If I’d only known

The commencement speech I wish I’d heard.

By Jennifer Graham
June 6, 2010

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Ask any college graduate to remember who spoke at his commencement, and you might get the keynoter’s name.

Ask him to recall a line from the speech – or, for that matter, its theme – and he will no doubt furrow his brow. (He will, however, be able to recite, flawlessly and in great detail, his favorite lines uttered by Bluto in the movie Animal House.)

I remember neither speaker nor substance of the commencement address at my college graduation some (mumble mumble) years ago. I’m not even sure I was awake. But, seasoned by the workplace, marriage, parenthood, and a string of used British sports cars, I can tell you what I wish I’d heard, what might have actually been useful in the decades that lay ahead. It goes something like this:

Graduates, and the people who have, until now, been paying your bills . . .

There is no experience so sublime that it cannot be ruined by the presence of small children. Procreate wisely.

Keep a pocket dictionary in your car, and learn a new word at stoplights and train crossings. Your vocabulary betrays more of your education than your diploma, which, after tomorrow, no one will see.

You’re never too old to get braces.

If you want to make new friends, wear a Red Sox T-shirt or ball cap anywhere outside of New England. People will stop you on the street to tell you how much they love your team.

Horses expose their gums to show they’re not a threat to other horses. Dogs expose their bellies. Humans expose their teeth. Smiling is nice, but know that when you do it, you’re unconsciously ceding all power.

Buy one good frying pan, and you can still scramble eggs in it when you’re 80. You do not now, nor will you ever, need a wok.

Never send an e-mail you wouldn’t want your boss to read.

Never send an e-mail you wouldn’t want your spouse to read.

There are no Dwights in real life. But everyone else on The Office is someone you will encounter repeatedly throughout your career. And there are many more Stanleys than Pams.

If, at the end of the day, you’re not hungry, tired, and vaguely sore in multiple places, you’re not living hard enough.

Make a list of the 10 books that most influenced you. Highlight them liberally, and stack them by the side of your bed. If you can’t think of 10 books, turn off the freakin’ TV.

A reliable indicator of a person’s character is the number of times he or she’s been married.

Live by yourself at least once, for at least a couple of months. If you can’t stand your own company, why would you think anyone else could?

Read expiration dates before you leave the grocery store.

When you are 40, you will wish that you had tucked away in a risk-free CD all that money you spent lunching out in your 20s. Is that General Tso’s chicken really that good? For that matter, are you sure it’s chicken?

Visit Graceland at least once, to see what happens to some people when they get too much money.

Honesty is an overrated virtue. In fact, it may not be a virtue at all.

At least every decade, make a personal pilgrimage to some place significant to you: your favorite author’s home, an idol’s grave, the original location of Starbucks.

Eighty percent of “parenting” is merely housework done in the presence of children. If you don’t like messes, don’t have kids, or marry someone with an advanced degree in mopping.

If you feel guilty, you’re doing something wrong. Stop doing that thing, and you won’t feel guilty. Amazing how that conscience thing works.

If you still feel guilty, you’re Catholic. Go to confession.

Never let anyone other than your mother launder your underwear. If your mother no longer provides this service, you really must do this yourself.

Consider, occasionally, the possibility that – regardless of your grades, regardless of your degree, regardless of how smart people tell you that you are – you really have not even the remotest idea of how the universe works.

Consider also the possibility that you will one day figure it out. Until then, eat a lot of salmon, never let anyone photograph you naked, and, unless you aspire to dentures, don’t forget to floss.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in the suburbs of Boston. Send comments to

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