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Wear sunscreen. Perhaps the most famous line from a commencement speech ever — except, you know, not. Urban legend has it that the writer Kurt Vonnegut delivered this essential piece of practical advice at MIT in 1997; in fact, it came from Mary Schmich, in a Chicago Tribune column that year about what she would tell a class of graduates had she been invited to address one.
This is fodder for an important essay about the pernicious pattern of women’s excellent ideas being falsely attributed to or casually claimed by men, something that happens pretty much every day in workplaces around the world and every week around Shabbat-dinner tables.
This is not that essay. This is an essay about a few other wise words I heard this week at the three — yes, three — graduation ceremonies I proudly attended to cheer on my family.
I’m often asked what is the best or most important story I’ve worked on in my 30-plus years as a journalist. I hate the question.
How to choose between multimedia projects documenting the human toll of terror or profiling 18 girls around the world who turned 18 in 2018 and the first article that documented the rebellion of Flight 93 passengers on 9/11, between my visit to a Hamas tunnel into Israel after the 2014 war and my raft trip through the Grand Canyon with scientists and creationists who disagree about how it was carved?
But one unsung, rather tedious, assignment I truly treasure was compiling excerpts from commencement speeches to the Class of 2000 for The New York Times.
The speakers I quoted on the cusp of the new millennium included the poet Seamus Heaney and the artist Judy Chicago; Anita Hill and Oprah Winfrey; John Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist then on death row; Madeline Albright, George Will, Andy Rooney and Desmond Tutu.
Their wise words included “You are the author of your own life” (Winfrey); “Man is made for more than meat and life is more than bread” (Jamal); and “We need more good television programs and fewer commercials” (Rooney).
Twenty-one years later, much of this advice still holds up. And this graduation season, we are all members of the Class of 2021 — having “completed the requirements,” as a diploma would put it, of living through a global pandemic amid the most polarizing and dehumanizing political campaign in memory and a racial-justice reckoning that continues to rock our institutional and individual understandings of the American dream’s promise and shortcomings.
Students in the actual Class of 2021 spent the spring unsure if they’d actually get to don caps and gowns and march to “Pomp and Circumstance” or would experience this milestone sitting in front of a computer screen in their pajamas as they have experienced so much else this perspective-shattering year.
As it happened, I was able to attend in-person, outdoor ceremonies for my niece and nephew at Northwestern University and my son and daughter at Montclair, N.J., middle schools, that seemed “normal” but for the special moments of silence for those lost to COVID-19 and the empty chairs between the graduates. We didn’t even have to wear masks.
Here are three of the most memorable things I heard:
Remember: excellence and perfection are not synonyms. This was said by Constance Wright, a Northwestern dean, as part of a moving video compiling 21 “words of wisdom” for the Class of 2021 from a diverse array of faculty and alumni. “The quest for excellence is going to have its missteps and its opportunities for improvement,” Wright said. “Give yourself space to grow and learn from all of your experiences.”
It reminded me of how my Reform synagogue approaches the concept of teshuvah, or repentance, and the confessional prayer on Yom Kippur. Instead of thinking of “sins we committed,” we talk about times where we missed the mark. To say the past year has been imperfect is the understatement of the century.
But we can learn a lot from the excellence we experienced or achieved — excellent work by first responders, excellent leadership from rabbis and community leaders, excellent journalism that sorted truth from disinformation, excellence in innovation and creative new paths to connectivity.
Put your phone down. This line, from Dr. Jill Sack, the retiring principal at Montclair’s Buzz Aldrin Middle School, got huge applause from the bleachers.
She was talking to my son and the other 8th graders, but also to all of us. Put your phone down when you’re in the passenger seat driving through new places. Put your phone down when someone is talking to you. Put your phone down at dinner, put it down during your meeting, put it down, for heaven’s sake, while watching TV.
Put your phone down and look, listen, think. Just put it down. For a minute. Now (and then, please, pick it back up again to finish reading this column).
We emerged smarter, stronger — and kinder. That was the headline from Kiss Turner, president of the student council at Glenfield Middle School (who read her speech from her phone! But then put it down….) Kiss spoke about surviving the pandemic, of course, and how she and her classmates worked for racial justice. But it was the kinder that really landed with me.
In a crisis that literally forced us to to separate from family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, these kids found ways to be so much kinder to each other than they would have in the often-toxic social environment that is middle school.
They helped my son with homework over FaceTime. They baked treats and left them on each other’s steps. They sent holiday cards to homebound seniors. And they — at least my kids — reminded us to be kind to servers and customer-service agents and other strangers we encountered no matter how frustrated we felt.
I was struck, too, that both Kiss and the president of the Buzz council, Avery Friedberg, were young women; so were the Glenfield students chosen to perform both the National Anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Mary Schmich would have smiled.
I know it’s quite late in commencement season for this advice, but if you’re going to an outdoor ceremony, definitely wear sunscreen. And a hat.
Your turn: Jewish summer camp memories
In last week’s column, I asked readers to share their camp memories. As I ironed name labels on my son’s socks and packed his duffel bag for the URJ’s Eisner Camp in the Berkshires, I found these two submissions from the way-back machine particularly poignant.
OUTDOOR CHAPEL (Joanne Intrator)My mother and father were refugees from Hitler’s Germany; I was raised in Queens. My parents had the idea, likely erroneous, that Jewish summer camps in the 1950s were too soft on children, spoiling them. So, they sent me to a general camp, very demanding, with lots and lots of physical activities.
I was one among a mere handful of Jewish young people in attendance. ‘Outdoor chapel’ occurred every Sunday. I did not at all appreciate hearing about ‘my’ savior Jesus Christ or having to say the Lord’s prayer. One Sunday, absolutely fed up with the outdoor chapel _mishagosh, I organized my fellow Jewish campers to run away from the Christianity-infused religious event._
If on the one hand, there was gross cultural insensitivity on the part of the camp managers, today it brings a smile to my face to think of how I took a stand for our Jewish identity, as best I could at the time.
_It is the place where we congregate, the place where we see and get seen, the place where — it being neither on the boys’ campus or the girls’ campus — we can easily just be together, the place where all the action is happening. The basketball game, where the afternoon milk is distributed, where the kids are rehearsing in the Old Theatre, where we can see who’s coming down the path that intersects the two campuses, where, in our jamming together on the bench, we can feel our aliveness._
THE BIG TREE (Suzanne Puller Macht, re Camp Kinderwelt)Who would have thought that building a wooden bench around a tree would have such an impact on the lives of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of children! On that seat, everyone carves their initials, all love is announced in those scratches in the wood, we mark our presence for decades to come.
It is as prominent and “historic” to us as the Clock in Grand Central Station! “Meet me at The Big Tree,” “I’ll see you at The Big Tree,” “Wait for me at The Big Tree…”
One day I am there sitting alone with a small drum. No one is around and soon I’m singing a song I’d learned just days before from Sarah Rubinstein – “Im ba-ah-razim nafla shalhevet, ma yagidu azovei hakir” – and beating out the rhythm singing the song over and over, faster and faster. Another time, I’m sitting under The Big Tree with my boyfriend, Dennis Sherman, who is playing the guitar and, to me, is a double for Elvis Presley. I am swooning.
Your Weekend Reads
Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of the Forward in 2019. Before that, she spent more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, email firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up here to receive her weekly newsletter, “Looking Forward,” in your inbox.
Wear sunscreen. Put down your phone. Be kind. We are all graduates in the Class of 2021.