Talk of success, words of hope and congratulation

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Last year, when Bates President Elaine Tuttle Hansen addressed the graduating class of 2010, she joked that she “felt fairly confident that none of you remember what I said” when she presented her welcome to the same students as incoming freshmen four years prior.

She was probably right.

Former Vice President Al Gore understands how forgettable some speeches can be, and said as much when he addressed the Johns Hopkins graduating class in 2005.

“In preparing my remarks, in all seriousness I tried very hard to remember who spoke at my commencement in 1969. I have no idea. Unless I’ve just tricked you into remembering, my bet is that 30 years from now you won’t have any idea what was said here, but you will remember the parties tonight. You will remember your families being here, you will remember all the hard work that got you to this point and you’ll remember how you felt. And I hope you feel great, because this is a remarkable achievement that we are honoring here today.”

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The work, the parties and the friends certainly should be remembered, and will be. But, the same cannot be said of commencement speeches as the thoughtful reflections and best advice of accomplished people invited to address graduating classes are lost in the excitement of commencement ceremonies.

Not always, certainly, but commencement speakers have to say or do something exceptional to be remembered.

Last year, when award-winning journalist Jane Pauley addressed Bates graduates, she spoke frankly about her career-long propensity to compare her own accomplishments against other women in her field.

But, she pointed out, “as we’re all measuring ourselves against someone else, we’re not thinking about the things that we do pretty well,” suggesting that we could all benefit from thinking less about what others think of us and more about what we are all capable of accomplishing.

Wise words, these.

The Bates College Class of 2011 graduates Sunday — today — and can expect to hear well-crafted and inspirational speeches presented by internationally renowned pianist Frank Glazer, Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds and Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The three guests will have an opportunity to share their formidable life experiences with an audience of young adults eager to take on the world, a scenario that will be replicated by others at thousands of high school and college graduations in the coming weeks.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the words of wisdom ever offered at any graduation ceremony were taken to heart and brought to life?

Like President John F. Kennedy’s call to peace at American University in 1963: “What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time”

It’s incredibly hard to believe the president who so believed in the possibility of peace was shot dead a little more than five months later.

And, still peace eludes us.

Speeches won’t change the world; people will. So, maybe it’s OK to forget the occasional commencement address because the real value in these ceremonies are not words. The value is the vision, energy, hope and determination of the graduates who cross the stage to collect their diploma and then step into the world.

We congratulate them all.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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