Woog’s World / Yours to be used in the most fantastic of ways
Today is Staples High School’s graduation day. Over 450 students will don dumb-looking robes, march into a sweltering field house, and emerge 90 minutes later with a diploma signifying the end of 13 years of education.
For some it’s a great accomplishment — perhaps one of life’s highlights. For others it’s a slam dunk, a mere way station on the long journey to college, grad school, work, retirement, then death.
Before the diplomas, though, there are graduation speeches. They’re some of the toughest things to write in the world. I’m a writer, and I don’t know that I could say anything that hasn’t already been said a squintillion times before. Thankfully, no one has ever asked me to give a graduation speech.
But also thankfully, Evan Tschirhart did. In 2000, as Staples’ valedictorian, he had the honor of addressing his classmates. He made the most of his chance.
In fact, Tschirhart’s speech was perhaps the cleverest, most memorable in Staples history, or any other high school, anywhere.
The Harvard-bound student tossed aside every traditional cliché. The standing ovation after his thought-provoking oration was well deserved.
Today it’s worth remembering Evan’s words. He delivered it nearly two decades ago. But we’re already nearly two-thirds of the way toward 2030, which he used as a far-off reference point.
Wearing a wig of gray hair and glasses, Evan began:
“Thank you. ladies and gentlemen of the Staples Class of 2000, it is an honor to speak to you at this reunion marking the 30th anniversary of our high school graduation. But let’s be honest: As much as it’s an honor, it’s also a reminder of the fact that the year is now 2030, and three decades have gone by since we were teenagers. I’m sort of having trouble figuring out why, after enduring my ramblings 30 years ago, you’ve decided to bring me back to the podium. Gluttons for punishment, I guess.”
Evan joked about the changes that had taken place in Westport over the past three decades. He then recalled what it was like being 18. He was eager to head off to college, and start his real life. He wanted to play guitar, travel, perhaps join the Peace Corps.
But, he said, “now I’m 48. All the literature I was to have read, all the places to which I envisioned myself traveling, all the languages I was to have learned, and all the hobbies and community work I imagined myself taking up, well … a lot of that just didn’t happen.”
Time wore on, he said. He seemed to “lose aspirations a lot more quickly than I gained them.”
Evan told his “reunion-goers” that when he was 5 years old, he fell asleep every night to a cassette recording of “The Phantom Tollboth.” He described the fantastical novel, and said he listened to it again “a few years ago.”
Evan said Milo — the protagonist — was not prepared for a world that was both exciting and demanding. Evan said, “I wasn’t prepared for it either. Or maybe none of us were — if I’m to assume that what’s happened in my life may have happened in yours. Our generation grew up and went to school and got jobs during one of history’s most unique chapters. It was — and continues to be — a fabulously exciting time. The ‘human progress’ of the past 30 years has no historical parallel.
“But I think it was tough for us. With the world of excitement came a world of such great pressure. To make it in society we needed to specialize — to serve as that one component along the assembly line that keeps running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We’ve needed to compromise to maintain demanding lifestyles. We’ve lived in a culture dominated by cellphones and computers and ubiquitous coffee shops that wait, like little gas stations, to fuel our incessant activities.”
Time, he said, ended up controlling him. But saying he hoped not to be morose, Evan asked his “reunion” audience what it would be like to go back 30 years, to that graduation day.
Suddenly he took off his gray wig and glasses. Once again a teenager, he said:
“It’s June 21st, 2000, and those 30 years we’ve gone through have yet to be lived. Would we be a little more wary of letting dreams escape our grasp? Would we look a little more skeptically at the demands of a “successful” life, and turn more to the basics of a truly satisfying one — one that develops our God-given gifts and shares them with others?”
Well, it’s crazy to live the past, isn’t it? But if for some wild reason you go back home and see that the calendar has stuck on the year 2000, just don’t ask questions. Go out there and seize that breadth of person that you aspire for. Know there’s so much ahead, if you want it to be. Because those 30 years are yours … and they’re yours to be used in the most fantastic of ways.”
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.