Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jay Parini writes about graduation speeches, and says that Fred Rogers' 2001 speech at Middlebury is his favorite of all time. I was privileged to be at that speech (my little brother is Midd '01) and it was everything Parini says and more. You can read the text here.
I was sitting in the audience (is it an audience at Commencement?) feeling sorry for myself. I have a treasure box full of things to feel self-pity about, and sometimes I like to take them out and sift through them. (NB this post was not inspired by Ergo's recent thoughts, but I bet reading the speech will make her feel at least a little bit better.) Reaching all the way back to 8th grade, when to my intense and eternal surprise I was not chosen to make a graduation speech. High school graduation was okay, but at college on Class Day I did not win any awards or even get honors in my department, and my mother pointed out that I had gained a lot of weight. Nobody came to my Step Sing because they didn't want to take my brother out of school too much so my parents tag-teamed everything except Commencement itself. Whereas my brother's commencement weekend was a destination event, a family extravaganza. "We ordered a videotape of the ceremony," my mother told me excitedly. "I don't think they offered videos of your graduation." "Actually, they did," I noted shortly.
So I sat in the audience (?) reflecting bitterly on these injustices, and on the fact that I had graduated nine years before and had nothing to show for it but a happy marriage and two wonderful children.
And then Fred Rogers started talking. Really, you must read the speech for yourself. There is not a line that isn't brilliant and good. Basically everyone present was at least sniffing, if not sobbing, by the end. But this was the part that really got me:
I WONDER IF YOU'VE HEARD WHAT HAPPENED AT THE SEATTLE SPECIAL OLYMPICS A FEW YEARS AGO? FOR THE 100 YARD DASH, THERE WERE NINE CONTEnSTANTS [sic], ALL OF THEM SO-CALLED PHYSICALLY OR MENTALLY DISABLED. ALL NINE OF THEM ASSEMBLED AT THE STARTING LINE; AND, AT THE SOUND OF THE GUN THEY TOOK OFF – BUT ONE LITTLE BOY STUMBLED AND FELL AND HURT HIS KNEE AND BEGAN TO CRY. THE OTHER EIGHT CHILDREN HEARD THE BOY CRYING. THEY SLOWED DOWN, TURNED AROUND, SAW THE BOY AND RAN BACK TO HIM – EVERY ONE OF THEM RAN BACK TO HIM. ONE LITTLE GIRL WITH DOWN'S SYNDROME BENT DOWN AND KISSED THE BOY AND SAID, "THIS WILL MAKE IT BETTER." THE LITTLE BOY GOT UP, AND HE AND THE REST OF THE RUNNERS LINKED THEIR ARMS TOGETHER AND JOYFULLY WALKED TO THE FINISH LINE. THEY ALL FINISHED THE RACE AT THE SAME TIME. AND WHEN THEY DID, EVERYONE IN THE STADIUM STOOD UP AND CLAPPED AND WHISTLED AND CHEERED FOR A LONG, LONG TIME. PEOPLE WHO WERE THERE ARE STILL TELLING THE STORY WITH OBVIOUS DELIGHT. AND YOU KNOW WHY, BECAUSE DEEP DOWN WE KNOW THAT WHAT MATTERS IN THIS LIFE IS MUCH MORE THAN WINNING FOR OURSELVES. WHAT REALLY MATTERS IS HELPING OTHERS WIN, TOO, EVEN IF IT MEANS SLOWING DOWN AND CHANGING OUR COURSE NOW AND THEN.