I was the Commencement Speaker for the class of 1976 at a small rural Connecticut high school. The 56 graduates honored me with the task of doling out wisdom to guide them forward. I was 25, 9 months pregnant, perspiring profusely in a humid 90 degree heat wave, and my underwear had fallen off just before joining the end of the procession into the auditorium. Perhaps I am one of many who’ve delivered a commencement address commando style. My anxiety centered on the possibility that my water would break midsentence and the bikini panties tossed into the Girls’ Room wastebasket would be discovered by a perverted school board member. The panties were sort of hippy-ish polyester with a sprung waist band and guys names “autographed” in orange, blue, and yellow. I thought they were funny. None of the names matched any guys on the faculty or the senior class -or so I’d like to think. I also wore my best friend’s long royal blue silk bath robe with a stapled-to -fit hem because it was the only thing that fit.
My address countered Paul Simon’s Kodachrome advice – I urged them to think back on all they’d learned in high school and think about it all. Deciding what to think about deeply and discerning what to pass by – learning to focus on stuff that matters – would be the greatest challenge of their lives.
My son, born shortly after graduation, grew up in a time where paying attention meant keeping your eye on the ball (about 4/10ths of a second), waiting for a red light to turn green (around 120 seconds), and imagining his first kiss (at least 157 million seconds). He grew up pre-Internet and had an attention span that dwarfs today’s graduates. As a professor of education, I espoused research that advised multiplying young child’s age by four to calculate the minutes of their attention span. That meant in 1980, my son could stay put doing anything of interest for a good 16 minutes – long enough for me to pee, change his brother’s diaper, and cook dinner. The class of 2015 can pay attention for about 8 seconds – that’s one second less than a typical goldfish circling its bowl on the kitchen counter.
Today’s commencement speakers need to parse their words into 8 second bites less the audience drift away. So here’s my address for 2015:
Be like a goldfish – take an extra second to look beyond the bowl. These seconds will give you time to pay attention to life for 12 extra hours a year. Oh the things you will learn during these bonus half days! Be grateful for clean water, healthy food, and people who find you to be worth keeping. Swim because you can – it beats listlessly floating on top or rotting on the bottom.