Sunday, June 29, 2008

Death by Commencement

This may come as a bit of a surprise for some people, but being a reporter for a small-town daily newspaper isn't all glitz and glamor. Sometimes you find yourself at events you have little or no interest in, and in many such cases, there's a good reason for not intending to attend.

How about an example? Sure. This Saturday, it was my turn to work. For the Saturday edition, what typically happens is copy from Friday afternoon is used to fill the local pages. Since we go to press around noon, there's not much time to pull things together the same day. The stories written by the Saturday reporter are kept in the queue for Monday's edition. Friday, I'd discussed coverage with my editor, and he'd wanted me to cover two things: first, a local high school commencement ceremony, and next, a memorial service held for a woman who was murdered last month.

The second item we can safely set aside for now. What I'd like to discuss instead is the atrocity against the human nervous system that was the high school commencement. "Boring" does not describe this event, since the word fails to conjure up the anger, fear, resentment and hatred generated in me -- and, I believe, many of the other onlookers -- at this ceremony.

It's not as if I had high hopes. Commencement ceremonies are boring even for the people receiving diplomas, to say nothing for their poor friends and relatives who have been guilted into attending. And for hungover reporters who have no connection whatsoever to the graduation, they're murderous to begin with.

And everything was right on track Saturday morning. I spoke to a few students outside -- my angle was, "What are you looking forward to most, and what do you fear the most, about post-high school life?" It was supposed to be a look at how today's high school students view the world and society around them -- a pretty safe premise for a very run-of-the-mill sort of story.

The problem with my thesis, such as it was, was this: high school students don't view the world and society around them. So as the ceremony began, I was 0-3 for useful quotes.

Then the ceremony, which was held in the state university's basketball arena, got underway. The band played "Pomp and Circumstance," the graduates, who wore purple robes and mortarboards over camouflage shorts and flip-flops or dirty basketball sneakers, filed into their seats. It was all very pro forma, and apart from the mild hangover, I was doing fine.

But after the principal's welcome and the salutatory, the gates of Hell opened and issued forth the worst speech ever foisted upon human ears. One of the school's gym teachers had been selected by the graduating class to give the commencement speech, and I hope the whole lot of them realize what a horrible mistake they made.

For 40 solid minutes, this woman rambled on about setting goals, creating strategies, and pursuing dreams. She encouraged the graduates, in the vaguest way possible, to accept defeats as learning experiences, reading from her notes with the emotional range of a metronome.

The entire speech -- or, at least the parts I could bear to listen to -- was made up of warmed-over cliches found in inspirational day-planners and Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

"Ask yourself, what are you passionate about? What do you want to do with your life? What are you good at? What's your game plan? What's your strategy?" she said, miraculously offering no insight whatsoever to the 177 graduates.

I wrote this in my notebook: "A tea kettle, when it's up to its neck in hot water, sings its best song." Next to it, I drew an arrow pointing toward the quote, with "Someone actually said that" written at the other end of the arrow.

Looking at my watch, I saw that 20 minutes had gone by. It had felt like a lifetime, and I was going from simply bored and distracted to incredulous and angry.

I sent a text message to a friend: "The list of things I would prefer to this includes being dragged through a cancer ward by my eyelids."

Walking out back, where I could still sort of hear what was happening inside, I ran into a man -- probably a father or uncle of one of the graduates -- smoking a cigarette.

"This is unbelievable," I said, not knowing how else to address the situation.

"Yeah, she just won't stop," he said. I lit up a Camel and looked back toward the building, where the crowd of hundreds was still being subjected to the verbal version of the Ice Age. As furious as I was at having to be there, I still felt a few pangs of sympathy for the parents, friends, relatives, and even the graduates themselves, who were locked into the seats they'd chosen.

As time went on, the speech continued, and gradually, people started leaving the building. Some came out to the area I was standing and lit cigarettes, and others with kids in tow moved toward their cars. I couldn't hear the actual words of the speech any more, just the dull, monotonous meter of the speaker's voice, reading line after line in the same droning cadence she'd started in.

When the commencement address finally ended, it occurred to me to check the stands for casualties who had succumbed to terminal boredom, but I was interrupted by the school principal, who decided to read off the names of scholarship recipients in a voice that would have been more at home at a midget pro wrestling extravaganza. Since there is apparently a new policy that demands every student must receive some kind of award, this went on interminably as well, and I remained outside smoking and wondering what poor life decisions I must have made in order to wind up in this horrible place. More audience members were trickling out of the doors, trying to make stealthy escapes to their cars in the parking lots on the other side of the building.

At long last, the ceremony ended and the purple-robed graduates filed out the large doors at the rear of the basketball arena. I spoke with a few -- one, who wore large earlobe stretchers, told me he planned to become a tattoo artist. Others told me they were going to the local community college and eventually wanted to become dental hygienists. Others said they were looking forward to "new beginnings" and "making new friends."

Almost three hours, and this was it? Yes, apparently... that was about all I got from all the graduates I spoke to. But I suppose I can hardly blame the kids. After that soul-crushing speech from one of their teachers, I can't even begin to fathom how they made it through high school without being voluntarily lobotomized.

So the lesson here is this: Next time your job requires you to attend a high school commencement ceremony, just quit and move to a new town. It'll be much less painful.