You never think it can happen to you, and then one day it does. Without any warning you suddenly become respectable. You’re invited to graduation ceremonies to pass on advice to young men and women on the verge of entering the real world. And you feel such a fraud. Especially when you went to college with one of the professors in the audience. Can you honestly quote the standard inspirers and motivators without feeling like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a room full of dukes?
That last line is a quote from the poet WH Auden, and it might have served me well if I’d remembered it then. All I could think of was the many times we had tried, as students, to throw speakers off their stride by clapping and cheering before the punchline or laughing at inopportune moments just to confuse them. I was trying to calculate how much heckling had evolved.
As it turned out, it hasn’t. The students were depressingly well behaved. Energetic, bubbly, spirited, but self-possessed to a remarkable degree. Wonderful qualities that were missing, from what I can recall, when I was serving time in the same institution.
Today’s students seem to be from another planet. At my graduation, I was unsure of the future, my mind a kaleidoscope of possibilities but with no clear pattern forming and with only one thought in my head: that everything would work out in the end, so why bother. The lot I spoke to recently knew exactly what would happen next in their lives, and had planned, prepared and worked out how to get what they wanted. Amazing. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I’m grown up.
This is clearly a generational thing. Every succeeding generation is more sure of the future, more certain of the path to getting there and more confident of itself. My yet-to-be-born (or thought of) grandchild probably already knows what she (or he) wants to be when she (or he) grows up. That is progress.
As for inspiration, I had little to offer. No one wants to be told just as they are graduating, things like, ‘Study hard’, or ‘Brush your teeth twice a day’, or ‘Help elderly ladies cross the road’. Perhaps I should have said, ‘You can change the world – but resist that temptation’. I also wanted to say, ‘For all of you who did badly in college, the best revenge is doing well in life’.
Somehow, I missed the magic moment and ended with: ‘Do whatever you want to – you can always find a good reason for it later’. It worked for me.