I rashly promised at that time that I would come back and speak at your commencement exercises, never thinking your class would actually ask me to make good on that promise. You have, so I'm assuming that both Kid Rock and Donald Rumsfeld were busy today. In all seriousness, I wonder if you've considered the larger implications of this. I mean, I'm honored, I'm delighted, and I'm flattered almost out of my shoes, but think of it: you have asked a man who has spent the last thirty years trying to scare the hell out of everyone in the English-speaking world to send you out into twenty-first-century America. I think I'll take it as a compliment; I'll tell myself that you felt I was worthy of this honor and this responsibility because my wife and I have tried to give back to our state and our community and not because I once wrote a story where a man stranded on a desert island stayed alive by dining on himself from the feet up.
Delivering a good graduation speech is difficult, and delivering a memorable one is close to Mission Impossible. In striving for eloquence at an important moment of passage like this one, most speakers are able to assemble only the usual bunch of platitudes - row, don't drift (that's for the phys ed majors); a penny saved is a penny earned (for the economics majors); a good man is hard to find (for the sociology majors); to be or not to be (for the English majors); and for the superstition majors, like me, step on a crack, break your mother's back. Very few people past the age of forty can remember who spoke at their college commencement exercises, and almost no one can remember who spoke at their high school graduations. That's probably a good thing.
In any case, I thought it would be best to be brief. I also thought it might be best, given the size of the group and the length of the festivities, to bypass eloquence and go directly to forgettability. It is the prerogative of graduation speakers to tell you what to do with your life, and it is the prerogative of graduates not to do them. Today we will only follow the first half of this tradition. That is, I will tell you a few things to do, and you will do all of them, okay?
• Hug and kiss whoever helped get you - financially, mentally, morally, emotionally - to this day. Parents, mentors, friends, teachers. If you're too uptight to do that, at least do the old handshake thing, but I recommend a hug and a kiss. Don't let the sun go down without saying thank you to someone, and without admitting to yourself that absolutely no one gets this far alone.
• Don't live in this place. If you're a grad student or if you have a few more courses to pick up, fine. But if you're still hanging out in Orono or Old Town three years from now, living like an undergraduate in some sleazy apartment or trailer park, there's something wrong with you. This is not Never-Neverland. Peter Pan graduated back in '73 and now has a nice little farm in Bethel. You are not the Lost Boys and Lost Girls, but if you stay here too long, you will grow the equivalent of donkey ears. For most of you, it's time to move on. If you didn't have a better time here than you did in high school, you're weird. If you want to stay here and keep being an undergraduate, you're very weird.
• Don't forget that you're a physical being with a power-plant to take care of and maintain. I'm talking about the bod under the blue gown. I'm not going to say that we're a lazy, overweight society, a fast-food eatin', SUV-ridin', soda-guzzlin', beer-chuggin', TV-watchin', size-XL-wearin', walk-don't-run generation...except I guess I just did.
• Don't forget that you're a mental being, with a humongous trillion gigawatt hard-drive at your disposal. Most of you have been running it like crazy for four years, moaning about all the books you've had to read, the papers you've had to write, and the tests you've had to take. Yet thanks to that hard-drive and about a thousand cups of coffee, you made it. Just...let me put it this way. I can find out where you live. I have my resources. And if I show up at your house ten years from now and find nothing in your living room but The Readers Digest, nothing on your bedroom nighttable but the newest Dan Brown novel, and nothing in your bathroom but Jokes for the John, I'll chase you down to the end of your driveway and back, screaming "Where are your books? You graduated college ten years ago, so how come there are no damn books in your house? Why are you living on the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese?" I sound like I'm joking about this, but I'm not. You've got a brain under the cap you're wearing. Take care of the damned thing. Try to remember there's more to life than Vin Diesel and Tom Cruise. It wouldn't kill you to go to a movie once a month that has subtitles on the bottom of the screen. You can read them, you went to college, right?
• Give away a dime for every dollar you make. Why not? If you don't give it, the government's just going to take it. You think you can't afford it, one lousy thin dime out of every dollar? If you think you can't, just look at the taxes you pay on every gallon of gas you buy. If you think you can't, look at all the sick, hungry, unhappy, uneducated people standing outside the fence America has constructed around herself, people who only want a little something for themselves and their families. For their children. Very few of them are suicide bombers. Very few of them are Mr. Bush's "enemies of freedom," whether he believes that or not. They might become enemies of freedom, but right now all they want is a little something to get by on. A little chance at the kind of joy most of us are feeling today. A dime out of every dollar. And here's a secret I learned six summers ago, lying in a ditch beside the road, covered in my own blood and thinking I was going to die: you go out broke. Everything's on loan, anyway. You're not an owner, you're only a steward. So pass some of it on. You may not have much now, but you're going to have a lot. And when you do, remember the ones that don't have anything.
• Stay in Maine.
• Stay in Maine.
• Stay in Maine.
• Stay in Maine.
This isn't boosterism. I don't belong to the Elks, the Lions, or any other organization where the men wear funny hats on Thursday night. I don't do Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce. I'm not even running for anything, but speaking politically, how about this? We've got a Democrat governor who's cleaner than a whistle and works like a demon all day long because he actually believes in Maine and Maine people. We voted for Kerry in the last Presidential election, but we've got two Republican Senators. Two female Republican Senators. And by today's standards, they're both actually pretty moderate. In Maine we elect sane, responsible politicians, which probably says more about the electorate than it does the politicians themselves.
I was born here, I've lived my whole life here, and I'll probably die here.
Listen to me, now.
If you move away to Massachusetts because you could get $17,000 more teaching school there, you'll just bore everyone about how much lower taxes are in Maine, how much lower crime is in Maine, and how much quicker they plow the roads.
If you move away to New York to take an entry-level legal, banking, or technical services position, you'll bore everyone about how much you hate spending two hours on your morning commute. And when you tell them you used to get lobster for $5.99 a pound down the road in Ellsworth, they won't believe you.
If you move away to Texas to work in a computing or sciences job, you'll bore everyone with complaints about how your children are lost in the big, anonymous schools and you are lost in the big, anonymous housing developments. When you tell them there's never any pollution in the air to speak of north of Portland, they won't believe you, and after five years of the smog in Denver, you'll hardly believe it yourself. As for Los Angeles, you could give me the key to the city, and I'd drop it in the nearest mailbox marked RETURN TO SENDER.
Let me tell you a secret: right now you are all sitting on the ground floor of the greatest place on earth, and the elevator doors are open. We've got job and career opportunities second to none in technology, education, recreation, agriculture, fisheries, science, and land-use management. When it comes to energy resources...well, let's put it this way: when the city folks in New York and Washington are down to burning their stock portfolios in their ovens to keep warm, we'll be sitting nice and toasty around our woodstoves, eating beans and saying "ayuh." And if that makes us hicks, a hick is just what I want to be.
North of us is The County, a woodland treasurehouse as big as the rest of New England put together. South of us is another splendidly huge area of land, most of it agricultural, where anything and everything is raised, from apples and honey to alpacas and horses. We've got a state lottery, which I hate, and a state education system, which I love, and of which you are now a part.
I promised I wouldn't keep you long, that I'd cut to the chase, and so I will. The place to start giving back is the place where you are right now.
Congratulations on your graduation. And after you've forgotten the rest of what I've had to say, remember this: acknowledge your good fortune by sharing it, and show your good sense by sharing it in Maine. You'll never be sorry.