Alan Clark

With Class of 2020 graduates finally getting to receive diplomas during ceremonies altered to conform to COVID-19 guidelines, it occurred to me that some of them, perhaps all, did not have to sit through a commencement address.

Often criticized as an unnecessary or nonessential part of graduation ceremonies, it is still a tradition recognized, up to now, as a normal part of the day.

Someone with ties to the school or a notable government official, author, or other public figure is invited to address the class, providing some pearl of wisdom that the recipients are supposed to remember, but seldom do.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ll never forget what my graduation speaker said.”

I use my own experience as an example.  Normally, high school speakers are valedictorians and/or salutatorians and maybe a special guest.  I do not remember at all what was said to my class.

My undergraduate speaker at MTSU was Dr. Andy Holt, president of the University of Tennessee at the time, which I thought was fitting. 

Since my first two years were spent “on the Hill,” I was thrilled that he was speaking when I got my diploma.

Thrilled, but I cannot remember what he said.

My master’s level graduation was also at MTSU, but I do not remember the speaker at all.

My doctorate is another story.  As I sat in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, I listened to Dr. Richard Marius deliver a most inspiring speech.

Rick had been my history professor as a freshman and sophomore there, and his lectures were always thrilling and inspiring. He just had a way with words.

I got a chance to see him backstage before we marched on and talked to him about what he had meant to me and how much I admired him. 

His speech was memorable, talking about “the eddies and backwaters” of our lives and what really matters most, in his opinion. 

Highlights of it appeared in the Daily Beacon, and I included it in a framed replica of photos and the program for the event later on. I still have it.

As to other ceremonies of family and friends, I can’t think of any that stand out, and I have often wondered, if I were invited to speak, how would I prepare for that?

It’s hard to say what is hard to say.  I thought of everything from a simple “Congratulations,” then walking to my seat, to words of inspiration I am sure would be remembered, but I bet they would not be after all. 

There’s, “This is not the end, but the beginning” of the rest of their lives, but that one is overworked, although true.

People like to hear stories, so I always thought of ways to illustrate a point through a narrative of some kind.

Bottom line is, a commencement address is like a trip to the dentist. 

You know it’s coming, and you dread having to sit through it, but in the end, although you may not recall the details, it is always good for you in some way.

Perhaps one day in the future the “new normal” may include a return of the graduation speaker, if nothing else just for old time’s sake and because, well, that’s the way it oughtta be.

Alan Clark’s auditorials are available as podcasts on iTunes.