Monday, June 17, 2013

Had I But Known: If You Don’t Have Something Good to Say...

guest post by: Kyle Kirkley

We are now in the midst of a most terrible time, a time when many hopeful young men and women will look up into the oppressive sun and beg silently for respite from the torment they are witnessing. Babies will weep and mothers ignore them. Grown men will rest their heads in their hands and despair that the hours will never cease. Adolescents of all types will yearn for it all to just be over.  

That’s right: it’s commencement season.  

Yes, this the time of year in which students, teachers, and luminaries of all sorts are busy crafting and delivering hypocritical speeches full of trite advice, recycled wisdom, and unrealistic platitudes.  The horror, the horror of it all!  For every rare original, inspirational commencement speech (see David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” or David McCullough Jr.’s “You Are Not Special”), there are multitudes upon scads of hackneyed, ill-conceived, dull, insincere addresses made each year at schools across the world.  And it’s not just that they’re boring, which isn’t really so much of a crime in itself (although my students would disagree with me on this point).  Rather, it’s that these speeches offer up gross misrepresentations of scholarship and human nature.  

I should know...I’m one of the culprits.

Yes, many years ago (o.k., not so many years ago, but it seems so distant that I could almost talk of myself then as a separate person) I gave such a speech.  I don’t even really remember what I said, and I can guarantee you that it was not memorable for my listeners either.  Abraham Lincoln famously (and, it turns out, ironically) claimed that “The world will little note nor long remember” what he said in Gettysburg, and this represents the only example of a situation in which I am right, but he was wrong.  Truly, no one (not even I) can remember what I said, but we still memorize Lincoln’s speech, and it’s still popular even without the benefit of a YouTube recording!  I believe that my speech had something to do with how our graduating class came together through difficult times.  Yes, we well-dressed, over-nourished, intramural hacky-sack playing, private school college graduates and our difficult times.  Give me a break.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have given a very different address.

Murchison Gymnasium at Westmont College – the site of my forgettable speech
Now, as a high school English teacher, I am bracing myself to witness yet more wasted words and time as yet another bright young student prepares himself by cobbling together some disjointed observations and quotes (oh, dear Lord, please do not begin with a Webster’s definition!).  Then, even worse, some faculty member will offer us the dregs of her frazzled and worn psyche, congratulating and commissioning these students to go forth and succeed in a world stacked against them.  Am I sounding jaded and cynical?  Perhaps it’s because I live with the guilt of just such wasted words.  

You see, I had a voice and didn’t use it, not really.  I, too, stood at a podium and perpetrated an act of violence on my audience’s time, and if time is life, then I suppose we’re talking about a form of murder, here.  How often do we have such opportunities?  How often do we have an audience of thousands ready to hear what we have to say?  More importantly, when the time comes, do we actually have something to say?  (This is why I usually stick to writing fiction.  I’ve learned that other people are much smarter than I, so if I show them some characters who have some problems and those characters muddle around in those problems authentically enough, and if I love those characters deeply enough, my readers will see the wisdom in the story that I may not.)  And, if we have nothing to say, are we brave enough to say that?

I wish I had been.  I wish I had something profound to say in that occasion, but I didn’t, and to prove that I’ve learned my lesson, I will admit that I don’t have much  now, either.  So, had I known then what I know now, I would have simply said this:

“Family, friends, faculty, and visiting dignitaries, thank you for being here to witness this commencement ceremony.  We are honored that you are here to support us, but I won’t pretend like this is the achievement of a lifetime. Sometimes we worked hard and sometimes we didn’t.  We did well enough, I guess.  We’ll try to do better tomorrow.  

The universe may be complex, but our roles in that universe are not.  We should be kind and we should live with integrity.  Everything else is just posturing.  Except playing hacky-sack.  Hacky-sack is also important.  Let’s go, now, in charitable understanding of one another.

Again, thank you.”

K.C. Kirkley, an aficionado of Roman lounge wear, recently received his MFA degree in fiction from Spalding University (May 2013).  He teaches and lives in the Mendocino, California area.  His short story, "Everything is Negotiable" is forthcoming in Upstreet Magazine.

My children repeat something three times when they really mean it, so in keeping with that: I am honored, honored, honored to have Kyle writing for us today. A dear Terrace Dweller, he is brilliant and hilarious and kind--a rare combination. And because I cannot resist, below is a picture of Kyle on The Terrace sporting his "Roman lounge wear" that he purchased because the airline lost his luggage. Thank you, Kyle, for venturing out of your fiction comfort zone!

I have no doubt Kyle is saying some brilliant, but no one hears him because we're all admiring his snazzy get-up.

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  1. Ah, the brilliant and elusive Kyle Kirkley. I once called him "an American treasure," and this blog reaffirms that. Congrats, Kyle, on the upcoming publication of your work. As always, it's great to read your words.

    1. Drema, I consider it high praise to receive a compliment from you...thanks for the kind words! By the way, I'm still haunted by your "foodie" story from Italy!

    2. Oooo, the foodie story! Yes! What ever happened to that, Drema?

    3. This. Is. Freakin'. Brilliant. Now i'm going to cry in the corner because i may never see him again. That man i found staring at a building instead of smiling at the interpreter.

    4. Seattle, yes? We shall be reunited.

  2. I don't know about hacky-sack, but I'm with you on murdering people's time with empty words. I've often thought something like: Please, shoot me now so I don't have to sit through another commencement speech.
    Thanks for a very funny post.

    1. I'm with you on the speeches, Danni. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. I. LOVE. KYLE. FOREVER. (but only if he's wearing his leisure suit.) (CRYING LOUDLY.)


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