WCSU Undergraduate Commencement Speech

Jonathan Alter

Commencement, May 24, 2009
Western Connecticut State University

Thank you very much. And thanks to Western Connecticut State for this honorary degree. It’s a great honor and privilege for me and besides, my mother always wanted a doctor in the family.

Congratulations, class of 2009. You’ve all worked enormously hard to get here, and deserve to savor this memorable day.

Now I know what you students are thinking. How long is that short, bald and slightly — yes, slightly— fat guy going to drone on before I get my diploma? Well, my answer is, less time than all of you spend every day on Facebook. A lot less.

Congratulations also to the parents. It’s all worth it today, isn’t it? All the noses you wiped, the sandwiches you made, the nonsense you occasionally — OK, more than occasionally— put up with from your kids.

Could I ask the graduating seniors today to give their families a hand?

Your children are making you proud and will continue to make you proud as they build successful lives for themselves and for the future of the country.

Now as we all know, the immediate future today is in some question.

We gather at a challenging time, amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression three quarters of a century ago.

Jobs, once plentiful, are suddenly hard to come by. Even if you get one, the fear of losing it in a round of layoffs is much more real than it was when your parents or your older brothers and sisters were your age, though they, too, can now feel that gnawing sense of uncertainty about the road ahead.

When you see the foreclosed homes, the shuttered businesses, the long waiting lists for jobs — when you experience the maxed-out credit cards, depleted bank accounts, savage budget cuts — it’s almost enough to make you think that what is commencing at this commencement is a dark and frightening chapter in our national life. It’s almost enough to make you fear for the future.

Almost. Almost.

If I could leave you with one idea today, it’s that we’ve seen worse before — much, much worse — and have come through stronger and with our heads held high. And we will, too. I promise you that.

Only a fool would bet against you, against Connecticut or against the United States of America.

A quick story from history, just to give you all a little context.

In 2001, I got interested in Franklin D. Roosevelt and his famous first 100 days in office in 1933, when the country was at the bottom of the Great Depression. I had no crystal ball at the time — just a fascination with crisis leadership.

You remember hearing about Roosevelt’s inauguration, the speech where he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Well, that line was brilliant but not strictly true at the time. If you fear how you will put food on the table, that’s something real, not just fear itself.

To give you a sense of how bad things were, just a couple of weeks before Roosevelt was sworn in, a gunman got off five shots at the president-elect from only 25 feet away and miraculously missed. The assassin killed the mayor of Chicago, who was standing beside the president-elect and was hit by one of the bullets.

The mayor of Chicago had come to see FDR all the way down in Miami, where the assassination attempt took place. Why had the mayor traveled so far? Because the Chicago public school teachers hadn’t been paid for the ENTIRE 1932-33 school year. Not one penny. And this man hoped in vain for a little money from the new president. That’s how grim conditions were 76 years ago.

Today we have unemployment of 8 percent. In 1933, it was 25 percent, and because women didn’t get counted, it was really over 50 percent.

Today’s stock market is down about 30 percent. In those days, it was down more than 90 percent. There was no bank insurance, so if your money was in one of the 10,000 banks that went under, you got wiped out. All that you had left was what you’d stuffed under the mattress.

Some of the grandparents in the audience today might remember those years. Americans had lost faith in both capitalism and democracy. Many people wanted a dictator. In fact, there was a car that Studebaker built called “the Dictator” that sold pretty well.

But instead of a dictator, we got a president, a leader who used his own immense powers of communication to lift our spirits and restore our faith in the future.

FDR didn’t end the Depression right away, but he eased it significantly by rescuing banks, stimulating the economy to create jobs, helping ease foreclosures, and regulating Wall Street, among many other accomplishments of the early New Deal.

Amid all the speeches and bills, Roosevelt achieved three great things in his first year, according to one journalist of the time: Hope, Action, and Self-Respect.

By now you’ve figured out that all of this might sound a tad familiar from our own time. Whatever one thinks of our new president’s politics, we are feeling better about ourselves in the four months since he took office. For the first time in several years, most Americans now believe we’re on the right track.

That’s because President Obama has taken a leaf from President Roosevelt’s playbook and pursued a policy of what FDR called, “Action and action now.”

Barack Obama’s a basketball player, but maybe the best analogy might come from football. Obama is the man in motion — nearly every day signing an important bill or giving a speech on a difficult topic or signaling along with his terrific wife with everything from webcasts to poetry jams that change has come to the White House.

Americans, particularly of your generation, have been accused of having short attention spans. In our 24/7, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture, it was expected that President Obama would have to fix the economy quickly or suffer the consequences politically.

That may still be true; we don’t know yet. But early indications suggest that the public in general and your restless generation in particular are much more patient than you are usually given credit for.

You know this isn’t going to be easy, that it took a while to get into this mess and will take a while to get out.

And in the meantime, we can all learn to better appreciate the serendipity and randomness of life.

You’ve heard the expression that life is what happens when we’re making other plans.

Stuff happens. I’d use another word, but this is graduation.

In my case, it was getting and surviving cancer. In your case, it could be the weak economy or something else entirely.

Some of the surprises in life are bad, but more are good. We all need to find time to stumble across the unexpected — to go where you don’t necessarily mean to go.

That means making college graduation the beginning — the commencement — of your education, not the end of it. To read and absorb and get outside your own concerns and self-interest.

I recently heard about an Israeli poet, Yehuda Bauer, who took it upon himself to add three commandments to the ten that we already have. Leave it to an Israeli poet to add his own commandments!

Bauer’s three commandments were: “Thou shalt not be a perpetrator.” Pretty obvious — don’t hurt other people or yourself, be kind.

“Thou shalt not be a victim.” Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your standards.

And the most original: “Thou shalt not be a bystander.” You’ve been given too much to sit around and let everybody else solve all of the problems.

The more you serve others, the more you pay attention and are present, the better you’ll feel about the world — and about yourself.

Last but hardly least — this is my own commandment — remember that this trip you’re embarking on is supposed to be fun — maybe not as much fun as college, but good for a few more laughs than I’ve offered today.

So laugh at the absurdity around you, love like there’s no tomorrow and live — as that great Connecticut Yankee Mark Twain said — “like it’s heaven on earth.”

Thank you, God bless you, and congratulations to the class of ‘09.

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