Monday, May 28, 2012

The Graduation Speech That I Would Give

Editor's note:  We are once again in graduation season, and with it there will be an ocean of mediocre speeches and lame platitudes, along with a precious few insightful oratories.  If I had the chance, here's the speech that I would give.

Today is an important milestone celebration, and like other such occasions in your life, you are going to have to listen to some person who don't know all that well give a speech.  I am well aware that what I have to say might be seen by you as something to be gotten over and endured before the real fun of handing out diplomas takes place.  I certainly have no reason to argue with your feelings, but I promise not to give you a bunch of empty words, but a message that comes from the bottom of my heart.

At graduations one often hears of following one's dream, or at least about the doors to the future being open.  Very rarely do we talk about the nasty things that the future might hold in store for us, or the fact that our dreams can be dangerous traps.  That might sound cynical or scary, but my life's experience has shown it to be true.

I dreamed of becoming a history professor for a long time, perhaps even before I went to college.  In the service of that dream, I put forth great effort and made many sacrifices.  I completed a master's program, then spent six years studying for my PhD.  Along the way, I lived hand to mouth in genteel squalor, letting major medical issues like a broken tooth go unfixed due to lack of funds.  I spent one year living in Germany, almost completely alone in a foreign country with barely enough money to survive, just so I could complete the research for my dissertation.

After climbing the dissertation mountain, I spent two years as a untenured "visiting professor" at a large university in Michigan where I was paid more than I was as a graduate student, but below the median salary for workers in this country.  I made about as much money as a friend from back home who had just started a plumbing career.  Being a contingent faculty member, I had to contend with being treated as a nobody by my employer.  No matter how well I did my job, nobody seemed to really notice or care; other contingent colleagues got away with showing films in all of their classes because the powers that be only noticed us when students lodged a complaint.  This was a long way from how I had imagined the life of a professor.  In the meantime, my life had been transformed by meeting the love of my life.  Unfortunately, she lived 800 miles away in New Jersey.

I endured a less than ideal employment situation with the hope that it would be a stepping-stone to a permanent position.  That turned out to be the case, but it meant moving to a small town in an isolated part of Texas, and teaching in a department where I was not even allowed to teach classes in my area of speciality most of the time.  My then fiancé and I knew that we did not want to settle down there permanently, so we endured three years of living in a long-distance relationship, most of which time we were married.  The whole time I busted my back to publish research and present at conferences in a desperate attempt to build my CV for the job market, so that I could get a job closer to my wife.

In reality, I was trying to do the impossible, because I had chosen a dream that brooks no compromises.  Finding work as a tenure track professor is incredibly difficult, and those that want to do so basically have to live their lives according to the random fates of job openings, which are few and far between.  In normal circumstances finding a job in a specific part of the country would be next to impossible; after the financial meltdown of 2008, it became completely futile.  During my third useless attempt to move on from my increasingly intolerable job, I had built up quite a few accomplishments, including three journal articles in top publications and a book contract.  These things did not seem to get me anywhere; I couldn't even get an preliminary interview for an academic job.

In the winter of 2011, I could not have been a more miserable person.  I lived 1,500 miles away from my wife in a one-horse town where I constantly felt like an outsider, I worked in a job that was full of personal affronts and attacks (I'll spare you the details), and I was faced with the prospect of giving up on my life's greatest dream.  It's hard to believe now, but the idea of giving up on my old dream made me completely distraught, as if I was admitting defeat after over a decade of my youthful years of hard work and sacrifice.

Despite the nagging doubts and painful realization that I had indeed failed to accomplish my dream, I decided that I would leave the job I had fought so hard to get, and no matter what happened, that I would move to New Jersey to be with my wife.  This decision did not fit with the usual narrative we hear about our dreams, that after a great deal of work and perseverance, we can overcome great obstacles to make that dream come true.  For a lack of a better word, that narrative is bullshit.  Life is not about the pursuit of dreams, as much as it about choices and compromises.  That's the advice that a dear and wise friend gave to me when I anguished over my future.  He knew of what he spoke, since his wife of less than a year (who he'd been romantically involved with for almost a decade) abruptly divorced him after carrying on an affair.  Our consumer society gives us the illusion that we can have it all.  For most of us, we can't, and must face really difficult decisions about what really matters in life.  In your adult lives, you will face your own dilemmas and be forced to make your own choices and compromises, whether you like it or not.

In my case, by pursuing my dream, I was destroying my life. I was beginning to realize that sticking with my dream at all costs was making me completely miserable, and I didn't have to be.  Nothing I did was ever good enough for the academic profession, while all my wife ever gave me was love and acceptance.  I had been living in a place with a bare minimum of the things that interest me and a dominant culture that was reactionary, anti-intellectual, and hostile to outsiders such as myself, just so I could keep after my "dream."  Instead I could be living next to one of the world's greatest cities and all that it had to offer.

What really made my decision stick was the voice in my head reminding me of my own mortality.  This might sound rather morbid for such a hope-filled day such as this, but we lose control of our lives when we forget about our own eventual deaths.  We only have a short amount of time on this earth, and without that consciousness, it's easy to let oneself stay in the same miserable rut, unaware that each day spent there is one day closer to the grave.  I urge you to go forth in life conscious of your own mortality, that each day you live and and breathe is a fantastic gift not to be squandered.  Deep down in my own heart I knew that I could not take my CV with me after I died, and that living my life as if I could would be a disaster.

With that realization I made a leap and went for broke in my applications to private high schools in the New York City area, one of whom was nice enough to hire me.  I had always been terrible at job interviews, scared to death of failure.  Now that I had already failed in what I thought was my life's dream, I felt liberated from the fear of not succeeding and performed much better in my interview visit to the school than I ever had with any other prospective job.

I emphasize this because we live in such a failure-averse society, a place where the easy victory is valued over a hard-fought loss.  For the most part, we desire lives of ease and leisure where all that is unpleasant gets excised.  I can tell you that my failures have made me a much better person, mostly because they showed me what matters and what doesn't matter in life.  What matters to me, I found out, is being with the woman I love, in a place where I actually want to live, doing work that is meaningful.  Some days I get a little blue when I miss life on a university campus, but I can say without a doubt that I am much happier person now than I was then.

Of course, many of you will be more successful in achieving your dreams than I was.  Hopefully you have chosen less cruel career paths than academia.  Even so, we are living in an age of diminished expectations.  Unemployment is high for young graduates, job opportunities are drying up, and many of you who will get work will be laboring for free as unpaid interns, with little hope of advancement.  When you face these frustrations, remember that it's okay to fail, to keep your eyes on what really matters, and that you might even find yourself finding a dream that you were never looking for in the first place.  That's what happened to me, and even if my job title is more humble than the one I wanted, in my home and in my work I feel the love and acceptance that I've spent a lifetime trying to find.  On the paths that you will walk, I hope you can be as lucky as I have been.

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