Tony Earley’s witty and wonderful address to the 201 graduates of the Class of 2010 appears below. An online photo gallery from the Asheville Citizen-Times can be found here.
Main address to the graduating Class of 2010 by 1983 alumnus Tony Earley:
One of the first things I did after agreeing to be your commencement speaker was look up the word “commencement.” “Commence,” of course, means to begin, and, to my ear at least, it’s a word with a lovely, old-fashioned, Appalachian flavor, particularly suited for use in this setting. My people have been commencing to do things in these mountains for hundreds of years now, although, if you asked them about it, they would more than likely commence to deny it.
The definition of the suffix “-ment’ is the “result, product or means of an action.” The coupling of the verb and the suffix give us the noun “Commencement:” a means of beginning. This is where I tell you that your graduation today is not an ending, but a beginning—an utterly exhausted, shopworn cliché that I am nevertheless required by law, as your commencement speaker, to utter at least once.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, we can all relax.
I’ve discovered during the last several weeks exactly how difficult it is to write a commencement address devoid of cliché and platitude. My brief elevation to this platform presupposes, I suppose, that from this exalted height I will breathe down upon you appropriate words of inspiration and wisdom as you are commencing to commence. The only problem is that, while I do feel marginally platitudinous, I do not feel particularly wise. It would seem that I suffer from Commencement Speaker Inadequacy, or CSI.
CSI is the primary cause of commencement speakers attempting to punch up their addresses by including near random quotations from famous dead white guys. As graduation weekends approach, CSI leads commencement speakers to select these decontextualized nuggets of condensed Caucasian wisdom from anthologies, websites, fortune cookies and framed posters in the waiting rooms of dentists.
Which reminds me of something Thoreau said to Emerson one night in 1845 when Thoreau, taking a break from planting beans at Walden Pond, had dinner with Emerson at Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson looked at Thoreau and said, “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. To be great is to be misunderstood. There’s no road has not a star above it.” Thoreau pointed at the chicken breast on Emerson’s plate and said, “Ralph, you gonna eat that?”
If commencement speakers are prone to the depredations of CSI, recent college graduates—Warren Wilson graduates in particular—are susceptible to frequent, debilitating bouts of nostalgia. Those of you whose graduation plans consist solely of moving to Black Mountain and painting houses should seek medical help immediately.
In addition to attempting to mask their own inarticulateness by randomly quoting historical figures, CSI sufferers also attempt to make themselves appear more learned than they actually are by breaking English words down into their Latin or Greek component parts.
The word ‘nostalgia,’ of course, comes from the Greek NOSTOS, loosely translated by some commencement speakers as, “I wanna,” plus –algos, or “go back.” Most weekends following my own graduation in 1983 I drove the forty-five miles from my parents’ house back to Warren Wilson so that I could “accidentally” bump into my friends. After my friends graduated in 1984, I continued to return to Swannanoa, and eventually came to realize that I had moved from the bittersweet country of nostalgia into the less hospitable neighborhood of creepy. Trust me, creepy is not a place you want to own property.
Years after Thoreau left the comfortable environs of Concord and Walden Pond, he embarked upon a year-long, little known rafting trip through the Upper Amazon with Mark Twain and the French novelist Marcel Proust. When Thoreau told his companions that he longed for the days of his youth when he had canoed the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Proust replied, “Ah, Nostalgia. Now there’s a word that used to mean something.” “Most men approach the future with trepidation,” Twain said, “but what really scares me is a full bottle of ketchup.”
Along the continuum of human emotions, nostalgia skews among the most deceptive. The nostalgic person invariably projects his subjective perception of his own idiosyncratic circumstances during a particular time onto the time itself. I was happy when I was seventeen (or twenty-one or forty-three or sixty-seven) the nostalgic person thinks, therefore the world then must have been a better place. This is the great lie of nostalgia. Maximus fibbus nostalgus for those of you taking notes in Latin.
Most of the community events in my home town of Rutherfordton are inexplicably saddled with fifties themes. All the men put grease in their hair, all the women wear poodle skirts—in case you’re wondering, those are long, poofy skirts made out of small French dogs; the barking at the sock hop is extraordinary—and the four or five guys in town who own cars manufactured when Eisenhower was president drive them up and down Main Street while the sound system on the courthouse lawn blasts the theme song from “Happy Days” over and over again. That we do this at least once a year suggests that we have reached some kind of joyful, communal consensus that the fifties were as good as it ever got in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.
But were the fifties in Rutherfordton really better than any of the subsequent decades? Sure, gas was cheap, but the cars were unsafe. The textile mills were running three shifts, but the schools were segregated. The restaurants were local, but in the dining rooms everybody, even small children, smoked. My parents swear by the fifties, but, then again, they were smoking two packs a day and drinking freely from the “whites only” water fountains.
I can’t hear the word “water,” of course, without thinking again of Thoreau, Twain and Proust on their Amazonian raft. Eleven months into their journey, their food gone, their guides eaten by ravenous ocelots, Proust screamed at Twain, “My body is covered with the leeches, I have a gangrenous ocelot bite on my leg and the antibiotics haven’t been invented yet, an unseen aboriginal marksman just now shot into my buttocks what one can only assume is the poisonous dart, what do you mean the pastries I loved when I was a boy in Paris weren’t any better than they are now?” “Get a hold of yourself, man,” Twain thundered in reply. “And put down that ketchup.”
I full well understand the self-justifying contradictions of nostalgia, but routinely fall prey to it anyway. I’m nostalgic for the Soviet Union because when the Berlin Wall fell I had beautiful hair. I know it’s a ridiculous way to think about the world, but there you go. You should have seen my hair. I particularly tend to romanticize Polk County, North Carolina, where my family is from, during my childhood in the 1960s, even though in those days it was the poorest county in the state. Most of the roads were unpaved and most of the people lived in what we would genteelly refer to now as “substandard housing.” By community standards my grandparents were considered prosperous—and their house didn’t have an indoor toilet. And I wanna go back.
I’m reminded here of a well-intentioned exhortation a wise man from Liverpool once offered a famous displaced Arizonan. “Get back,” Sir Paul McCartney insistently told the man the world has since come to know as “JoJo.” “Get back to where you once belonged.”
Oh! Get back. Joe.
My grandfather liked nothing better than driving around aimlessly after lunch and I liked nothing better than riding around with him. From his place one could go “down the ridge” toward Rutherfordton or “up the ridge” toward Lake Lure. We usually went up the ridge, slowing on the hilltops to admire what are now among the most expensive views in North Carolina. These days more than a dozen gated communities lie between my grandparents’ place and the lake, but when I was a kid, the road was dirt unmapped by either Roosevelt’s New Deal or Johnson’s Great Society. One family lived in an old school bus, and another lived in a shack with blankets hanging in place of a front door. So what exactly do I wish for when I nostalgically long for the Polk County of my childhood? Apparently I’m willing to condemn an entire community to abject poverty in exchange for a car ride with my grandfather.
So what exactly am I trying to tell you? I’m not sure, but you shouldn’t let that worry you. I’ve taken an informal poll and nobody I’ve spoken to remembers a single thing his or her commencement speaker said. Most of my friends can’t even remember who their commencement speaker was. You should know, however, that Thoreau, Twain and Proust survived their Amazonian adventure only after Thoreau pointed at Proust’s skirt and said, “Marcel, you gonna eat them poodles?”
You should know that after introducing Sally Hemings and her six children to the French court at Versailles, Thomas Jefferson looked around and said, “What?”
You should know that on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln took her hand and said, “Little lady, is it hot in here, or is it just you?”
I suppose that what I’m trying to tell you is this: don’t waste a second of your youth because you’re going to miss it sooner than you think, but at the same time don’t mistake your youth for anything more profound than the biological state of being young. If you have beautiful hair, look at it in the mirror as often as possible, you can even stroke it when no one is looking, just don’t join the Hair Club for Men once it falls out.
You should know that Shakespeare’s last words were, “Anne, you’ll never guess who wrote all those plays…”
Accept the fact that being a human being on Planet Earth is a difficult proposition, but embrace the twisted comfort available in the idea that being a human being on Planet Earth has always been a difficult proposition. The world is a much worse place today than you will remember it thirty years from now, but it’s not half so bad as you currently think. When I graduated, Warren Wilson, of all places, didn’t have a recycling program. Now you can buy organic produce at Wal-mart. Surely things are averaging out for the better.
You should know that after showing John Adams the hemp fields he had just planted at Mt. Vernon, George Washington said, “Dude, let’s tell people we’re like, you know, Masons, and put a bunch of pyramids and eyeballs on the back of the dollar bill and totally mess with people’s heads.”
You should know that while you are called as Warren Wilson graduates to leave this valley and save the world, the world will be indifferent, if not hostile, to your attempts to save it. I’m asking you to commence to save it anyway.
And I’m the last person from this college who will ever ask you to do anything. At least until the alumni fundraising drive next fall.
You should know that Marie Antoniette never said, “Let them eat cake,” but instead “Let them meet Kate,” a community activist and mediator whose ideas about social justice and the redistribution of wealth have since been lost to history.
I’m asking you to imagine yourself as a single word in a story still being written. The implications of this particular word will determine whether the story is ultimately one of darkness or one of light. I’m asking you to be the one good word on which everything else depends.
And finally, selfishly, I’m asking you to take care of my daughters, who are six and three. The three year old still lives in China and I haven’t even met her yet. That I cannot provide for them the world they deserve is for me a source of low grade, but chronic, sorrow. You will be with them thirty years or so after I’m gone. Help them to find their places in the story. Then ask them to take care of your daughters.
God bless you.