Monthly Archives: July 2012

The graduate’s dilemma.

When I graduated from college in the fall of 2010, I was asked to speak at commencement. I was very honored but even more terrified, and I kind of froze up and only half-remembered what I wanted to say about inspiration and gratitude and intelligence and blah blah blah. So what I got five minutes to say, I instead said in about three.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, and now that I don’t even really remember what I did say, I think back and know that even if I stuck perfectly to my scripted statement, it would not have been the right thing to say.

This is what I should have said in that commencement speech.

Congratulations! You’ve just spent four years of your life at an institution of higher learning. As you walk across the stage today, you receive an empty shell where your diploma will go. Most likely, you’re already thinking about what kind of frame you want. The business majors will go with something black that will match the decor of their high-efficiency offices; School of Arts and Sciences graduates probably want mahogany or cherry wood; art students are thinking about salvaging driftwood from the beach after graduation to make something truly meaningful; and the journalism kids are just hoping they have money to buy a frame.

So now that you’re going out into the world to face a merciless economy thick with unemployment, you have your degree and the special skills you learned in your time in college, and you’re certain that you can beat the other candidates out for the one job you want.

Here is my concern for you: Are you really prepared? How much did you really learn? When you sit at the desk on your first day on the job, how much training do you need? Will your new boss play along, or will he not even hire you, sensing your inexperience?

It is my concern that fewer students are really being challenged in the university system. It is happening everywhere, and it is the same sort of failure of students that elementary school teachers experience when they find themselves preparing only for standardized testing and not for actual, real world experience. Professors’ success is based on the success of their students. So if their students do not succeed, it reflects poorly on them.

Now let me ask this: If you were to look back at how much time you spent with friends, how much time you spent doing compulsory volunteer work and how much time you spent studying (not including the time you spent in class), where do you feel most of your time was allocated? In every instance of you turning in work, did you really put in as much time as you possibly could?

Students, including myself, are so focused now on everything going on around us that we very rarely take time for our work. We see our friends going on trips, going to the mall, watching TV shows and movies, volunteering at every opportunity, participating in extracurricular clubs, playing guitar, learning how to skateboard and surf, and taking advantage of just about every opportunity to procrastinate. And let’s admit it: There are a lot of those opportunities, even on a small campus like PBA.

Back to the problem of passing: How many of us really feel like we did the work to justify the diplomas we will receive today? With the myriad distractions, it’s a miracle any of us are ready to hit the workplace. Very few employers care about the volunteer work you did, unless it is directly related to your field of work. They don’t want to hear about how you can surf, and how you learned how to skateboard, and how you and your roommate built your own longboards.

They want to know where you interned. Coming fresh out of college, they may ask for a copy of your transcripts. They are going to look at the classes you took and the grades you received. Some employers may want to see a professor or two for references. If you can provide those things with confidence, good for you. You join the league of students who perhaps did the work required of them with the appropriate amount of effort.

I say perhaps because I still have this nagging feeling that too much of the pressure is placed on professors to succeed and that pressure is not properly relayed to students. We slack off, and when a professor demands the best from us, we give them horrible evaluations that can reflect so poorly on them, they may be fired. Is that fair, to put the onus upon the professors? When did students, regardless of age, stop holding themselves accountable for their education? Why do we blame the professors every time we don’t do well?

Moving out into the workplace, you should know that kind of mentality will not fly. You cannot blame your superiors when you don’t do well. You have to accept responsibility for your successes and failures.

I know, without any doubt at all, I can do this. The question you have to ask yourself: Am I ready to be responsible, or do I still need someone to blame? Can I take my life into my own hands, or must I find a scapegoat to bear the burden of my defeat?

So when you receive your hollow shell where your diploma will go, think about the shell of your life and what you have filled it with up until this point.

Hopefully, when you hold that shell to your ear, you won’t only hear the lonely echo of the ocean. Hopefully, you will hear your future self congratulating you on your decisions.

‘The Next Best Thing’

Today, I finished reading Jennifer Weiner’s new book, “The Next Best Thing.” When I interviewed the author this afternoon, I semi-gushed over some aspects of the book: the lead character, Ruth, and how everyone can relate to her; the manner in which Weiner connects readers to the story; and how Ruth’s grandmother is so wonderfully crafted.

But one point where I stopped myself from gushing was in regards to a scene in the book where Ruth is 8 years old. She’s sitting in a hospital room, in between surgeries to repair her in the wake of the car accident that killed her parents. Ruth and her grandmother are curled up in the bed watching “The Golden Girls,” and Ruth imagines she can make the screen melt away, that she can crawl into a world where we pick our families and everyone can be a hero in her own way.

The moment reminded me of my own hospital scene: I was young, I think 5 or 6 years old, and in my own hospital bed at a children’s facility in Massachusetts. Doctors were working to determine why I, a seemingly healthy little girl, was suffering from grand mal seizures. (It would be determined later that I had a kidney infection so awful that I would spike very high fevers, which would bring on the seizures.)

My mother was at my bedside most of the time, and my father would join us after or before work, and he would sit with me and make me laugh. We would watch cartoons and TV shows, reruns mostly, and I would lose myself in the world on the screen.

When I was in the hospital that time, I had been rushed and admitted. Silently, I lamented the absence of my stuffed animals; oh, wouldn’t it be so nice to have something to cuddle? My parents asked me if they should bring anything from the house. Bravely — or so I thought — I told them no, that I was just fine without my stuffed animals.

The next thing I remember is my father walking into the hospital room with a bag. My mother looked up, he nodded to her, and she walked to him. They conferred quietly by the door, and I saw a smile spread across my mother’s face. She looked at me, and I could see the faintest hint of tears behind her wide-rimmed glasses.

My father, meanwhile, looked like the cat that ate the canary. He came over to me, and from the bag he pulled two new stuffed animals.

The first was a shaggy sheepdog-looking thing, with white and gray hair sticking up all over the place. This I named Fluffette. In the coming days, my father made up a theme song for her that he would sing while vigorously shaking Fluffette until her hair spiked out in all directions: “She can fluff up the room, she can make the room dark, she can flutter with her tail!” It made no sense, but it sent me into gales of laughter.

The second was a blue whale, whose name I can’t remember at the moment. My father handed it to me carefully and told me to unzip the whale’s belly. From inside spilled two tiny whales, identical fuzzy replicas of their parent. I enjoyed playing with the whale, but I really loved to cuddle it. There was something about holding it close, squishing it near me and feeling the two little whale babies inside the larger one. Now I realize this probably was a better gift for a woman who’d just birthed twins, but at the time I thought it was so special.

Later that day, my mother left the bedside for a few minutes (why, I can’t recall; probably a bathroom break or to stretch her legs). When she walked out of the room, my father turned to me.

“You really seem to like the whale,” he said.

“I do,” I replied quietly, hugging the whale to my stomach.

“Do you know why I got it for you?” he asked, to which I shook my head no.

“The big whale is me,” he said slowly, pointing to the creature I held in my hands. “And the babies are you and Candice (my older sister). I’m always here to protect you.”

I looked solemnly at the whale before asking, “Does that mean Fluffette is Mom?”

My father began laughing uncontrollably, and it was then that my mom walked back into the room.

I never got to talk to my dad about how special that toy was to me from that moment on. I still have it; it’s hiding in a bin in my bedroom. Every once in awhile I take it out, hold it close to me and remember how loved I felt, how special that toy made me feel in the middle of everything.

Today, after talking to Jennifer Weiner, I thought about taking the whale out of the bin. But I realized it would be too much. My emotions would be too strong. If I had to look at that whale, I don’t think I’d have been able to go to work. I think I’d just want to lay in bed, holding it close and thinking of all the wonderful times I spent with my father, who passed away June 6.

The experience made me realize the value of a book like “The Next Best Thing.” There’s a magic gifted authors have: They can take you to a time and place in your life where, although you may not have realized it, you had everything you would ever need. It isn’t enough to simply lose yourself in a novel; you have to be able to find yourself there, as well.