Class of 2018, I’ve always been told that a joke’s a good way to launch any talk. It’s a matter of breaking the ice, though on your graduation day, with the temperature soaring into the upper eighties, that may not be the perfect image. Still, you know what I mean: an attempt to lighten the atmosphere a little before getting to the tough stuff. Again, though, in our world—in case you hadn’t noticed, a near majority of American voters elected Donald Trump president in November 2016—lightening the atmosphere may pass for a joke in itself (and I do think I hear a little laughter out there somewhere).
Anyway, here’s my official joke on this sunny afternoon in the middle of this beautiful open campus quad. Ready?
Bang, bang, I’m dead!
No, really, in our present world, shouldn’t that pass for a joke? Think of it as my way of making light of a grim reality of your educational lives. After all, imagine some classmate of yours, angry at, well, who knows what, or simply, as new head of the National Rifle Association and former illegal gunrunner Oliver North suggested recently, on Ritalin and devoted to violent video games, stalking onto this very campus this very afternoon. He’s—and it almost certainly would be a “he”—spoiling for payback of some sort and he’s—who could doubt this in twenty-first-century America?—armed to the teeth with lethal, possibly military-style weaponry. The odds are that, standing up at this podium in front of you as he began blowing people away, I might well be the first to go. Hence, my joke! But of course you got it, didn’t you?
The Adults Under the Desks
To be clear, on your graduation day I’m not just kidding around. I’m also doing what the truly old—I’m almost 74—always try to do: somehow get in the spirit of the young just about to step into, not out of, our world. It’s true that when I went to school back in the Neolithic Age, we had our own version of being blown away—and of active-shooter drills and of the fear of dying that went with them.
From the time we were little, we were, in the parlance of that moment, “ducking and covering”; that is, diving under our school desks for protection with our hands over our heads like (as one civil defense cartoon of the time had it) Bert the Turtle going into his shell. We were protecting ourselves against a nuclear attack from a land you won’t even remember, the former Soviet Union, which imploded before you were born (R.I.P. 1991), aka the Ruskies, the Evil Empire. And yes, looking back, those tiny kids crouched under those desks, one of whom was me, couldn’t have represented a more pathetic image of “safety” or, to use the word that has dominated this American century, “security.” And yes, even as children, we knew it. The underside of a desk and your hands were no defense against the atomic bombing of New York City (where I lived in those years, as I do today). In fact, you have to wonder what sad group of adults came up with that brilliant strategy for terrorizing children?