they head out to the real world? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Amy Dickinson, also the author of "The Mighty Queens of Freeville," and with us today from member station WAER in Syracuse. Nice to have you back, as always.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, The Chicago Tribune): Hey, Neal. So, help.

CONAN: So, do you remember the commencement speech that you got at your graduation?

Ms. DICKINSON: Of course I don't. And that's where I started with this whole exercise. I thought I don't even - there's so few commencement addresses that are memorable. And this was one concern I had. And I have asked around a lot. I've actually received some wonderful advice from other people.

CONAN: Like?

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. So, I was asking one of my many daughters, and she said - she just graduated last year.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: And she said, who remembers? I don't remember a thing. And then she said, oh, wait a minute. Remember that kid that got up and he told a story about what it was like in seventh grade and how geeky he was...

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...and how strange he was, and look how much he had changed? And I said, oh, yeah, that kid. And it got me thinking about looking back, asking these seniors in high school, these graduating seniors to look back at themselves in seventh grade, because it's such a potent time in our lives. And, of course, I remember when I was in seventh grade. So that was one sort of touchstone that helped a lot.

CONAN: So let me get this straight: Your daughter's advice is to plagiarize somebody else's speech?

Ms. DICKINSON: She - well, what we realized was that his story was so memorable because it was personal. So she said tell some personal stuff in a way that you can relate to these kids. I had already decided to keep my speech positive.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: I also had decided that all I had at my disposal was a wheelbarrow full of platitudes.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That's right.

Ms. DICKINSON: So I want - and you know what? There's a time and a place for platitudes, too. I mean, there's a reason things are clich�s. Clich�s are clich�s because they're sort of true.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: So I don't want to discount something just because it's a clich�, but I do - what I decided to do, Neal, was write a letter, sort of an advice letter to myself.

CONAN: Huh.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. And this will permit me to reflect on some of my mistakes.

CONAN: Here's some advice from Paul in Liberty, Missouri, and by email. At my Ph.D. graduation, our speaker was great. He gave us three pieces of advice, took about 15 minutes to relate them, and then he was done. I still remember them today, 14 years later: Get a good mentor, associate with people better than you so you could become better, and believe in ways that you could be an asset to people above you rather than a pest.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. I am taking notes. Got it.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. DICKINSON: Got it. Okay. Well, you know, one of mine is learn to -two things I regret not having done. I never learned to change the tire on my car.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. DICKINSON: Never learned to change a flat tire, and I never learned to bake a decent pie. So that's where I'm headed with my advice - and floss, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And floss. Yeah, that was - wasn't that Billy Crystal's advice in some movie, where he came back to himself years later? One thing: floss, floss. Now, let's see if we get some people on the air with advice for Amy. This is Jamie(ph), Jamie with us from Charlotte.

JAMIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jamie.

JAMIE: Thank you for having me on. My advice is not to give any advice.

CONAN: Ooh.

JAMIE: Not to take - to tell them that if their instincts - if they're doing the right thing and that their instincts are truly telling them what to do, then they need to just follow their own intuition. Because a lot of times people give advice and it's misguided or it's self-seeking and they may not know it. Or that their advice - people are giving advice about things that they've never really had any experience with. So my advice is tell them don't take anybody's advice.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. I love that, Jamie. But then, of course, I'm also putting myself out of job. But I appreciate...

JAMIE: Well, that's true. But the thing is, is that you're more well (unintelligible) than the average person, so...

Ms. DICKINSON: No, I really appreciate that. And one of the things I started thinking about was, this is a sort of a document that - you know, in the old days, I think your mom and dad would write you a letter. As they sent you off into the future, they would write you a letter, and they would tell you the things they had always wanted to make sure that you knew.

Now, I feel like we aren't communicating these things to our young people as much. The big thoughts, you know? Even something like that, like listen to your own instincts, like that's sort of a big idea in a way. And I really treasure the opportunity to convey some of this stuff. I want to do it in a way that, hopefully, is memorable.

CONAN: Hmm.

JAMIE: And I would say the - learn - continue to learn, because the day that you stop learning is the day that you stop growing, and that's when you start getting old. I'm about to turn 41 on Sunday and I'm still pursuing my bachelor's degree. And I refuse to think that there's going to be a day in my life when I'm not going to learn something. And so I would say, you know, that they need to learn everything about everything. And, you know, checking account. Know how to do your checking account.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, I do have a section about money, because I think it's important to think about money and talk about money. And, again, on my list of regrets, in retrospect, I realize never took money seriously enough. And so I would urge young people, not - it's not about the stuff you can buy, but money itself is important. And the reason is it's what permits you to take care of yourself and then take care of other people.

CONAN: Jamie, happy birthday.

JAMIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

JAMIE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dawn(ph) in Charlotte. When I graduated college in 2005, the commencement speaker told us to be lucky. At that time, I didn't think much of it. But it turns out we were lucky to be graduating during a time when it was much easier to find jobs. Perhaps, you could tell this year's graduates to rise above the bad luck of graduating during a recession.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yeah. I know. And this presents another dilemma. Do you stare that down? When you're talking to - I think there are going to be 4,000 people at this event. So do I stand there and say, times are tough, this is a bad - we're in a bad patch? Like, do I do that or do I just focus on the positive aspects of what it means to be young?

CONAN: Is this a high school graduation or college?

Ms. DICKINSON: It's a high school graduation, yeah.

CONAN: Oh, that's right. You mentioned Gaithersburg High School. That's right.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: So why Gaithersburg?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, one reason I wanted to do this, I've always wanted to deliver a commencement speech, always. I'm not sure why.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: And the one reason I accepted this was because the ceremony is being held in DAR Constitution Hall...

CONAN: Ooh.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...which, Neal, was where my mother graduated from high school in...

CONAN: It's a great building.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. So I'm really excited about it.

CONAN: So you get to work - Constitution Hall. That's worth it, I think.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's what we call a sweet gig, my friend.

CONAN: Yeah, it is a sweet gig. You get to work that room. And, you know, because high school graduations - let me put it this way - I don't think you get paid and I don't think you'll get an honorary doctorate.

Ms. DICKINSON: Now - Although I'm hoping to be named an honorary. I think they're the Trojans, so I was hoping for a pom-pom something, something. But, also, what an opportunity because, unlike college, I feel like these kids in high school - you know, some of these kids will be going into the military.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: Some of these kids will not be headed to college. And so the challenge to deliver a talk which will cut - it is also a very diverse student body. So to deliver a talk that will speak to all of them is just a really great challenge. I'm enjoying working on it.

CONAN: Let's go next to David(ph), David with us from Morehead City in North Carolina.

DAVID (Caller): I've been fortunate to - or blessed, however you might put it, to have done a couple of commencement addresses to high schools. And my father-in-law is a dental surgeon. He gave me a phrase. I've incorporated is - be true to your teeth and they will not be false to you.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, wow.

DAVID: Eventually, there are consequences to your choices. And if you do not like the direction of your life, choose. And I resonate with the lady who spoke earlier about being a lifelong learner. That is, I think, critical in that.

CONAN: I love the teeth line, though.

Ms. DICKINSON: Me too.

DAVID: Yeah. I wish that was original to me. But (unintelligible).

CONAN: If you find it quoted in The Washington Post in a couple of weeks, you'll know where it comes from.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. But you...

DAVID: You can always change directions. If you don't like the direction you're going, make your choices. You can do that.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And I - you know, in my own life, the thing that resonates the most is this theme of second chances and starting over. And I know all about that and I love that. And guess how - here's how I'm going to end it. I hope nobody from Gaithersburg is listening because here's what I'm going to do. At the end, I'm going to ask them to look around and see if they can see a kid whose name they don't know but who they recognize. And I'm going to tell them that in my own life, 35 years after graduating from my high school class, I moved back to my hometown, which I never thought I would do, and I married that kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Have fun with it. Have fun with it. If you're going to have fun, they will too.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

DAVID: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Dickinson of "Ask Amy," and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Amy, are you going for the normal thing of opening with a joke?

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, are we supposed to? No. Of course, I am, Neal. Although it's not a joke, it's more of a - here's what I'm going to do, Neal. I'm going to get up there and Liz Lemon it. I'm just going to -I'm going to start by - you know, there are some speeches that are the speech, the whole speech is about the speech. I don't want to do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: But I'm going to get up there and acknowledge, you know, that as an advice giver, it doesn't mean I always know what I'm doing. And I will acknowledge that I am feeling probably quite sick to my stomach. That much I will do.

CONAN: Here's an email from Caitlin(ph) in Cleveland. David Helberstam spoke at my graduation from journalism school in 2005. He told us all to leave New York City and see how real people live. He talked about his time at a paper in Mississippi, I think, and how much it shaped him. I moved away in 2008. Here I am in Cleveland, and I'm really, really happy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Fantastic. That's wonderful advice too.

CONAN: This is a tweet we have, from Cmillerdesign(ph). Don't worry about plans. Live each day with joy and seek out like-minded friends. The rest will come. Money doesn't equal joy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, that's great. And I love the idea of, like, really, really treasuring your friends, holding your friends close. And also, that Facebook friends aren't the same as real friends, because real friends come over to your house and they, like, hold your hair when you're vomiting. You know, that's what real relationships are like.

CONAN: And come back again. Anyway, let's...

Ms. DICKINSON: That's right.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Kelly(ph), Kelly with us from Kansas City.

KELLY (Caller): Hi there. I will tell you that the one piece of advice that I remember was from my high school graduation, like some leadership academy or something like that. It has stuck with me my whole life and it has served me well. The man told us to never fry bacon in the nude.

Ms. DICKINSON: Ooh. Excellent advice. Yes, we should all - yeah, now of course, it's in my head. I'm sure it will - that will fly out on Monday morning when I'm giving this talk. Thanks, Caitlin.

KELLY: (Unintelligible) advice. Thanks.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Sashi(ph), Sashi with us from Tulsa.

SASHI (Caller): Hi there. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

SASHI: I graduated from Middlebury College in 2001, and I had the wonderful opportunity to have Mr. Rogers as my graduation speaker.

CONAN: Wow.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh.

SASHI: He was - and it was shortly before he died. And he was just amazing. And it was this great kind of circle because, you know, of course, everyone grew up watching him and then there we were graduating from college and becoming adults, and we're kids all over again. But...

CONAN: But we know he's advice - unbutton your cardigan and take off your shoes when you get home.

SASHI: Exactly. Exactly. And be a good neighbor. But he gave us wonderful advice and basically said, you all know what you love and you know that that will make you really good at what you're doing. And follow what you love and make sure your job is to be as good at what you love as you possibly can. And that's your life's work. And then we all sang the, you know, Mr. Rogers' theme song, the whole audience, and it was really fantastic. But it really stuck with me. And, you know, I made a lot of decisions, I think, that sort of pushed me into. So I, you know, went back to school and I just graduated from medical school. So...

CONAN: Oh, congratulations.

SASHI: Thanks. So, yeah, I mean, he's - he really had wonderful advice. So...

CONAN: Did you get a good speech after you graduated medical school?

SASHI: It was - I just don't think anything can I'm spoiled. Let's just put it that way.

CONAN: All right.

SASHI: But there were great speeches and a lot of people had - it was much more serious advice, I think, but, yeah, I'm spoiled, for sure.

CONAN: Never leave the scalpel inside the body, that sort of thing.

SASHI: Yeah. Well, that's definitely good. But the one thing I did get out of all of that was, you know, work as hard as you possibly can, over again. You know, it's a different kind of advice but same message that, you know, if you work as hard as you can, you will get the things you want. So...

Ms. DICKINSON: I love that. And I think I'm going to try and talk to these young people and acknowledge, you know, some of you will be serving your country, some of you will be waiting tables, some of you will be cleaning up after other people; and the idea that whatever you do, you should do it with your all. Like, be the best you can be at what you're doing, because there is satisfaction in doing a good job, no matter what job you're doing. Now Mr. Rogers, I - oh...

CONAN: Yeah. That - well, that's a - it's great story, but you realize you're competing with David Halberstam and Fred Rogers.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, brother, yeah.

CONAN: Sashi, thanks very much for the call.

SASHI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, Amy, next time you're back, you got to tell us how it goes.

Ms. DICKINSON: I will. I'm really excited. I'm really - and, thank you, everyone, for the advice. I love it. I've been taking notes.

CONAN: Okay. And we'll expect to see a footnoted commencement address from Amy Dickinson next time she's with us. Amy joined us today from WAER, our member station in Syracuse. She's also the author of The Mighty Queens of Freeville. See you next time, Amy.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a conversation with Sylvia Earle about what the oil spill means for marine life. Plus, how to avoid bad-news burnout. We'll be back with you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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