Tuesday, March 16, 2010

We're On A Road To Nowhere

June 10, 1985. D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Actual transcript of my friend's valedictory address to the Rockville High School Class of 1985, as I remember it:

"Doctor Koop, Principal Whats-your-face, honorable teachers, family, friends and fellow members of Rockville High School's graduating class of 1985 – I consider it an honor to speak to you this afternoon. Before I get to my hastily- I mean, thoroughly-prepared words of wisdom for my classmates, I would like to take just a moment to acknowledge some of the people who helped me reach this podium. Obviously, one cannot complete four years of scholastic perfection without the love and support and encouragement of one's family. Family – thank you for all that you've done, and continue to do, to help me to become and remain perfect. Second, I must thank some teachers who have gone above and beyond their respective calls, and assisted in my perfect development. Mr. Kelly, I know you were counting on seeing someone else up here today, but once you accepted the fact that your favorite student couldn't hack it in the long run, you were downright decent to me. Dr. Talbott, I know that my work in your AP English class last year was mediocre at best – hey, we invaded Grenada, and I was very stressed over it – but you gave me an A anyway. See me after the ceremony. I have your check. And of course Miss Chaney, who somehow had the wisdom and compassion to give me an A in Chemistry, despite my repeated unauthorized attempts to create C-4 explosives during lab time, including the incident with the melted windows and the seventeen paralyzed mice. Thank you. Your check is here as well. And finally, Stephen Broadhurst. Thank you Stephen, for having that total emotional and mental breakdown last fall. I was really not looking forward to having to eliminate you. No one who helped me along this path will be forgotten. Well, not until at least July.

Now, my classmates, it seems we have reached the end of our journey together. But life is made up of multiple journeys, and the end of one is generally the beginning of another. We begin and end these trips all the time. This particular ending just happens to be one of our first really big ones. Some of us are preparing to say goodbye to friends we've known as long as we can remember. Up until today, we've all more or less been taking the same path; elementary school, junior high and finally high school. After today, our paths diverge. Come September, many of us will find ourselves in colleges far away. Some will live at home and attend the University of Maryland, or even Harvard-on-the-Pike – I mean, the Thirteenth Grade – I'm sorry, Montgomery College. Some will be starting full-time jobs immediately. Some of those who are starting jobs will never again associate with the rest of us. In fact, many of them will be forever telling us that our perfectly-functional automobiles are in dire need of costly repairs.

The fact that from now on our individual missions in life will take us in so many different directions is at the same time both exciting and unsettling. What we've been thinking of as such a roller coaster ride has turned out to be merely that huge first hill you have to climb before the real ride can begin. Today we crest that hill, hang for a surreal moment in time, and plunge into the valleys and hills and twists and turns of real life with unimaginable speed. Whether you're the type who holds on tight or throws your hands in the air, who keeps your eyes closed or wide open – here we go.

Call it fear or excitement; you cannot ride a roller coaster without greatly increasing your heart rate. Life's about to get very fast indeed, friends. Here we go. High school commencements seem to make everyone in the graduating class act like they've been friends forever, regardless of how bitter their divisions may have been throughout the years. I have six older brothers and sisters – I've seen this before. Suddenly, people who have never spoken to you are hugging you, and your fiercest rivals are talking to you and about you as if you're blood brothers. It's interesting. Maybe it's because now, looking at the start of the real ride, all those other ups and downs of our relationships appear to be so tiny, so utterly meaningless going forward. Maybe it's similar to trench warfare. We've been different in our approaches to this war, but now that we're all just emerging from the trenches intact, we're more able to accept whatever different m.o.'s got us here. Maybe we're just so overjoyed to be free of high school, we'd be nice to Qadafi if we found him sitting next to us. Maybe, just maybe, our minds are already at the best of tonight's parties in Twinbrook or Flower Valley. [Two minute standing ovation.]

Of course, it goes without saying that our teachers and parents have been working hard to prepare us for this moment for many years. We have learned so much. We don't even realize how much we know. Many times we've resisted learning, preferring instead to remain in the safe confines of childhood. But more has gotten through to us than we currently realize. Our teachers and parents know this. When they say, "you'll see," they're not just trying to exit gracefully from an argument with a teenager. They know. Soon, we will know exactly what they mean.

A wise man once said that the best preparation for a journey is a deep understanding of where one has been. Well, I said that. Just now. I seem to be missing a page of my speech. But you get the idea. With this in mind, I feel compelled to take a look back at some of the significant Rockville High memories I will carry with me. I'll be brief, as I can see some nodding off out there. First, there was orientation. Was anybody else scared to death of that? Nobody? Fine. Liars. Okay then – that hostage thing, when the deaf kid held his teacher at knifepoint for 2 1/2 grueling hours over in A-wing. I didn't know Montgomery County even HAD a SWAT team! And kudos to Principal Whats-his-face for keeping cool in a crisis. Remember his little "updates" over the P.A. system? Of course you don't. He was supposed to be heard in the entire school except A-wing, but Teddy Rivers screwed up the wires, and he was heard only in A-wing, thus keeping the suspect fully informed as to the cops' every move. Ah yes. Good times.

And I know I won't be the only one who will cherish the memory of that week last year, when the drama club was performing "Godspell." The first day it was kind of cool. In each lunch period, about six of the cast members would carry their crucified King through the cafeteria on their shoulders singing, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." On the second day, we realized we were going to have to sit through this all week. By Wednesday, there was booing. Thursday, there was a barrage of 85-cent lunches raining upon the singers, and chants of "Burn the witches!" I still can't believe they came back on Friday, singing louder than ever. At least they had the sense to bring their little prop-shields. Of course, what's a miniature cardboard shield going to do to protect you from rocks and chairs? The image of the crucified Lord Jesus rising, bloodied and bruised, from beneath a pile of metal folding chairs and ferociously whacking anyone he could reach with his eight-foot wooden cross is certainly one I will not soon forget. And hey – it got us on the news!

The most riveting story of course, is not so much about us as it is about one of our distinguished education professionals. [Wild applause, but only from the students. On-stage faculty exchange nervous glances.] You know of whom I speak. I speak of none other than our favorite, most respected former Vice-Principal, Mr. Vice. Excuse me? Yes, I know he's still Vice-Principal, but please allow me that little fantasy. We've been hearing in science classes for years how we must get outdoors and observe nature, blah blah blah. Who knew that we could go just a mile from our school and witness such a display of wildlife, right over on Avery Road? [More wild applause] Mating ritual, I believe is the correct term for what some lucky (or perhaps very, very unlucky) Rockville students got to observe first-hand. And not just any mating ritual – the mating rituals of the 42-year old white professional suburban male. The story would be pretty kick-ass if it ended there, but no. The willing partner in this unsavory scene was none other than a 17-year old girl from some neighboring high school. Bravo, Mr. Vice. Bravo! I think there are lessons in that one for all of us. Where'd he go? Oh well – if anyone sees him, I've got a check for him, too.

In conclusion, I think there's some sort of tradition that says I'm supposed to leave all of you with inspiring words of sage advice. Sorry. No can do. I can't advise you – I'm one of you. Well, the one of you with a 4.0 GPA, but certainly not one to give you words of guidance. However, Principal Whats-his-face said he wouldn't give me my diploma if I didn't at least try, so here goes. My friends, to thine own selves be true. I say this not as something you can do immediately, but as something to keep in mind for the rest of your lives. We're still only seventeen and eighteen years old – we're not finished products yet. But we're on our way, and as of this moment we leave behind the only life we've ever known. Go into the world and find your place. Remember how you got there. Know yourself. And be happy. Here we go."

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