I don’t mean a weather event blowing in from the Arctic, but a merciless storm of words blowing from the mouths of commencement speakers at high school and college graduation events.
This year, I was one of the blowhards, the chief speechifier for some 260 graduates of my old high school in Denison, Texas. While it was an honor to be chosen as their ceremonial yakker, it’s also a truly humbling experience, since I was the person that the degree recipients and their 5,000 supporters in the audience were least interested in.
Plus, commencement pontificators are expected to offer some sage advice to guide the grads as they moved on, and I was all out of sage. So, I resorted to three admonitions I once learned from a West Texas cowboy: “Never squat with your spurs on;” “Always drink upstream from the herd;” and “Speak the truth — but ride a fast horse.”
Then I hit them with my main message: Now that you’ve had a dozen years in the classroom and earned this important credential, DON’T BE AN IDIOT! I used “idiot” in the same way that ancient Greeks originally meant it. Idiotes were not people with low-watt brains, but individuals who cared only about themselves, refusing to participate in public efforts to benefit the larger community — to serve the common good.
The Greeks, I told the students, considered such people selfish, contemptible and stupid … and so should we.
The encouraging news is that this crop of graduates from Denison High nodded in agreement. After all, they’ve seen that the idiots are running things in Washington and on Wall Street, and the youngsters seem to be hungry for less selfishness and more togetherness as our society’s guiding ethic.
To stress the rich possibilities of a society working together, I noted that any of us who rise in life do so because many helping hands give us a lift. While this night of celebration belonged to the students, the achievement being celebrated belonged to the whole community — the families, friends, teachers, taxpayers and others who were part of the lifting.