The writer Ellen Goodman tells the story of giving the graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania back in the 1980s. She was flying from Boston to Philadelphia on the morning of the ceremony, and arrived at the gate at 7am and took an aisle seat. As the plane taxied down the runway, the flight attendant welcomed everyone aboard the flight to Albany. Suddenly the writer emerged from her dozy state, stood up and bellowed: ‘Albany? Albany!?’
That’s how I felt last Thursday over lunch at West Suffolk College, with Principal Dr Ann Williams, and the chair of the governors, Betty Milburn. I’d just been given a tour of the campus, a sprawling network of buildings in the centre of Bury St Edmunds that somehow manages to provide courses for 21,000 full- and part-time students. The lunch was a prelude to the ceremony on Saturday when I would be made an Honorary Fellow of Anglia Polytechnic University.
Over seared salmon with a peppercorn crust prepared by the college’s catering students, the principal gave me a rundown of the graduates. ‘West Suffolk is a great resource for women and men who return to education late in life,’ she explained. ‘The average age of the degree candidates is between 35 and 40.’
I didn’t actually stand up and bellow ’35? 40!?’ but all I could think was: Oh God, I’m giving the speech aimed at 22-year-olds. An apology for making them the first generation wedged between the outsourcing of jobs and the property boom. I had a nice bit about them being what demographers call ‘millennials’-born between 1974 and 1992, as well as the first graduates to receive their degrees under the light of the Cathedral’s new Millennial Tower. Not exactly the Gettysburg Address, but a careful mix of pomposity, cant and hokum, miraculously written ahead of time and learned by heart at my personal podium, the ironing board.
The wrong speech, addressed to the wrong audience; these were pre-Millennials, many of whom already had jobs, mortgages and children. Not so much a commencement as a recommencement.
The drive home was a sweaty haze. A friend emailed to say that Martha Stewart’s advice in the first episode of The Apprentice was: engage with your audience. I’d rephrase that: know your audience.
With controlled hysteria, Ellen Goodman announced that she had to get off the plane, that thousands of students, parents and faculty would be waiting in a stadium in Philadelphia without a commencement speaker. A reminder of the pre-9/11 world – the pilot taxied back and let her off, without a straitjacket, and she got to Philadelphia on time, honour and honorary degree intact.
On my computer is the speech aimed at launching young people into the real world of global warming and dubious foreign wars, pushed along with a quote from Samuel Butler-‘Life is like playing a violin in solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.’ But on Saturday I relied on George Eliot to inspire graduates who have survived in the real world with enough optimism to embark on the journey of a degree: ‘It’s never too late to become who you might have been’. I felt weepy as I looked at the lived-in faces beneath their mortarboards, all a little closer to being what they might be. As I stood at the podium, engaging with my audience, I nearly said, ‘Albany? Albany!?’
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on October 6, 2005.