“The clock has struck midnight.” My opening line from my commencement speech delivered one June evening (two? five? nine?) twelve (months?) years ago. (One question–where did the time go?) Commencement 1998 found me staring at a crowd of 600 red-capped and gowned peers. I had never met approximately 5/6 of them. This thought occurred to me as I opened my dry mouth to deliver that opening line. As the words from my well-practiced speech spilled by rote from my mouth, my brain was busy wondering, “Am I really qualified to speak to this crowd about anything, let alone the beginning of the next adulthood chapter of their lives?” My trusty grey matter readily answered “No!” My mouth kept going anyway.
I find it funny now, with the sage distance of twelve years between then and now, to think about this metaphor of midnight hours chosen for the occasion. At the time, I remember wanting an opening both witty and catchy, something that would make the commencement speaker selection committee place high marks with red pens beside my name. I suppose I didn’t really extend my metaphor past that ideal. If I had, here’s what I would have said…consider this Commencement 2010.
Every commencement speaker is tasked with the daunting chore of launching a generation of diverse individuals into the rosy sunrise of a promising tomorrow. Some speakers go with the hackneyed and misunderstood “Road Not Taken” path. Others recite touching anecdotes from high school years. Few choose to dwell on the midnight destruction of life’s dreams. Apparently that’s exactly what I did in 1998. Cinderella, that paragon of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, dared to dream the impossible dream, imagine a life better for herself, live in the moment, fall in love at first sight, all with a little help from her friends: a plump fairy godmother and a few anthropomorphic beasts. She dared to risk it all, and for a few glorious Prince-and-dancing-filled-hours, she had it all.
Then that hand of disaster, time, took the final leap toward Cinderella’s doom: midnight. And in that moment, all of her living dreams turned back into just dreams. Even worse, they were no longer dreams shimmering before her always just out of reach but worth yearning for all the same (insert traditional commencement speech quote about the green light receding before us, compliments of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby). Cinderella’s dreams had turned into mere memories. Even dreams deferred (insert traditional commencement quotation here, thank you very much to Mr. Langston Hughes) have the dignity of remaining lost possibilities. Cinderella’s midnight turned her dreams into “once upon a time”. Dream attained. Dream lost.
Just as we launch ourselves into a new venture in life, do we really want to think about our own clock striking midnight? Do we really want to dwell on time’s destruction before we even have a chance to begin? It occurs to me that we “commence” many more times than once in life. Sure, there’s the high school graduation, college graduation, and post-graduate graduation. Then with today’s self-esteem starved generation, I suppose we have to throw in a few dozen other “graduations” beginning with kindergarten and proceeding right up to that high school football field littered with tossed caps and gowns. Long after we have stopped adding degrees and their accompanying acronyms (“Hello, I’m Beth, B.S., M.A.T. pleased to meet you”) we continue finding ourselves commencing. Beginning. Stepping forward into risks, dreams, disappointments. Life.
Even here, Cinderella may have some lessons for us. Maybe it’s good that I implicated her and her dark night into my graduating class’s rosy tomorrow. Maybe she’s a good reminder of what life, real life, holds for each of us. Life seldom guides us with fairy godmothers and talking mice down straight paths that end with our heart’s deepest desire. If we believe that simplistic and deluded lie, we are sure to admit failure at the first baffling kink in the road. Life’s path, it seems to me, appears to be a bit more twisty and twisted than Cinderella’s tale leads us to hope. We often don’t end up where we thought we would at the journey’s commencement. Cinderella’s path, at least to her, must have been full of the twists the rest of us end up untangling as we go through life. I’m not sure, given the choice, she would have wanted to live her own fairytale. I mean, the girl’s mom dies, her dad basically forgets her and marries a new harpy who is raising two harpy daughters, she gets one last-ditch shot at happiness, and then, because she dared to relish the happy for just a split second too long, she is utterly mortified and loses her true love. Back to scrubbing toilets and wearing stained sweatpants (or the equivalent of such in the 1600s) and talking to animals like a crazy loon. We want to have Cinderella’s fairy tale for our own? Really?
Fortunately for the crushed Cinderella, that moment of midnight’s destruction lasts no longer than the moment of happiness preceding it. Time marched forward. Just as it can destroy, it can also rebuild. Cinderella couldn’t go backward to the insulated, spun-sugar perfection she must have felt while whirling in ball gown around the dance floor. But she could go forward to a future that was more substantial, more gritty at the edges, and ultimately more true. Her Prince did come find her, and luckily for her, loved her all the more for her red hands reeking of Clorox and the ratty sweatpants. No longer did she have to hide her reality from him. Isn’t this conclusion the proverbial happy ending? The rosy dawn that came after the destruction of midnight? Curse those Grimm brothers for taking the easy way out of concluding their tale: “And they lived happily ever after.” I don’t believe it. Not for a second. I think Cinderella must have lived “realistically ever after.” Sometimes happily and sometimes not. Just like the rest of us.
“The clock has struck midnight.” We’re commencing, whether we’re sitting in row upon row of folding chairs daydreaming while a commencement speaker drones on, or whether we’re standing at our kitchen sinks with necks damp from steam and sweat, or whether we’re typing an email while sweeping graham cracker crumbs off the keyboard, or whether we’re sitting in an airport terminal reading someone’s discarded New York Times. We’re beginning something. For some of us, the clock is striking midnight. For others, we’re so caught up in the moment, we’ve forgotten to watch the ticking clock. And still others have glimpsed the edges of dawn creeping around the dark hours of a night we thought might never end. What do I want to say to my 600 peers twelve years later? I feel less qualified now than in 1998 to pass on any words of wisdom. I don’t have any advice. I only have the observation that the clock keeps going around and around. We can ignore it, or we can be wary of it. Somehow, I think we’ll be best off if we manage to do both gracefully. We laugh when we laugh. We cry when we cry. And during the hard times in between the good times, we remember that the twisting road of life eventually gets to a new commencement.
All the same, if my fairy godmother pops up with a carriage née pumpkin, tell her yes, I’ll gladly hitch a ride to tonight’s ball.
Congratulations to my cousin Catherine for snagging four awards and my personal prize for “Most Stunningly Beautiful Graduate” as she completed her tenure as a high school student at King Low Heywood Thomas in Stamford, Connecticut yesterday. I am compelled also to note that the Salutatorian’s address far outshone my commencement speeches, both the 1998 and 2010 versions. Humility can be taught at any age. Felicitations all around to the Class of 2010.