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The Curse of the Graduation Speaker

2003-09-24 - 10:44 p.m.

I decided to write this tonight because I needed to get things off my chest before I could write the final draft of my Marshall application tomorrow. I couldn't write it today, and it was all the fault of one woman, one woman whose words have echoed in my ears for more than a year now, who freezes my brain everytime I begin to type out the first paragraph of my statement of purpose and can only mock me in my abject purposelessness.

That woman is Lauren Bialystok. I hope I'm spelling her name right.

Actually, I feel bad mentioning her name, and I figure in a day or two I'll come back and delete the name or put in a pseudonym, like Mauren Rialysmock. I like that name, because the first part sounds like Moron.

For those of you who don't know and weren't there, Mauren Rialysmock was the student speaker at my college graduation. Mind you, that's college, not university. Neither Wharton nor engineering nor nursing nor any of the grad schools were there. It was just us School of Arts and Sciences kids, grumpy at having to deal with a rainstorm that never came, or came so late that our being denied the right to walk across the stage and have our names read out seemed a monumental injustice.

In all fairness, graduation speakers have it rough. On the one hand, they have to please the administrators, who don't want to hear anything about buildings falling apart (Bennett Hall), rampant drug and alcohol abuse (Pi Lam, Fiji, the Philomathean Society, Penn Life Sketches), or the inability of graduates to land a job (yours truly). All of this goes double for the parents, who might be listening the closest to the speech. The students, many of whom spend the speech talking or trying to listen to their headphones, usually get left out of things.

But this speech. Oh, this speech.

Ms. Rialysmock was introduced as one of the university's golden children, someone who had started fifty clubs, held twenty internships, and was currently up for the Prix de Rome, or something. I remembered having met her a few times. She was a founding member of Straight Allies, a group on campus that was meant to be for straight people interested in queer issues, but that wound up being much more. In fact, they wound up having more queer members than any of the queer groups (and I know I should be saying sexual minority, but it's past 11pm, give me a break). So I was at least a bit better off than the hundreds of people who had never seen this girl in their lives.

Then she began to speak. I can still hear that first sentence in my head, as resonant and as painful as the words of the girl who, in sixth grade, told me I had no chance of going out with her, ever.

"In my family, I'm known for having a terrible sense of direction."

Isn't that just the worst thing you've ever heard in your life? As it came out over the microphone, you could practically hear the fluttering of thousands of lashes as the eyes of the graduating class of 2002 rolled back in our heads.

It wasn't just the words themselves, though, which got worse as she described how her mother joked that she could get lost inside a shoe box. It was the way she said it. Her voice oozed with the smugness disguised as self-deprecation so common among Penn people. It was as though she was saying, "Yes, I know I'm the valedictorian at an Ivy League school, but I have my flaws! I swear! I have no sense of direction! Doesn't that just make me adorably quirky? Like Ally McBeal!" She went on like this the entire time, so proud of herself for being witty and willing to poke fun at her foibles, even as she stood in front of people whose parents had come from around the country to hear a single name called, and who would go home with only the memory of her inane platitudes to relate to the rest of the family.

When I bitched about it to my friends, who were also thoroughly unimpressed (my mother, for the record, thought she was the worst graduation speaker she had ever heard, and she's a college dean), we realized that what we had heard had been something eerily similar to the essays we had written to get into Penn. While many colleges ask only for a statement of purpose, a "Why do you think you'd be a good Xxxx University student?" type question, others enjoy having fun with their students. Many ask about what teachers were important to them, while other ask that the applicant describe an object of particular importance. Penn goes all out; it asks its applicants to write page 263 of their 300 page autobiography. I can assure you that 95% of those essay begin and end in mid sentence. I know mine did.

These essays, even the most simplistic ones, give the applicants a chance to be entertaining, and many leap at the chance. My essays, like many others, charmingly rattled on about how I thought Philadelphia was a city that needed cleaning, how the embroidery on my Senior tie was the perfect representation of my personality, how my calculus professor, Mr Romano, pretended to be in the mafia, and, of course, how I just happened to realize the utlimate truth about life, the universe, and everything on page 263.

And I got into every school, because I'm good at being clever, and witty, and writing an essay about just how great, if quirkily flawed I am. It didn't matter that all I wanted in a school was a place to meet smart boys, or that my favorite teachers were the ones that let me get away with not doing my homework, or that page 263 was solipsistic dreck. What mattered is that I knew how to write for the game.

After hearing Mauren talk about her poor sense of direction and how she wasn't sure she could even find Penn, let alone graduate from it, something inside me vowed never to do that again.

I've done my best to keep that vow. After graduation, I had to present a paper on my summer research. The lecture I had begun to compose had a lot of little jokes in it, from the first paragraph onwards. They were all designed to put the audience at ease, to make sure that they would be comfortable dealing with subject of sadomasochism and would be entertained at the same time. It was only a few days before it was actually due that I realized I had written a load of bullshit. It was a speech that I would love to deliver, in order to get the laughs and get the applause, and it would say nothing. So I stopped, and I deleted everything, and I wrote something harsh and challenging and performative and everyone was challenged and entertained and hopefully a woman named Lynda Hart was watching from an alternate plane of existence and thought that she hadn't wasted her time on me.

However, now I find myself in the same position that I was before I met Mauren, before I even came to Penn. I have to sell myself, and that's something I hate to do. I wish that I were at the point where my work would speak for itself. I want to be able to show my GPA, my theatre work, my activist work, and my professional work and say, "If you can't figure out that I'm the coolest badass applying for your program, your program probably isn't good enough for me." But I can't, because I'm probably not the biggest badass. I'm competing against the likes of Mauren, people who always say the things that administrations like to hear, who have the awards and the internships that I don't have, and who did it all with a higher GPA. They still think that talking about their poor sense of direction will win over a national scholarship committee, and they're probably right.

So tomorrow morning, I will undertake a challenge. I will try to write an essay that will put me ahead of the Maurens of the country. I may decided to beat them at their own game, to go as twee as possible and charm the pants off of these fellowship people. It wouldn't be all that hard. But that's not what I want. I want to be direct, to tell them that I am the best candidate without a cutesy little anecdote or extended metaphor. It's gonna be tough, with Mauren's voice inside my head, droning on about her mother and a shoe box and god knows what else.

And if I write what I want and lose, I at least fail as myself. And if I win, I'm one step closer to giving my own graduation speech, as the Nobel laureate guest speaker, where I will probably tell a story about a girl whose name sounds a lot like Moron.

If I can find the podium, that is. My sense of direction is pretty fucking shitty.

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previous - next

The End - 2005-02-11
Let's Go on With the Show - 2005-01-30
The Curse, and This Bee's a Keeper - 2005-02-01
Sisters Lolita and Matronic Explain It All for You - 2005-01-31
Cowboys and Medievalists - 2005-01-30

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