Humor: David Sedaris delivers a commencement speech at Princeton
WHAT I LEARNED -- and what I said at Princeton.
By DAVID SEDARIS (from The New Yorker)
It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when Iwent to Princeton things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck , I used to tell myself.
It’s funny now, but I thought about it a lot. Some people thought about it a little too much, and it really affected their academic performance. Again, I date myself, but back then we were on a pass-fail system. If you passed, you got to live, and if you failed you were burned alive on a pyre that’s now the Transgender Studies Building. Following the first grading period, the air was so thick with smoke you could barely find your way across campus. There were those who said that it smelled like meat, no different from a barbecue, but I could tell the difference. I mean, really. Since when do you grill hair? Or those ugly, chunky shoes we all used to wear?
It kept you on your toes, though, I’ll say that much. If I’d been burned alive because of bad grades, my parents would have killed me, especially my father, who meant well but was just a little too gung ho for my taste. He had the whole outfit: Princeton breastplate, Princeton nightcap; he even got the velvet cape with the tiger head hanging like a rucksack from between the shoulder blades. In those days, the mascot was a sabretooth, so you can imagine how silly it looked, and how painful it was to sit down. Then, there was his wagon, completely covered with decals and bumper stickers: “I hold my horses for Ivy League schools,” “My son was accepted at the best university in the United States and all I got was a bill for a hundred and sixty-eight thousand dollars.” On and on, which was just so . . . wrong .
One of the things they did back then was start you off with a modesty seminar, an eight-hour session that all the freshmen had to sit through. It might be different today, but in my time it took the form of a role-playing exercise, my classmates and I pretending to be graduates, and the teacher assuming the part of an average citizen: the soldier, the bloodletter, the whore with a heart of gold.
“Tell me, young man. Did you attend a university of higher learning?”
To anyone holding a tool or a weapon, we were trained to respond, “What? Me go to college?” If, on the other hand, the character held a degree, you were allowed to say, “Sort of,” or, sometimes, “I think so.”
“So where do you sort of think you went?”
And it was the next bit that you had to get just right. Inflection was everything, and it took the foreign students forever to master it.
“Where do you sort of think you went?”
And we’d say, “Umm, Princeton?”—as if it were an oral exam, and we weren’t quite sure that this was the correct answer.
“Princeton, my goodness,” the teacher would say. “That must have been quite something!”
You had to let him get it out, but once he started in on how brilliant and committed you must be it was time to hold up your hands, saying, “Oh, it isn’t that hard to get into.”
Then he’d say, “Really? But I heard—”
“Wrong,” you’d tell him. “You heard wrong. It’s not that great of a school.”
This was the way it had to be done—you had to play it down, which wasn’t easy when your dad was out there, reading your acceptance letter into a bullhorn.
I needed to temper my dad’s enthusiasm a bit, and so I announced that I would be majoring in patricide. The Princeton program was very strong back then, the best in the country, but it wasn’t the sort of thing your father could get too worked up about. Or, at least, most fathers wouldn’t. Mine was over the moon. “Killed by a Princeton graduate!” he said. “And my own son, no less.”
My mom was actually jealous. “So what’s wrong with matricide?” she asked. “What, I’m not good enough to murder?”
They started bickering, so in order to make peace I promised to consider a double major.
“And how much more is that going to cost us?” they said.
Those last few months at home were pretty tough, but then I started my freshman year, and got caught up in the life of the mind. My idol-worship class was the best, but my dad didn’t get it. “What the hell does that have to do with patricide?” he asked.
And I said, “Umm. Everything ?”
He didn’t understand that it’s all connected, that one subject leads to another and forms a kind of chain that raises its head and nods like a cobra when you’re sucking on a bong after three days of no sleep. On acid it’s even wilder, and appears to eat things. But, not having gone to college, my dad had no concept of a well-rounded liberal-arts education. He thought that all my classes should be murder-related, with no lunch breaks or anything. Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
In truth, I had no idea what I wanted to study, so for the first few years I took everything that came my way. I enjoyed pillaging and astrology, but the thing that ultimately stuck was comparative literature. There wasn’t much of it to compare back then, no more than a handful of epic poems and one novel about a lady detective, but that’s part of what I liked about it. The field was new, and full of possibilities, but try telling that to my parents.
“You mean you won’t be killing us?” my mother said. “But I told everyone you were going for that double major.”
Dad followed his “I’m so disappointed” speech with a lecture on career opportunities. “You’re going to study literature and get a job doing what ?” he said. “ Literaturizing ?”
We spent my entire vacation arguing; then, just before I went back to school, my father approached me in my bedroom. “Promise me you’ll keep an open mind,” he said. And, as he left, he slipped an engraved dagger into my book bag.
I had many fine teachers during my years at Princeton, but the one I think of most often was my fortune-telling professor—a complete hag with wild gray hair, warts the size of new potatoes, the whole nine yards. She taught us to forecast the weather up to two weeks in advance, but ask her for anything weightier and you were likely to be disappointed.
The alchemy majors wanted to know how much money they’d be making after graduation. “Just give us an approximate figure,” they’d say, and the professor would shake her head and cover her crystal ball with a little cozy given to her by one of her previous classes. When it came to our futures, she drew the line, no matter how hard we begged—and, I mean, we really tried. I was as let down as the next guy, but, in retrospect, I can see that she acted in our best interests. Look at yourself on the day that you graduated from college, then look at yourself today. I did that recently, and it was, like, “What the hell happened?”
The answer, of course, is life. What the hag chose not to foretell—and what we, in our certainty, could not have fathomed—is that stuff comes up. Weird doors open. People fall into things. Maybe the engineering whiz will wind up brewing cider, not because he has to but because he finds it challenging. Who knows? Maybe the athlete will bring peace to all nations, or the class moron will go on to become the President of the United States—though that’s more likely to happen at Harvard or Yale, schools that will pretty much let in anybody.
There were those who left Princeton and soared like arrows into the bosoms of power and finance, but I was not one of them. My path was a winding one, with plenty of obstacles along the way. When school was finished, I went back home, an Ivy League graduate with four years’ worth of dirty laundry and his whole life ahead of him. “What are you going to do now?” my parents asked.
And I said, “Well, I was thinking of washing some of these underpants.”
That took six months. Then I moved on to the shirts.
“Now what?” my parents asked.
And, when I told them I didn’t know, they lost what little patience they had left. “What kind of a community-college answer is that?” my mother said. “You went to the best school there is—how can you not know something?”
And I said, “I don’t know.”
In time, my father stopped wearing his Princeton gear. My mother stopped talking about my “potential,” and she and my dad got themselves a brown-and-white puppy. In terms of intelligence, it was just average, but they couldn’t see that at all. “Aren’t you just the smartest dog in the world?” they’d ask, and the puppy would shake their hands just like I used to do.
My first alumni weekend cheered me up a bit. It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only unemployed graduate in the world, but the warm feeling evaporated when I got back home and saw that my parents had given the dog my bedroom. In place of the Princeton pennant they’d bought for my first birthday was a banner reading, “Westminster or bust.”
I could see which way the wind was blowing, and so I left, and moved to the city, where a former classmate, a philosophy major, got me a job on his rag-picking crew. When the industry moved overseas—this the doing of another former classmate—I stayed put, and eventually found work skinning hides for a ratcatcher, a thin, serious man with the longest beard I had ever seen.
At night, I read and reread the handful of books I’d taken with me when I left home, and eventually, out of boredom as much as anything else, I started to write myself. It wasn’t much, at first: character sketches, accounts of my day, parodies of articles in the alumni newsletter. Then, in time, I became more ambitious, and began crafting little stories about my family. I read one of them out loud to the ratcatcher, who’d never laughed at anything but roared at the description of my mother and her puppy. “My mom was just the same,” he said. “I graduated from Brown, and two weeks later she was raising falcons on my top bunk!” The story about my dad defecating in his neighbor’s well pleased my boss so much that he asked for a copy, and sent it to his own father.
This gave me the confidence to continue, and in time I completed an entire book, which was subsequently published. I presented a first edition to my parents, who started with the story about our neighbor’s well, and then got up to close the drapes. Fifty pages later, they were boarding up the door and looking for ways to disguise themselves. Other people had loved my writing, but these two didn’t get it at all. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
My father adjusted his makeshift turban, and sketched a mustache on my mother’s upper lip. “What’s wrong?” he said. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong: you’re killing us.”
“But I thought that’s what you wanted?”
“We did,” my mother wept, “but not this way.”
It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I seemed to have come full circle. What started as a dodge had inadvertently become my life’s work, an irony I never could have appreciated had my extraordinary parents not put me through Princeton.