The last time I attended a college commencement–it was a couple of years ago and I won’t say where–the commencement speaker was an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. I won’t say which one, but it wasn’t one of the really scary Justices, not one of the ones who jimmied open a window in the White House and gave you-know-who a leg up as he clambered his ungainly way into the Oval Office. This Justice was one of the other ones. Instead of offering to the graduates the usual bromides, advice or inspiration, Associate Justice X took the opportunity to read aloud bad reviews of some of the decisions he’d delivered, and to respond to the reviews at considerable length, even though I don’t think any of the critics who’d written the reviews were present at this graduation ceremony. I was sort of touched by his speech because it had never occurred to me that Justices’ decisions are reviewed just as plays are reviewed and that Justices probably hate critics as much as playwrights do, at least as much as this playwright does, at least the moronic wicked corrupt critics who criticize me.
Associate Supreme Court Justice X had brought with him a huge black ring-binder full of bad reviews, each review carefully preserved under plastic, and it had about it the aspect of being frequently and lingeringly perused, this binder did. And the commencement speech had about it the quality of a grudge match, of a settling of scores. It was not inspirational or uplifting. But I was sympathetic. I found it honest and brave and instructive-by-example: Even if you rise as high in life as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, you will be pursued by critics as the damned are pursued by fiends in hell, and you will find yourself grumbling embarrassingly about their reviews, grumbling in inappropriate places, dampening festive occasions. I assume the point the Justice was making, by example, was this: “See, graduating students! It never ends! You will be graded forever! And you will never be happy!”
The applause after Justice X finished his grim tuition was suitably ashy; but then, under the smiling blue skies of May, under the woozy influence of the heatstroke that perennially adds its charm to graduation ceremonies, everyone promptly forgot everything the commencement speaker had spoken, and that giddy graduation mood compounded of jubilation, accomplishment, bankruptcy, terror and exhaustion carried the day to its traditional sunshiny apotheosis.
I enjoy commencement because it’s a summery affair, a warm-weather ceremony of liberation, lovely young people frantic to feel for the first time since toddlerhood what it’s like to be a person rather than a student–and I don’t want to harsh anyone’s buzz or whatever it is you say nowadays, but when you’re 80 you will still be waiting to find out what it’s like to be a person rather than a student. Even if you haven’t been a student for fifty-nine years, you will still feel more like a student than a person, because in this country, in this world, the only thing we do worse than education is life.
Vassar being the great exception to this, I must stipulate that, I can tell just by looking at you not only how thoroughly and capaciously and meticulously you have been prepared for graduation, but also how fantastically lively you all are. You are radiant, each and every one of you; your parents are schepping major naches at how radiant and formidable you have become. They’re maybe not entirely sure why this effect was so expensive to produce, but looking at you robed and mortarboarded and aflame with vision, ambition and hope, they are certain it was worth every penny and each drop of spilled blood, and they look forward to long years exacting their subtle and exquisitely costly vengeance. They have earned this vengeance, your parents, so you should not complain too much; it will build your character, which, even after four years at Vassar, may yet face further construction and benefit from it.