A Commencement Address by a Very Important Author
The following remarks were delivered at the commencement exercises of The Habersham School in Savannah, Georgia.
Thank you all for being here today.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is going to be the dumbest speech you ever hear. I just want to prepare you now to be dumber at the end than you are right now. Think about your I.Q. It’s probably a number between 50 and 200. Now subtract three. That is going to be your I.Q. in about fifteen minutes. If you don’t want your I.Q. to be that number, I suggest you leave. So I’ll go ahead and give you a minute to get your things together and leave.
Great. Now that all the people who don’t care about knowledge are here, we can relax. I cannot stand intelligent people. That’s why I like everyone here so much. When intelligent people are in the room, the pressure is really on. You have to pronounce all your words super good. Is it toMAYto or toMAHto? APPricot or APEricot? Justin TimberLAKE or Justin TimberLOCK? I don’t know. Does anybody know? No. This is why we have scientists.
The one thing I especially like about all the smart people being gone is, they expect me to be funny. Smart people are always doing this. “Make us laugh, Harrison!” “Say something funny, Harrison!” “Come on, Harrison, I didn’t marry you for money!”
I’m not your comedy monkey. I’m not going to stand up here and “entertain” you. I’m not an iPhone. I’m not an Internet. I’m not Justin Timberlock. No, I have a serious message for you today, graduates. Nobody’s going to tell you the truth, but I will. Because unlike all these people, I care about you. I love you, and I want you to know the truth. And the truth is, graduates, you look like idiots in those hats.
Today is the last day that your teachers can humiliate you, and that is why they made you wear those funny hats. Oh, they’ll tell you it’s a “tradition,” that it goes back to the Middle Ages or Middle Earth or whatever, but it’s just one last way they can hurt you. Why do you think everybody throws their hats at the end? To celebrate? When’s the last time you celebrated by throwing something? “Happy Birthday, Billy! Now we throw your cake at you!”
No, you throw the hat because you hate it, and you hope that when it comes down, it will hit one of your teachers in the face and hurt them. But there is a better way to hurt your teachers, and that is by hitting them in the face, which you couldn’t do before, because you would get kicked out of school and not graduate, but today it’s perfectly legal. I would wait until after the ceremony, though. Just to be sure.
I’m kidding, of course. We love our teachers, and we remember them forever. That’s what’s so frightening about teaching—knowing that when you’re a teacher, what you say can be remembered forever by people who were so bad at math and writing. One of my English teachers in Star, Mississippi, was Mrs. Barndollar. That’s not her real name. Her real name is Mrs. Pulaski.
I loved Mrs. Pulaski. When she introduced herself to the class, she said something that has stayed with me to this day. She said, “On some days, I might look different to you, because I have a condition that causes me to bloat.”
Mrs. Pulaski taught me how to write a paper: how to do research, how to identify the best quotations and passages to cite by using index cards, and how to create an outline and a bibliography. I used that knowledge in college, and in graduate school, and even in writing my own articles and essays and my book.
I asked the administration of your fine institution if I could plug my book today, and they said no, absolutely not, this is not the time to be promoting yourself. This is a time to celebrate the graduates! This is a time to recognize all the hard work that they and their families have accomplished to be here today! And I couldn’t agree more.
A great way to celebrate your graduate today is with a copy of my new book, The World’s Largest Man, out this month in paperback.
From the New York Times to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, everyone agrees: I am amazing.
But I’m not here to talk about where you can buy my book, such as The Book Lady bookshop at 6 E. Liberty St., here in town, just across the street from the Desoto Hilton, or E. Shaver Books, right around the corner. No. That’s not why I’m here today. Instead, I’m here to tell you about more important things, such as how you can also get my book online, at www.HarperCollins.com or at other outlets around the country, which can be found via www.HarrisonScottKey.com.
My fame is unimportant, is what I am saying. Today is about you, and how you can help my fame, the way Mrs. Pulaski—that spectacular English teacher who taught me how to outline, do research, and write a paper—helped my fame. I use that knowledge still today, learned in a classroom nearly a quarter-century ago. And you know what else I remember? That thing she said about bloating. Why did she tell us that? Because all year, that’s all we thought about.
“Is she bloating today?” we wondered.
“No, she looks the same.”
“No, I think she’s totally bloating.”
“Yes, she’s definitely bloating.”
Why was she bloating? Was she dying? Was she going to die in our classroom? If she died, would we have to tell someone? Would we have to finish our papers?
Teachers, be careful what you say.
Students, if your teacher bloats, be sure to alert someone.
Commencement speeches are funny things, full of clichés, like, “This is the first day of the rest of your lives.” But instead of clichés, I want to give you something fresh, something unexpected, so I went and spoke to people who had never actually heard a graduation speech to see what I should say. I wanted the freshest advice. I wanted to start from Ground Zero. Blank slate. Tabula rasa. Which is Latin, or German.
So I asked my three daughters, who are some of the dumbest people I know. They brag about reading “chapter books.” Ooh, impressive! Well guess what? I write chapter books, baby! It’s called The World’s Largest Man, out in paperback now. It’s a memoir. When my daughters stopped crying, I asked them what sort of advice we should give the graduates for college, and here’s what they said.
My oldest daughter, Simmons, grade four, said this: “Don’t correct your teachers,” she said. My middle daughter, Eppie, grade two, said this: “When you’re in college you should probably not look at other people’s work or you will get kicked out and never allowed to come back.” I was sorry to have to explain to her that they don’t kick you out anymore for cheating. They just give you a hug. So if you want a hug, you should cheat and plagiarize. Or you can just ask your professor for the hug, which will likely lead to your expulsion for sexual harassment.
My youngest daughter, Ferris, preschool, said this about college: “You should not hit.” I think this is good advice, unless someone tries to hug you, in which case, you should hit them, especially if it’s your professor. She also said you should make sure to eat a lot of cheese in college. I’m not sure why. Probably because you are depressed, which can happen in college, owing to the lack of hugs, since you refuse to cheat.
Finally, my children said that in college you should definitely not text. Ever. So, no texting in college. Ever. I don’t even know what texting is. I guess it’s a new kind of drug? It’s probably already legal in Colorado.
“Is that all I should say at graduation?” I asked my children. “Shouldn’t I tell a story?” And they were like, “Definitely do not tell a story.” And I was like, “Why?” And they were like, “Trust us.” And that is one piece of advice I’m going to ignore, because I’m going to tell you a story.
When I was twelve years old—in the seventh grade—I had enormous ears. It is difficult to explain just how large my ears were with respect to my head. Over one summer, my ears simply grew to adult size. Nobody knows how or why it happened, whether it was triggered by acid rain or nuclear waste or exposure to Gamma rays like the ones that got the Hulk. My lobes became the size they are today, while the rest of my body remained childlike. My head did not grow. My arms did not grow. Only my ears grew, as if capable of photosynthesis, powered by the sun. Whenever I spent more than an hour outdoors, they grew larger, larger. At one point, I expected them to fall off, the way teeth will, or the antlers of some deer, to be replaced by smaller, more normal ears.
They were so large that from a distance, I appeared to be three people, standing side by side. Up close, they looked like wings or sails. I couldn’t be left on a raft in the lake, else my ears would catch wind and carry me to distant lands, such as the other side of the lake. They called me Santa Maria, and I asked why, and they said because my ears were the Nina and the Pinta. They called me other things. Radar. Satellite. Dumbo.
In the country, everybody had a nickname—there was Uncle and Skillet and Booty and Bird and Big Daddy and Tater and Trick, and then there was me, Dumbo. This wasn’t just sort of a one-time name. This was a name that stayed with you. Yearbook dedications. Prom invitations. Airbrushed T-shirts. Some of these people never outgrew the nicknames, and just think how it shaped their futures. Who’s going to buy insurance from a man named Booty? Do you think they’re really going to let someone named Trick be a pediatric nurse?
When you’re twelve years old, on the cusp of puberty, and something approaching the incipience of manhood, you don’t really want to be named after a baby elephant who cries a lot and gets turned into a giant elephant baby clown in a bonnet who has to stand on a very high platform that is on fire while an evil clown hits you in the bottom and makes you plummet toward a safety net which is designed to break and send you into a vat of some sort of creamy whipped topping while all the clowns laugh at you and not because you are funny but because you are a big dumb thing with giant ears. And your only friend is a mouse who gives you a bath with a toothbrush.
When you’re twelve years old, you don’t want to be getting a bath with a toothbrush by a talking mouse, even if he is your friend. But Dumbo is what they called me, and do you remember how sad Dumbo was? That was me. Me and my giant ears were pretty sad.
Sometimes, my classmates thumped my ears and made them red, which only added to the insults. It was hard not to want to thump something so tender, so large. If you saw something that would turn colors when you thumped it, you’d want to thump it, too. Sometimes, alone in my bedroom, I’d stare into the mirror and thump my own ears, trying to thump them right off my head. If the Internet had existed, I would’ve Googled “earlobe reduction surgery” and seen pictures that would have given me nightmares. Do not Google this phrase. Unless you want to feel bad for people you don’t even know.
I tried sleeping on one side of my head, to make that ear flatten a little bit, but the other ear would hear about this plan and grow larger in the night. Sometimes, I duct-taped my ears to my head just to see what they looked like when they were less flat, but tape couldn’t hold them down.
I didn’t want to be known for the greatness of my ears. I wanted to be known for the greatness of my ideas. Because I had an idea. Now that we were in junior high, we had the option of running for Student Council, which seemed interesting. I knew nothing of councils and such, but the 1988 presidential election was in full swing, and campaign signs were everywhere, Bush vs. Dukakis.
Perhaps I would run for student council representative? Perhaps such a show of leadership and initiative might help my classmates see past my large fleshy head-orbs to the bright young leader between them? I collected the appropriate number of names on the petition and began my campaign, which consisted of making a poster and affixing it to the wall and waiting to see if anyone drew a funny mustache on it.
“You need a campaign slogan,” one girl said.
I was like, “Slogan? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I was running on honesty, not spin and half-truths and doublespeak. But this girl had already tongued a lot of people’s earholes, so I knew she was probably very wise. What would my slogan be? What was unique about me? What was my platform? Would I lower taxes? No, I hadn’t the ability to lower taxes. Would I lobby for longer lunches? Shorter periods? Fewer tests? More earhole tonguing? How would people even know who I was?
That’s when I had it. I made a beautiful poster. A single, broad, deliciously clean sheet of white posterboard was my canvas, and I applied every skill I had to this one project. It would make or break my campaign.
When I taped it to the hallway wall, I was met with disbelief, with mockery, with threats. Surely this was not my slogan. Surely this was not my strategy. On it, there was a picture of me, on which I had drawn the largest pair of ears ever to live on a boy’s head. And above the picture, these words:
“Vote for the boy with the giant ears.”
Along the border of the poster, I wrote all my names, Radar, Radio, Satellite, Mr. Spock, Eeyore, Howdy Doody, Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, Dumbo. I don’t know how or why I did it, other than I couldn’t escape the truth about myself. Hats wouldn’t cover them. Hair wouldn’t cover them. Only a very large towel could cover them. I had to be honest. I had to embrace it.
A week later, something happened. I won that election. How did I win? Was it luck? Did my radical honesty and embracing of my own shortcomings show them that the meek truly will inherit the earth? Or was it because I ran unopposed? You be the judge.
But I know this: At graduations and orientations and all those events where young people have one of their many endings and beginnings, you hear a lot about success. How to get it, achieve it, share it, appreciate it, leverage it. I don’t know what success is. It’s a cloud. You can only see it from far away, never when it’s all around you, because visibility is very difficult inside clouds, owing to the cloudiness of them. What does it take to be successful in all the many places all of you students will go to? Who knows? A great singing voice? A laser? The ability to ride dolphins? I don’t know anything about success.
No, what I know about is weakness. Your weaknesses are what make you human. That’s what’s special about you. Stop worrying about what you’re good at. Who knows what you’re good at? Most of you are terrible at almost everything, probably, based on what your teachers told me earlier. If you actually end up being good at something, it will be many years from now, unless you’re like Tiger Woods, a famous 20th-century golfer who may or may not still be alive. I did not check the Internet.
What are your weaknesses? That’s what I want to know. I’m not talking about your weakness for hurting other people. I’m not talking about moral turpitude here. I’m talking about all the names people call you in the world. All those people are doing is telling you what your power is. Booty and Trick, they had powers, too.
I couldn’t change my ears, but I could make the best of them, and I did. I learned how to play music with them. I learned tricks with them. I could fit nearly two dollars’ worth of quarters in just one ear. And you know what? I learned to make people laugh with my ears. And then I learned how to make people laugh using other parts of my body, which my wife said I could not talk about today. With those ears, I heard laughter, and laughter, I decided, was what I wanted to make in the world.
So I ask you: Where are you vulnerable? Where are you exposed? What makes you hurt? Go to that thing. Go to the thing that turns red when you thump it. That’s where your magic is.
Graduates, I leave you with this. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do to locate a copy of The World’s Largest Man, which, incidentally, is now out in paperback and can be found at your local bookstore or at many websites.
Congratulations, graduates! Fly high! But not too high, because outer space is just beyond that. I guess what I’m saying is: Be careful out there, in space. Even giant ears won’t protect you from the dark and windless void of space. That’s my message to you. Thank you.