In Iowa, where Traditional Home is published (I know) -- it was a real kick to see our First Lady – so tall and lithe and lovely -- deliver the commencement address recently at the University of Northern Iowa on a perfect spring day.
Of course, we Iowans loved what the First Lady said about us, reminiscing that when she first showed up at the Iowa caucuses with a fellow who had big ears and a funny name, “People didn’t know a thing about me, yet they listened. They asked questions…They gave me the benefit of the doubt and a chance to show who I was. And that’s because people here in Iowa understand that everyone has something to offer.” That’s true, you know.
Seeing the First Lady speak made me realize that when I was graduating in the seventies, it was rare to even have a female commencement speaker. I think women are particularly good at giving commencement advice because in this uncertain world we are a bit more adept at reinventing ourselves -- as wives and mothers who go in of and out of the workforce, we have to be. Changes beyond our control and setbacks are not necessarily the end for us, but the beginning, because they show us what we're made of. As writer-director Nora Ephron said in a famous commencement speech at Wellesley (which she attended in the days when all the girls parted their hair in the middle and had to have 'posture pictures' taken -- naked -- and didn't even ask why they were doing something so weird): “…Surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”
Kind of cool that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Wellesley, too, in a time when young women were advised to get an education degree in case their husbands turned out to be rats. Ahem. I think it is safe to say that in the eras in which Ephron, Clinton, and I were graduating, a female author of children's books would not have been invited to give the commencement speech at Harvard. Yet J.K. Rowling did just that in 2008, speaking movingly about the fringe benefits of failure. Seven years after she graduated from college, she told the students, "An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain , without being homeless." Yet, Rowling believes, "I was set free, because my worst fears had been realized, and I was still alive, and I had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life."
Right up there with Ephron on the funny meter is Ellen Degeneres, who in 2009 at New Orleans' Tulane University, addressed "distinguished guests, undistinguished guests -- you know who you are, honored faculty and creepy Spanish teacher." She assured the graduates, “And you know the right questions to ask in your first job interview, like, ‘Is it above sea level?’”
But by far my favorite commencement speech was given when my daughter graduated from Dubuque [Iowa] Senior High School in 1997, and then-guidance counselor and now-principal Kim Swift gave the commencement speech. In it, she mentioned every one of 340 students – the jock and the nerd, the geek and the chic -- by name. Astoundingly, her speech was memorized. Both democratic and warmly personal, it was a tour de force that she made look easy while keeping the attention rightly focused on the graduates. Nobody who was there that day will ever forget it. It was the most inspiring graduation speech I’ve ever heard.
This post is adapted from Christian's May 14, 2011, column in the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa.