Commencement

“Like I was saying,” he began. It got the polite laugh he was hoping for. He straightened his black polyester gown, arranging the words in his head, preparing to tell the members of the audience all the things he wished he’d been told when he’d sat where they did now. He rubbed his thumb against the fraying enameled edge of the wooden podium. Almost a thousand faces pointed in his general direction, though it was hard to tell how many of them were interested. It seemed likely that not many were, not on a day as packed with anxiety as this one.

He couldn’t recall who had given his own commencement speech. He’d paid attention, too, sitting and listening to the whole thing, and there were even a few phrases of it that came back to him now. Something about how he and fellow graduates were toothpaste being squeezed from a tube. (He assumed, or hoped, that this had been part of a broader lesson and not just a grim metaphor for their impending evacuation into the cold world outside the coliseum’s doors; either way, he couldn’t remember what had come before or after it in the speech, which had been given by someone whose name or face he could no longer dig up.) He knew, though, that the young people here today would probably not remember what he said, or even that he’d even been the one to say it.

Goddamn but they were young. They looked like raw dough: unformed, unfinished, unaware of the oven. He could see on their faces the looks he’d seen every spring at every university he’d ever worked at or visited: of bone-deep belief in their specialness, and that no one who came before or will come after could ever feel the way they do now, at this exact moment. Each one of them believing that their knowledge is their own. That’s their curse, like it’s everyone’s.

He had a problem, he knew: the fundamental point he wanted to make was impossible to explain. He wanted to tell that that he could not do anything for them because life’s lessons can only be learned through the exhaustive, painful repetition that comes with being alive. There is no easy way versus the hard way; there’s just the one way, and that way is letting experience take root in you over the course of months or years. This was sound, if boring, advice.

Trying to communicate this point, though, was, by its own nature, self-defeating: because it relied upon a belief in knowledge built over time, they would not be able to understand it until they were older, by which point they wouldn’t need it told to them. It made him think of that set-up in old movies where the hero would find his sidekick or love interest tied and gagged on train tracks, and the hero would remove the gag only for the friend/lover to spit out “It’s a trap!” The hero should have known right away—it was so obvious—but there was no way for him to find out until he took out the gag, by which point the exclamation that the situation was a trap was self-evident and unnecessary.

When he was 15 years old he’d spent three weekends doing yard work for a friend of his father’s who lived a few miles away. The man was single and only in his late 30s, though to a teenager he’d just registered as indeterminately old and adult. The speaker at the time was happy to have any kind of work, and any amount of money going into his pockets, so he showed up every Saturday morning for almost a month and worked from 8 in the morning until late afternoon. The man paid him $50 each weekend and bought them both burgers at lunch. One day, engaging in as much small talk as their gap in years would allow, the man said, “You’re so young, you don’t even know what you don’t know yet.” This was the kind of perfect observation that seemed so stupid to the speaker then—of course he didn’t know the things he didn’t know; if he knew about them, he’d, you know, know about them—but it came in the coming years to seem like deep wisdom, hard won and not lightly imparted. The man had been talking about the unknown unknowns, those things that are not only impossible to determine but impossible to even know exist. They’re outside our comprehension and understanding entirely. Where the speaker would go to college: that was a known known. When the speaker would lose his virginity: that was, he hoped, an unknown known. But the problems you cannot even fathom existing, let alone provide an answer for? Well then.

He imagined himself standing on a cliff instead of at the podium. At his feet was a wooden bridge that extended straight out and met an opposing cliff hundreds of yards away. The air between was laced with fog, and the place where the bridge met the other cliff was difficult to pick out. The graduates stood behind him, waiting for him to go. As he walked across the bridge, the fog grew denser behind him but lighter ahead, until at one point he could see the other side and know he would make it safely across. When he reached the other side, he turned back to look the way he’d come. They were all still there, and some of them had started to make their way out onto the bridge. They looked scared: of the heights, of the fog, of the bridge itself. He stretched out his arms and tried to shout, Here I am, but something about the fog stopped his voice as soon as he spoke. It sounded like his words had been spilled into a bowl and thrown away. He didn’t want to keep walking and leave them behind, but he also knew he couldn’t go back out on tyhe bridge again. He tried stretching his arms more, wiggling his fingers in the vain attempt to make them longer that always feels like it should work. They edged toward him, some calm, some shaking. He could not reach them, only hold out his arms and wait. As soon as one would reach him, they would see that everything was OK, that’d they’d survived the passage, at which point they would turn to look back at the remaining crowd and shout the good news that safety was just a few steps away. But their words, too, were wiped from their lips before they could ring out. There was no way to know you would be safe until you were, and no way to communicate it to the people behind you. There was just anticipation on one side, silent exhortation on the other, and in the middle the journey everyone has to make on their own. The things they would do, and feel, and regret, and imagine. I’m right here. I’m right here.

He looked down at them, wondering what to say.