Chris Crutcher’s “High School Commencement Address that Will Never Be Heard”

Chris Crutcher is my literary idol as well as a wonderful person. If you have not read his books, get thee to a library/bookstore and get to readin’. Your life will be richer for it.

The High School Commencement Address That Will Never Be Heard
by Chris Crutcher

Good afternoon to NO parents, teachers or administrators and to ALL graduates. It’s my great honor not to have been invited to speak to you on this momentous occasion.

As members of a species with five digits per hand, you have often been given things in tens; amendments, commandments, Top Ten lists, etc., so it makes sense that I follow that format. In my lifetime I have not amended anything of consequence and most of what I’ve commanded has been ignored; so… Crutcher’s Ten Meanderings.

One: Don’t eat kale.
_ It’s really good for you, but it does NOT taste that great and plays havoc with your false teeth. (Wait…is that just me?)

Two: Don’t listen to me. (If you WERE listening you could stop here…but you’re texting with the kid three rows back).
_ I’m an old guy. I’ll tell you my vast experience is the reason you should do what I say; that I don’t want you to make the mistakes I made, and can smooth your path if only you’ll listen. But that’s a lie. I graduated from high school in 1964 – near the end of the rule of reptiles – and my memory of that time is clouded by wishful and convenient thinking, which is to say I remember being a lot smarter than I was. So high-five your own screw-ups. For whatever reason, “learning the hard way” is accompanied by embarrassment. Welcome it. We are a trial and error species that refuses to embrace our errors. We call them mistakes. Worse, we call them sins. We refuse to celebrate the very things that teach us. Your elders, those surrounding and rooting for you today, cannot make those errors for you. We have our own work cut out.

Three: Stay alive.
_ Be amazed at your existence. Life gets scary sometimes; can make you consider an early exit or take risks that promise to end badly. But you won the lottery times a billion just getting here. One misfired sperm or rotten egg going all the way back past salamanders and you don’t even make this scene. As much as there is a difference in our ages, you and I have a unique thing in common; we’re both as old as we’ve ever been. We have a history we know and a future we don’t. My history is longer and hopefully my future shorter than yours, but we both have the capacity – even the duty – to influence the quality of our futures through our knowledge of our histories; a unique gift we can’t afford to squander, or cut short. So make it last…and make it worth it.

Four: Fight tyranny with your every fiber.
_ Whether or not you believe you live in the greatest country in the world, you live within a legal system structured to allow you to find your own greatness, however you may define that. HUMANS, mostly white men, have tried to diminish that rule of law through exclusion for most of our history, but TRUE rule of law, laid down by our Constitution, calls for HUMAN equality. Which means: policies of racism, homophobia, misogyny, gender discrimination, and whatever else I’m forgetting, are the policies of tyranny. I was born in the year following World War II (exactly nine-months, as my mother tells it, from the day my father returned from Europe) so, though I didn’t live through that war, every adult in my childhood fought against, or witnessed from afar, the ultimate threat to our liberty. That’s long ago history to you; you were born into one of the great MATURE democracies, but you would do well to remember that diminishing freedoms to one American opens the gates of threat to all Americans. If you are inclined to take your independence for granted, don’t.

Five: Do not hit your kids.
_ And no fair calling it spanking and whacking away. If you did it to an adult, it would be assault. Your kids learn one thing from being hit: to hit. It doesn’t really hurt you more than it hurts them. They won’t learn not to do what you’re hitting them for; they’ll learn that the person responsible to love and protect them is willing and able to hurt them, and if you do it often, they’ll realize that a time will come when they can stop you. In my lifetime the two places I most often heard, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” were church and child abuse support groups.

Six: Do not use the word “perfect.”
_ “Perfect” is a word inserted into the English language only to make us feel bad. It is the only word I know defined by what cannot be. “Nobody’s perfect.” We hear it all the time. Well, if nobody’s perfect, there’s no point in talking about it. A perfectionist is someone who spends his life feeling bad because he can’t live up to standards no one else lives up to either. A perfectionist spends an inordinate amount of time scolding herself for every mistake and scolding the rest of us for not feeling bad for ours.

Seven: Do not confuse respect with fear.
_ When I was a lad there was a TV cowboy named Wyatt Earp, who had also been a real cowboy. On television, Wyatt, played by Hugh O’Brien, brandished a sidearm called a “Buntline Special.” It looked like a pistol, but the barrel was nearly rifle-length. An oft-uttered Wyatt Earp line that caused great consternation in me was, “Respect comes out of the end of a Buntline Special.” Uh, excuse me, Wyatt. That’s not respect; it’s a bullet. Wyatt Earp and a whole bunch of flawed cowboys and business-folks and teachers and housewives and househusbands coming after him believe that if you scare someone – if you threaten them with something they believe you can and will do, they will show you respect. And well they might; SHOW it…right up until they don’t have to. Then they will show you contempt. Respect and fear: one’s good; the other, not so much.

Eight: Don’t worry about your mediocre grade point average.
_You wouldn’t have had any fun at Harvard anyway, and those of us who came before you have mucked up our ability to evaluate your intelligence so badly that your grades reflect, more than anything, your ability to memorize stuff you’ll never use.

Nine: Never let beliefs handed down to you before you had the capacity to develop your own, stand in the way of seeking truth.
_ AS you develop your own beliefs, remember this: if they elevate one group over another, if they present themselves in blacks and whites rather than greys, if they disregard acceptance or reject celebration of differences, if they don’t include taking care of your oh-so-finite planet, they need work.

Ten: Celebrate relativity.
_ Nothing exists without its opposite. Things are what they are in relation to other things; a hugely important piece of information for living here on the blue marble. There is no joy without despair, no courage without cowardice, no loyalty without betrayal, no freedom without oppression. Every goal we set includes the possibility of failure; and self-contempt, should we allow it. The laws of probability say everyone here already knows that. But even when you fall short, if your goals are righteous, they remain. The full richness of being alive requires that you recognize and embrace relativity. Ask yourself: Do I appreciate joy more than I reject despair? Do I embrace courage more than I fear cowardice? Do I love loyalty more than I loathe betrayal? And most of all, do I honor freedom – not only for myself, but for everyone – more than I hate oppression?

Eleven: Move.
_ You may have heard the saying “Your body is your temple” in order to get you to take care of it. Well, it may be your temple, but it’s also your car. It’s your bike. It’s your skateboard. It gets you around. When our species came down out of the trees and the frontal lobe – the rational brain – was developing, we moved up to seventeen miles a day, staying ahead of what was trying to eat us and chasing down what we needed to eat; which means our THINKING brain developed on the run. It only makes sense to change our own oil every three thousand miles and refuse to let our fan belts fray. Movement helps us focus; it clarifies purpose while helping us breathe easier. Movement lessens depression and anxiety. There is no mind/body dichotomy. The two are inseparable. Keep them moving.
(Side-note: When someone tells you, “By God MY ancestors never came out of the trees!” offer your condolences.)

Twelve: Allow no time for fear.
_ Most of what you’re afraid of will never hurt you, and you can’t imagine some of the things that will. Either way, you won’t see it coming, so time being afraid is time wasted.

Thirteen: Guns put holes in things.
_ What so often leaks out of those holes, is life. When someone tells you “Guns don’t kill people; PEOPLE kill people,” report them immediately to the Dumb Police. In my youth there was a public service TV ad that began with a set of keys dangling from the ignition of a car. A passing teenager spied the keys, looked quickly both ways, hopped in and drove off. Fast forward to cops pulling said teenager out of the car in cuffs. The somber announcer said, “Remove your keys. Don’t help a good boy go bad.” Keys don’t steal cars; kids do. But not without the goddam keys.

And speaking of the Dumb Police, the mathematical control freaks among you may have reported me at the moment my Ten Meanderings reached eleven, but few high school students have reached this educational promised land without the aid of EXTRA CREDIT. You can throw three out and still get an A…with one exception. You can’t hit your kids.

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