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Radical Commencement Address

May 24, 2009, 8:35 pm

Dear Graduates of Zenith:

You are done, God bless you. The clouds cleared, the sun shined, and we all sat out there and baked. Except it was more like being poached, really. Between last night’s rain and today’s sunshine, we the faculty, deans and administration cooked slowly, draped in various fabrics, wearing black velvet hats, listening to all the same speeches you heard. And they were very good speeches: (Not So) New President made a big statement about the proliferation of handgun violence and violence against women; Anna Quindlen suggested that you take a crack at fixing the world since everyone older than you hasn’t really made much of a go of it. A community organizer from Middletown read a sweet passage from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web that made me tear up. And then you threw your hats in the air, and we all marched away. The woman I was sitting next to pointed to a line at the end of the program that asked the audience to please remain seated “until the recession is over.” Ha.

But wait! You have not yet received the Radical Commencement Advice! So here are the things that no one will tell you:

Don’t live with your parents if you can possibly avoid it. One young graduate I talked to will be living with his grandmother, which I think is an excellent idea, but in general — even if it means moving to a second tier city, don’t go home. Rent a room in someone’s apartment, club together with friends — anything. But it is now time for you to begin to explore who you would be if no one — not the ‘rents, not your teachers, not the dean’s office — told you what to do or required any emotional energy not freely given. While you are at it, don’t live with your boyfriend or girlfriend either. There are a lot of fish in the sea, you know.

Leave a gap in your resume and travel. You may not be able to afford to do this right away. If that is the case, find some kind of shitty job that pays well enough that you can save up $5000 in the next six months, a job that you can quit without feeling any guilt. Then take your money and go somewhere where you will not be blown up and live there for as long as you can. Before you leave, since newspapers have no money to hire stringers anymore, see if you can’t make a deal to send somebody stories from Faraway Place. A small-ish paper might actually print your work, having very little to print that doesn’t come right off the AP wire, and presto, you have a shot at a really interesting career where eventually someone might pay you to travel. Repeat this cycle as many times as you can before you are moved to commit to some kind of career that makes constant travel less appealing.

Don’t go back to school. School is not the best way to learn a great many things, although people like it for the structure and the credentials it provides. But really, although most of you arrived at Zenith as people who had excelled in high school, less than half of you excelled at Zenith. Why is that, do you think? Because you became less intelligent? I doubt it. Perhaps you became less driven, and that is a good thing: there are plenty of careers which can give you a nice life without making you feel driven and you might want to look for one. Or you might want to consider this possibility: we weren’t teaching what you wanted to know so you did other things instead. Before you imagine that going back to school is the solution to drift or boredom, see if you can’t figure out what you do want to know and how you want to live. Then figure out whether school is the way to get there. But more people go back to school than should, from my perspective.

Try not to get pregnant or father a child by accident. I think this is sound advice for people of all ages, so I thought I would just toss it in.

If, instead of travel, you have always thought you want to transition to another gender, there is no time like the present to get started. I really believe this: you may not be ready to talk to your family of birth about this yet, but everything I read suggests that once you start hormones you become, in some ways, another person. What better opportunity to change your appearance, name, and personality than when you are transitioning from student/dependent/child to the freedom of full, independent adulthood? As I read and search the blogosphere two things really stand out. One is that many transpeople, particularly FTMs, have no trouble finding people to love them, but that getting a partner to stick with you through, or beyond, a transition is a bit tougher, since they often have gender issues too. The other is that the trend is to people transitioning younger, and frankly all of these young people seem quite well adjusted: it’s hard to think it doesn’t have something to do with making a big social and physical change when they are kind of in limbo anyway, as well as not spending all those years in a body that is fucking with their brains. So I say, go for it. Furthermore, the money that you might have spent on travel could be saved up for your surgeries, doing the same shitty jobs. You can travel later, like most people do.

Being a public school teacher is not a fallback job. It is, in fact, what many people call a career. And it is fine to teach school to really find out if you like to teach, but don’t do it because you think you are doing kids in public school a favor by gracing them with time you haven’t figured out how to turn to good use. Get a shitty job instead, and if you want to do something pointless, travel aimlessly and twiddle your thumbs in a place you haven’t seen before like Plano, Texas. Or the Ukraine.

Get rid of your car unless you need it to get to your job, or you intend to live out of it while you travel the good old U.S. of A. A car is a truly needless expense: with the money you won’t spend on a car, even if you own it outright, you could save $5000 for traveling in the first year out of school. If I could get rid of my car I would.

If there is a company you really want to work for, call their HR department and find out where they get their temporary labor from. Then go sign up at that temp agency and bide your time. Better yet, give kickbacks to the person who makes assignments to get you to that company all the time. This is really much better than a stupid, unpaid internship, which will keep you dependent on your parents as you work for free. And worst case scenario, you save money for your travel or your transsexual surgery. But I really know people who got the job of their dreams this way: remember, David Geffen started in the mail room at William Morris.

Try not to acquire possessions. Don’t even buy books: you can use the library. You don’t want it to be difficult to move, and you sure don’t want to worry about what is happening to your stuff while you are traveling. Read from libraries; buy an air mattress; and don’t purchase more clothes than you can pack in a duffle bag. This means you can probably move in one cab ride or two trips on the subway with a fold-up grocery cart.

Oh — and if no one has said it to you yet?

“Plastics.”

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