Lately I’ve been thinking about finishing. I’ve been thinking about what it means to finish something and what it means to start something new. I’ve been thinking about graduating, and commencement speeches. I’ve been thinking about all of this because today I finished school. Some of you may remember me sharing similar news back in December when I published 4 Unlikely Pieces of Advice. That’s because at the time I had just completed my undergraduate degree. Immediately afterwards I started to pursue my Masters degree in Illustration. In saying today that I have finished school, I’m saying I’m no longer pursuing this degree. Instead, I’m moving onto another chapter in life. I’ve accepted a dream job in New York that I’ll formally announce soon. But right now it’s Thursday, and on Saturday I’ll be walking in the graduation ceremony to celebrate my first degree, my four years—somehow stretched into five—at the Savannah College of Art and Design, my accomplishments and failures, my progress, and my future.
And as I begin to think about everything this ceremony and celebration will entail, and in the reflection of what it all means, I can’t help but wonder what it’d be like to deliver my own commencement speech. More so, I’ve been thinking about, what does it mean to graduate? So let this be my commencement speech to you. For whatever position you are in right now, let this serve as a celebration of exactly where you are and where you are going.
So what does it mean to graduate? Does it mean to successfully complete a course of study or training? Or does it extend beyond that? Or is it even appropriate to be so academic in such a definition? Does graduation necessitate success, completion, or even course?
How might I start my commencement speech? Would it begin with the words of someone else? Would I dig into the archives of the written word, rip voice from its context, and hang it to the wall? If I did, would you then quickly observe it, but only for a moment before moving on, as though it were at the fringe of an exhibit because it only gave you a vague sense of familiarity like you had already seen it before? But if I were to place a bench in front of it, would you sit a little longer—there in front of the painting? Would that give you enough time to allow its presence to fabricate significance? If I were to do this, whose words would I use? Does the choice become reflective of me? Could I burden such responsibility?
Perhaps, it’d be more interesting to begin with an anecdote? But then I must consider, should it be personal or should it stem from observation? If personal, where do I begin? Do I start with my childhood and the influence of growing up in a family of artists? Do I share the positive memories of home-made Halloween costumes and a make-shift mini golf courses? Or do I share the hardships of constantly moving around, temporarily living in a campground, and living frugally?
But what does it mean to graduate? And why does it feel as though I have graduated numerous times over the past five years? What did graduation mean to me when I dropped out of school during my freshman year because I couldn’t afford it? What did it mean when I chose to go back? What if I told you I greatly regretted that decision? Is this the point where I tell you I had multiple breakdowns my sophomore year, applied to numerous jobs, felt like school wasn’t challenging, and then ultimately decided to turn down the job offers I had received? Would you judge me if I told you the primary reason I stayed in school was for athletics? Do you think this should be the part of the speech where I talk about camaraderie and the sense of belonging? Is this where I talk about how we are strung together not by our talents, skills or interests, but by our underlying yearning for understanding?
Why should this be a speech about graduating? Is this not about your pile of unread books? Is this not about convenient store snacks or walking the perimeter of buildings? Is this not about trying to erase off that last bit of slightly permanent dry-erase marker or getting a flat tire? Is this not about something more? Why should this look to the past? Why should this look to the future? Why shouldn’t this simply be? Why shouldn’t you simply be? Why can’t we inquire about this?
So would you believe me if I said this was my commencement speech? Or is it more appropriate to say this is my “idea” of a commencement speech? But if that were true, what is the point of this? Inversely, I could ask, what’d be the point in answering? What’s more worthwhile: a commencement speech with a micro-dose of inspiration that grants the immediate satisfaction of “wisdom” or the annoyance of toddler persistently asking why, that fuels the frustration of actively engaging your own intellect, that refuses to let your mind rest, and the realization that answers aren’t always definitive?
If this were my commencement speech, how might I end it? And how would you know when it’s complete? Perhaps I should end it with that? How would you know when it’s complete?