Commencement Speech

May 18th, 2009

It’s commencement season.

I got asked to make a few commencement speeches this year, but I couldn’t, due to scheduling conflicts.

I thought a lot about what I would have said if I could have made them though, and the following is one of the drafts I came up:

I often talk about how one of the expressions I hate most is “Quitters Never Win,” because I don’t believe it’s true.

If you don’t quit things you realize you’ll never succeed in doing (and also don’t like doing), you’ll never find the time to do the things you actually do enjoy.

(Case in point: if I hadn’t quit or cut back on many of the activities that were keeping me so overcommitted as a teen—ballet, show choir, drama, Girl’s Club softball—I would never have discovered how much I loved writing instead.)

As you can see, I have a a lot of experience in quitting.

There is a difference, however, between quitting things at which you know you’re never going to succeed because you’re not getting any enjoyment out of them, and Failing.

Failing is when you want to succeed, and you’ve tried very hard to as well, but life has thrown an (often seemingly insurmountable) obstacle in your path.

I have failed a LOT of stuff, including but not limited to:

Freshman Algebra (twice)
Auditions for parts in high school plays/musicals
Various scholarships
Multiple romantic relationships
Being a professional freelance illustrator in New York City
More requests for agenting/publication of manuscripts than I can count
The Florida State Written Driving Exam over 100 times.

But the very first thing I failed at was language. Yes! For the first 8 years of my life, I had only a tenuous grasp of the most basic of all skills, human language. I had a lisp. I could not form the letter S with my mouth.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t do it: I had no idea how to do it, even though tons of nice people, including my friends, parents, and teachers kept showing me. The problem was, I could not hear the difference between my S and everyone else’s S. I thought mine sounded exactly like theirs, even though it didn’t.

So I kept saying the letter S like th well into the second grade, when I was 8, and it really stopped being cute, and started being annoying (to other people. To me I sounded exactly like everyone else).

Sadly, this landed me in a special class, called Speech and Hearing—or, as some of the boys in my 2nd grade class liked to call it, “The Dummy Class” (I’m sorry to have to admit that’s what they called it, but it’s the truth. This still infuriates me).

The worst was when I would leave Speech and Hearing and come back to my regular classroom. The boys would hiss, “How was Dummy classsssssssss?” at me as I walked by them on my way back to my seat. Sometimes I would just sit down and cry when this happened (other times I would go, “It’th not Dummy Clath!” and they would just laugh harder at me).

It was all so frustrating! How was I supposed to learn how to say the stupid letter S when I couldn’t even hear that I was saying it wrong? And then these stupid boys were torturing me! I was failing life. I wanted to quit. I begged my parents to just let me drop out of school (there was no such thing as homeschooling back then, but if there had been, I’d have begged for it). Why couldn’t they all just leave me alone?

I don’t know how the Speech and Hearing teacher finally came up with the method she used in the end to get through to me.

It was simply, beautifully, a candy bar. A Snickers, to be exact.

Until I could say the word Snickers the way the teacher said it, she informed me, I could not have it.

And it wasn’t a mini-Snickers, either. It was a full size Snickers bar. Which, to an eight year old, is huge. I mean, physically, it was a really large candy bar.

She kept it tacked to her bulletin board, where we could all see it, hanging above her head.

It became my obsession. I had to have that Snickers bar.

So when she showed us how to move our mouths to form the letter S, how to hold our teeth together, and not to put our tongues between them, I started trying really hard. I practiced in the mirror at home, on the playground, with my friends. I didn’t care if the boys made fun of me. This really mattered to me now. Candy was involved.

And then one day I finally heard the difference between S and th.

And it all made sense.

When I sashayed back into the classroom that triumphant day, the boys all leaned back in their chairs. They got ready to hit me with their usual taunts about Dummy Class. Instead, however, their gazes all went to what I had in my hands.

“Where’d you get that candy bar?” they wanted to know. They were practically drooling.

I went, “Oh, thissssss? My Ssssspeech and Hearing teacher gave me thisssss Ssssssnickerssssss bar.”

To me, this is what Commencement is all about. Taking the Snickers bar that you’ve earned through your hard work, your hours of practice, your tears, your commitment, and yes, maybe some humiliation….

…and rubbing it in the faces of the people who were mean to you.

I mean, isn’t it?

Isn’t it about slowly peeling the wrapper off and eating that gigantic Snickers bar in front of those people, and taking an especially long time about it, and showing them how much you’re really, really enjoying that Snickers bar….

…and not offering them a single bite?

Well, okay. Maybe that’s just a small part of what Commencement is about.

But that’s what Commencement was about to me. In second grade, anyway, which was definitely the most meaningful commencement I ever had, because it was the hardest I ever had to work at anything in my entire life, and definitely the most satisfying reward I’ve ever had.

For those of you who are Commencing this year, I hope you won’t worry about what lies ahead. Who cares about that, really? It doesn’t matter. You’ve graduated. You’ve gotten the Snickers bar.

Right now what matters is that you enjoy it. Make it last.

The truth is, there will be lots more….

…maybe not as big, but just as satisfying.

More later.

Much love,

Meg