I live in a college town and part of the beauty of living in a college town is this time of year.
T-minus 11 days 23 hours 47 minutes and 38 seconds…till the town is leased back to its rightful (rather, full-time) owners. The countdown is on for the tank tops and flip flops and ironic mustaches and halter queens to leave for safer shelter on the sofas of Newport and Danville and La Jolla.
In the summer, the downtown bars don’t smell so much like dorm cologne and brospreation. The local eateries are filled with families not frat guys and the scream and squeal and drunken crooked cheap stiletto stroll down the main ceases for 68 glorious days. Then, just as it seems so easy to get a sandwich, the autumn breeze blows in the jorts and shades and sweating and squirming of the new breed all clad the same t-shirt for orientation…and it begins again.
Though I may sound cynical, I still have love for the student (and not in a creepy way, I think). I recall well when I was that asshole wearing the backwards hat driving too fast and drinking too loud and making my neighbor with the pair of toddlers miserable for months on end. But I grew up too and I got mine and, well, in the meta metaphorical words of Johnny Utah, “You crossed the line. People trusted you and they died. You gotta go down.”
Here then, beyond the prescient above advice of one quarterback punk, are five things they won’t tell you during graduation speeches as you make your way from being the you of yesterday to the rest of us of tomorrow. Consider it my gift, along with the 32-pack of Natty Lite I leave under a tree in Santa Rosa Park graduation weekend for whomever is ballsy enough to pick it up and take it home:
1) You are not who you think you are: Today is your big day. Enjoy it. Even if you did not feel it all the time, you have been treated like the most special person in the world for the past two decades. That is awesome and I hope you loved every minute of it! What a great way to wind down your first quarter in this world. Why? Because there are about 6.95 billion others who started out in caves or houses made of half cardboard and half shit drawing water from rivers flowing with bovine disease or industrial waste. So congratulations, you truly are a member of the lucky sperm club and you didn’t even know it. You have the luxury of worrying about things most of the rest of the world can’t even afford to dream of in the first place, like your phone plan shorting you data. And how they’re out of your favorite kind of yogurt topping, like every time you go. And how you got a flat or something but lost your AAA card but were able to pay the tow guy anyway because, emergency credit card. Hooray you for making it this far. Guess what? Now the real fun begins. You live in a crowded, tiny world and there are a thousand or ten thousand or one hundred thousand very similar versions of you today sticking and shifting in uncomfortable folding chairs and scratching in plastic robes and waiting to unwrap a watch and go get drunk and shoot resumes into outer space and trying to get a family friend to write a letter of recommendation—and nobody cares. All the while, approaching ever closer in the rear view are your surrogates. The ghost of your good times past waiting to paint chests and faces even more blue for next basketball season. Ready dive off an even higher cliff on spring break. Attempting to text even more lurid photos to the flirty chem lab partner. Which is why we waited till today, the first and last really good day of your life, to let you know while you will always be you—you are not special. You are a link in the chain. A stray hair stuck on the In-n-Out cup lid rumbling around the center console on the road trip of life. Revel in it. Because even if you are not who you thought you were anymore—you are here. And that matters. In fact, it is the only thing that matters. Embrace just being here now. Take that with the new, less important but more significant you into tomorrow, and you will be good for all time.
2) Your parents are no longer an ATM: If you were one of those lucky enough to scrimp and scrub and work three jobs and mortgage your future and your children’s future on big, nasty student loans the vig starts running on 38 seconds from the moment you cross the dais and receive the rolled up piece of paper that’s supposed to look like a diploma, congratulations. You can skip to number three. If you were unfortunate enough to have a free ride through college, traveling shotgun on the family plan, insurance taken care of by the duck or gecko fairy, gas card and credit card and parking ticket window’d envelopes fondly sent to the same address that acts as storage unit for your action figures and princess stuff and soccer trophies, I’m sorry. I’m sorry because now it’s time to discover how much money is worth and how hard you have to work for so little of it. For the majority of you, you will find that hanging bras on tiny bra hangers and concatenating a spreadsheet all day just to get one formula right will earn you about enough to cover a dozen eggs to crack over your ramen and one beer on a Friday to accompany rent and parking and gas and insurance. It sucks. But the sooner you learn money doesn’t grow out of your parents’ billfold, the better. And once you do grasp the concept, when you feel you have enough left over at the end of the month to actually not be more than two billing cycles behind on your phone and cable, take your parents out to dinner—even if it’s hot dogs. You will never enjoy a meal more.
3) Do what you love (on the side) and the money may or may not follow: If you are truly gifted like you think you are and have a passion for what you do like you think you do, stick with it, one day you may get recognized for your wares: Painter, graphic designer, sticker maker, silk screener, writer, blogger, magician, musician, mime, really really good YouTube watcher (like you saw that when it had 365 views), whatever it is you do that makes you you—keep on truckin’. But don’t expect for a moment (unless you have a passion for fracking, then—congrats, North Dakota welcomes you) that you are going to make money doing it. Not right away. Maybe not ever. Why? Well, frankly, because even if you are good enough to have your stuff out there and have your mom thumbs it up (thanks mom!) you probably aren’t good enough to get paid for it one time much less make a living out of it. People who get paid to do fun stuff are freaks of nature. They are not normal. They might all be borderline evil. Like, for real. That’s why they are so few and that’s why even the few (actors, athletes, artists) who do become that someone usually have a brief career. Burned out or dead before thirty, in rehab before forty and long forgotten before fifty. There are a handful of people, like 17 out of 7,000,000,000, that will be remembered months after they’re gone, forget about decades and centuries. Sadly, if you actually were one of these folks like you think you might be—the rest of us would know it by now too. So don’t feel bad you’re not. Nobody else does. Instead, simply enjoy doing what you do. Love the things you love about you and share them with whatever small morsel of humanity is open and willing to receive your gifts. Do this and someday, someone—someone special—surely will love it and love you too. In the interim, make sure you learn Microsoft Office or HTML5 or arc welding. It can’t hurt.
4) Do not fuck over the people who got you this far: Your friends now, from your first-year roommate who missed a month with mono to the guys from your apartment complex you went with on a whim to the Grand Canyon only to break down in Kingman and have to take the bus back to Phoenix (and then eventually home) when all five of you combined had $38 in cash and only a single credit card (with a $250 limit) that worked, to the first person who invited you up to their room after you met playing flip cup in someone’s garage…are your people. Go right now and back up all the contacts in your phone. Better yet, go buy an address book or a planner (they’re the little brown things that look like iPad covers but open up to paper and tabs—ask your folks) write down their information and keep it in a safe place. These are the only people in the world who know you as you. Just you. As soon as you set foot across the graduation day threshold, the divide begins. Some will make tons of money. Some will barely make it to the next paycheck. There will be marriages and kids and divorces and job loss and hair loss and heartache and cancer and just all-around-life-fatigue. Take a quick moment now to turn around and look behind you at the aging faces in the crowd. They were once you. For many of them they were in your place less than two decades ago. Check out how worn down they look now. Remind yourself that’s not age, that’s life. Know that the happiest times on the road to who they have become were shared with the people who knew them best when they were sitting in your seat. Draw one last big deep breath, because this is the part of the life roller coaster where you’re teetering in exaltation at the very top. Stay suspended there for a moment and take in the view. Pause and look at the people in the car with you and nod to them with genuine appreciation and put those hands in the air…because it’s about to go down. Big time. Down and around and upside down really really really stomach-in-your-throat fucking fast. And when the shit hits the fan for you—which it will—the folks next to you now might just be the only ones who are still going to be at your side.
5) Don’t just say thank you, be thankful with your actions: This is a big big deal. You graduated. You’re an adult. A REAL adult. And that is huge. Your walk across that stage is the culmination of so so many milestones you won’t be able to rightly comprehend until you see progeny of your own strut across knowing nothing and everything in a cap and gown many many many years from now. From cutting the cord, to a roll-over to a crawl. From stumbling initial steps to first skinned knees to those quick burning fast churns of little fat thighs moving a small bicycle chain up up and away down the sidewalk. From first-grade plays, to emergency pants midday delivery. Track meets to tennis matches. Swim team to softball practice. Tutors to school fundraisers and carpools to birthdays to every. Single. Dance. Recital. Someone has been chauffeuring and shadowing you each mini-milestone along the way, buffeting the bad guys and beating the monsters under your bed behind your very back. And now that you’re up there, walking on your own, into the great beyond of responsibility of the sharing of yourself and of the big mistakes followed by the tiny “I’m sorrys”…know this: This day is yours but it is not your doing. Not at all. It is your life, yes. And you are on your own now, double-yes. But up to this very moment, you are the product of somebody else’s sweat, skipped meals, sleepless nights, sacrificed dreams, missed payments, truncated vacations, forgotten dry cleaning, cancelled dinners and leaving midway through a career-defining meeting because fuck it, you, yes YOU were/are/always will be…more important. So don’t just nod in a wry, dismissive way today, mean it with the person you become tomorrow. Be as good to yourself as they have been to you. That is the only real way to say “Thank you.” It is the only way to show you love them too.
Congratulations graduate. Now get on up there, take one long last look—and dive right in.
Seven billion of us have been waiting for you.