Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Speech I Wrote for Graduation

The following was excerpted from the commencement speech given by Miles Strucker in May at Madison Square Garden in honor of the New School graduating class of 2009.

I was put on the waiting list to get into Eugene Lang. I don’t mean this as a zinger; I mean this as a compliment. It’s refreshing to come across an admissions office that is willing to see past the SAT scores and the grades and the “realness” of a high school diploma, one that has the courage to step back, look at the moral character of an applicant, and say, “This is not the type of person we want in our school.”

We are known as "The New School, a University." My high school was known as "NOVA, we’ve got a mushroom garden." It was a public school, which meant adequate teachers, inadequate funds. Furthermore, it was an alternative public school, which meant adequate teachers with prior convictions.

I’m only mentioning high school to highlight a certain transition that many of us here experienced. My attitude towards education changed radically four years ago—and not just because it started costing as much as three-bedroom house used to. For the first time in your life, you’re in a private school and it’s not to steal from the lost and found or to rob someone; you’re having meaningful conversations with adults and not because you’re trying to sell them fake raffle tickets; but most importantly, you’re part of a progressive education that actually works. In honor of “Eugene Lang, The New School for Liberal Arts That Waitlisted Me,” the title of this speech is, “College Experience, A Speech I Wrote for Graduation.” But enough about me.

Part I: a personal history.

Before leaving Seattle, you ask someone what it’s like living in New York City. Their smile resigns, and they speak earnestly. “It’s the only major city that has a multimillion-dollar ad campaign whose soul purpose is to convince people they love where they live. Also, there’s an abundance of small dogs and prepared food. You do the math.”

Do the math? You can’t do math. You’ve been doing independent study for the last four years. Then, suddenly one summer, you get a notice saying that you’ve been assigned to Loeb Hall, have you had your meningitis vaccination yet, and what about rabies? You arrive with a keyboard and sandwich grill; deep down you wanted to go to the jazz school but will have to make do with modernism and panini. Your roommate, a fashion design student, buys you a glow stick and pinecones that smell good. Eventually, you’ll have to move across town because he doesn’t understand you. Now that you’ve got a single room, things seem better, but your desk is under the bed and your head hits the ceiling when you wake up. One of the graduate students you live with says, “That’s how Platonists must feel.” You like your new suite-mates even though there are twelve of them. They call you “the kid” and buy you nonalcoholic beer as a joke. Joke’s on them, you think to yourself, finishing the last of it. At least I’m not graduating during a time of great strife.

Soon you’ll be asked to write an essay about Joan Didion. “Hasn’t she already done that,” you’ll want to ask. There’s an overwhelming urge to jot notes on the books you buy, underlining the sentences you like, and also the ones you don’t understand. In the true spirit of the avant-garde, you’ll get these confused. Time is divided between the Internet and the Lower East-Side. You see someone you recognize from back home. You ask what they’re up to these days. They say, “I’m in Brooklyn.” You’re not sure if that’s where they live or an adjective qualifying their mood. Whatever it is, it smells like cigarettes.

Second semester, first year writing with Neil Gordon. “You’re an absolute pleasure to have in class.” You say this to yourself three times in the mirror before you leave the apartment. Neil Gordon says, “Although I enjoy teaching and I think it’s important, I’m a professional writer, and I don’t want to waste my time on sloppy mistakes.” Later it turns out he’s just talking about the quality of your writing.
The Princeton Review says your college is number three in encouraging classroom discussion. In Princeton Review talk, that’s number three in people who are judging you right now. You get caught silently mouthing the contours of your next sentence before you raise your hand, exposing the words “social realism” smeared over the back of it in cool, blue ink. But soon that rising hand is clean. Your margins justified, your font consistent, your outfit calling to mind the bold rationality of Times New Roman.

Above all, you are able to express yourself in front of the class cogently and clearly without getting frustrated and wanting to rob them. So what if you drop your “Rs” when you’re nervous and still want to rob them a little bit? You don’t have to talk yourself up in the mirror anymore. You find ways of tricking people into complimenting you. You’re selling short story ideas to NYU kids for subway card money. One says he wants a moral history of his generation à la R.L. Stine. “I want you to hold a mirror up to nature,” he says. “But not this one--I just did lines off it.” You take him up on the offer. Maybe he'll throw in his North Face fleece.
Compensation aside—and this is always what tips it—there’s still a desire to convince people that you’re smart, and even though you sense that you’ll never really get over this desire, the practice of perfecting your performance bares the trace hints of a rather modest, rather personal interest in intellection.

Part II: when does my Bildungsroman start?

My friends at the jazz school always say, “I didn’t go to a conservatory to learn how to be a professional musician—I went to a conservatory to find people to gig with.” Whether you’re in music, design, or are-you-sure-you-don't-have-a-teaching-position-open academia, there’s always a gig at the end of the tunnel. You come with what you have and try not to ruin it. There’s no muse to supplant the passions of a deadline, no way to become a better actor apart from getting up there and doing it.

But then there’s that squirmy matter of marketing yourself. It’s sophomore year, you’re rehearsing at La MaMa—a playhouse so avant-garde they’ve got miso soup in the vending machines. You don’t know why your character keeps throwing things at people. The director tells you, “It’s better that way.” To your disappointment you won’t be asked to join in the theater’s spring production, a retelling of Paradise Lost from the point of view of the gardener. Luckily, you’ve long decided on a more steady career choice. What is it that everybody wants right now and there isn’t enough of? Literary novels.

Not to be forgotten, your acting experience will get you a volunteer spot doing after school drama with some young people who, as simply as you can say it, need of a break from seriousness. So at the end of the semester you direct them in morally ambiguous Greek myths, and, taking your final bow as a rapping Medusa, wonder if this isn’t a bit more valid than Lit.

This is volunteering, however, a joy that has its place. Food for the heart, not the pocket. And make no mistake, New York City is no place for an ennobled dietician.
Part III: Can I be a Byronic Hero and still get a job?

Junior year, an internship at a literary agency. “So, do you want to go into publishing?” they ask. If by publishing you mean a midsized office were I’ll avoid the secretary who’s bitter because she had a one-night-stand in Park Slope and woke up with an MFA and now has to read unsolicited poetry (which is kind of like having a great heron shit in your mouth), all while I’m secretly growing the partial novel that will someday find its way into your pale leather handbag under the pseudonym Future Client—then yes, the publishing industry suits me.

At the moment I don’t feel terribly inclined to go on to higher, higher education. It’s a time of tough choices: not be able to find a job now, not be able to find a job later. And yet if my commercial success didn’t depend on one very callow, very cynical senior thesis to be peddled over the next seven years, I’d say that it’s a time to be all the more ambitious. For now I suppose I better get up there and start doing it, before this hope gathers too much force.

Thank you.

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