The Speech That Wouldn't Die
We have all been there, trapped in an auditorium or meeting where someone just droned on, oblivious of their surroundings, totally enthralled with the sound of their own voice. With graduation season upon us I recently had the misfortune to be in that exact situation.
It was at my nephew’s graduation that I came face-to-face with ‘the speech that wouldn’t die’.
It was a Saturday in May; the weather was sunny and warm, so naturally the ceremony was held indoors. Packed beneath the tin roof and windowless walls of the college Fieldhouse thousands of us (graduates, family, and friends) sat and sweated on metal chairs and aluminum bleachers; apparently air-conditioning was not an option as we baked in the heat.
Once the graduates entered and were seated, and after the initial greeting by the President of the University, the commencement speaker was announced. He rose and he stepped up to the podium.
He told us to sit back and relax because the school allowed him ninety minutes for his speech (I thought he was joking).
He started his speech with ‘What does a person with a Liberal Arts Degree say?‘ He paused for effect, and then said, ‘Do you want fries with that?‘ I’m sure the parents of the students who spent their hard earned money on that education got a kick out of that one.
Then he started to tell us the story of the turning point of his life; the moment that made him the man he was today. He told us a story about a suit.
As a boy the speaker’s mother bought him a suit; she asked him to try it on. He went to his room, found a suit on his bed and tried it on. It didn’t fit; he and his mother then took the bus to Robert Hall (a now defunct clothing store). Taking the bus for this family was equivalent to the pioneers trekking across the Great Plains; it was an arduous journey but he and his mother made it back to Robert Hall. After his mother returned the suit and her money refunded the two miraculously took the bus back home (something, I should add, millions of people do every year). He talked about the bus for so long I felt I was on that bus ride with him; that hot, noisy bus that just wouldn’t shut up. It was only when the two returned home did they realize that somehow they mistook his younger brother’s old, well-weathered, smaller suit for that brand new never-been-worn suit his mother just purchased from Robert Hall.
To rectify that mistake his mother had to call his father at work, something (he emphasized this with great emotion) the family never did (who was his dad, Don Draper?). Soon he, the Dad, and the suit were parked in their car in front of Robert Hall. The Dad turned off the engine and decided this was the moment to impart his life lessons. The speaker told how his father hated having to work three jobs, worried every day that he was going to lose those jobs, and how terribly disappointed he was in his children (ok, he didn’t say that, but I felt it was implied). His father basically said, “Don’t get a job that sucks” then went in to the store to return the money his mother stole (again, I felt it was implied).
He then went on to tell the crowd how he was in the Little League Hall of Fame, about high school, about college, about his business, his kids, what he had for breakfast June 12th, 1998 (eggs, bacon, black coffee). There may not be an “I” in “speech” but this guy found a way to cram it in there just the same.
Then he said, ‘Seven years ago...’ - I thought, yeah when you started this speech. That was it; I started to laugh, quiet at first, not to draw attention. I looked over at my sister; she had a video on her iPhone of a pod of dolphins trying to save a seal pup from death. Where was my pod of dolphins to save me from this certain death of heat stroke and boredom? I started to laugh more, my eyes started to water; I was one chuckle away from full uncontrollable hysterics. I could feel my face muscles freeze into some permanent, hideous grin. Tissues were tossed at me to wipe the tears; my hands covered my eyes as I lowered my head. Through my self-contained laughter I heard him say, “...and that’s when I found out my father was dying of cancer”.
I couldn’t stop laughing; my only hope was that the audience around me thought I was crying tears of sadness. I was poked by family members to shut me up. I could hold it together if he just wrapped it up. But I wasn’t that lucky.
“And the last time I saw my father, I looked into his eyes, and he started to say something.”
Oh, God, no, please not that - please don’t say it - but he did.
“Remember that suit? He said, and I smiled and said, yeah”.
If I’m on my deathbed and I say to my kids, “Hey, kids, remember those tube socks I bought you at Walmart?” and they turn and smile and say, “yeah” I would seriously have to reassess my role as a father.
Let me just say this - the speaker was a multimillionaire local business man with multiple college degrees; he will a live a much more luxurious life then I could ever dream; it would be impossible for me to take away any of his accomplishments. But if you are going to stand in a building filled to capacity in a hundred-degree heat where people just want to see their kids get handed a diploma, keep it short.
“Don’t take a job that sucks. Thank you and good night”.
I couldn’t stop laughing. Tears ran down my face as the sweat ran down my back. Thankfully he finished his speech and left the stage; I wasn’t so lucky. I looked up and a few of the parents in the stands stared at me. I couldn’t get up and walk away because it was too long a distance to the exit. I continued to laugh and cry. I really wished someone would have come and helped me out.
Where are those damn dolphins when you need them?