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Zadie Smith. Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Graduation ceremonies mark an important moment in many young people’s lives, as they leave the education system behind and try to start life on their own terms. This year, however, the cancellation of graduation ceremonies the world over has left students without a dedicated day to consider the significance of what they’ve achieved.

Fortunately, pre-Covid graduation ceremonies have been carefully documented, especially when some of our greatest writers have given speeches to new graduates, aiming to impart wisdom, hope, and life lessons. Whether you’re graduating, or simply feeling lacklustre in lockdown, why not soak up some of their words to reflect on what the future holds?

Margaret Atwood on the climate crisis

The University of Toronto

Trust Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize-winning queen of the dystopia, to deal with the heavier things in her commencement speech. Two years before the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood used her time at the podium to ponder questions of technology and climate change which feel as pressing today as they did 37 years ago.

Atwood describes this environmental call to action as the hidden agenda of the speech as she explains that, “unlike the ancient Egyptians, we as a civilization know what mistakes we are making and we also have the technology to stop making them; all that is lacking is the will.”

Colson Whitehead on our multitude of selves

Connecticut College (2017)

Colson Whitehead is a master of narrative, so it makes sense that The Underground Railroad author would divides life up into three acts in this speech. Act I: we meet the protagonist and establish the rules of the world. Act II: complications appear that set the heroine on a journey and, finally, Act III: the chaos of the middle sections is brought to some kind of resolution.

Whitehead explains that the graduates listening have just finished Act I and that complications lie ahead, but that they will be prepared for them because “the numbers are on your side, in the Walt Whitman-esque multitude of you… All those shifting, jostling you’s, and all their lessons.”

Michelle Obama on taking action

Michelle Obama

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Dear Class of 2020

The former First Lady and author of the bestselling Becoming was a particular highlight of YouTube’s offering to this year’s graduates, a live-streamed ceremony called 'Dear Class of 2020'.

Obama discussed the kind of life lessons that made her memoir so worthwhile, casting them in a new relevance befitting the upheaval of 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Obama spoke the power of anger in making real change, telling the graduates: "I’ve seen you marching with peace and with purpose and that is why even in tough times like these, you continue to be what gives me hope."

Nora Ephron on existing in the world as a woman

Wellesley College (1993)

Thirty years after she left, Nora Ephron returned to her alma mater to speak to the women’s institution about how opportunities for women had changed since her own graduation. Topics of discussion include being a “woman writer”, the Wonderbra, and Hillary Clinton (a fellow alumnus, who made a history-making speech at the college in 1969). Of course, Ephron provides her usual wit and ends with a plea for the ‘93 graduates to “break the rules and make a little trouble out there”, to which the crowd responds with loud cheers for the iconic feminist screenwriter and author.

George Saunders on failures of kindness

George Saunders

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Syracuse University (2013)

Man Booker Prize nominee George Saunders has been a professor of English at Syracuse University for the past 23 years, so was playing to a home crowd when he gave a self-deprecating graduation speech in 2013.

Rather than looking solely to the future, Saunders leant on a childhood anecdote about a girl in his seventh-grade class who he still remembers four decades later. Ellen, as he describes her, was teased by his classmates and Saunders explains that while he never joined in, he regrets failing to befriend her, sending home that the most important thing we can do is to “try to be kinder”.

Gloria Steinem on the 10 lessons she’s learned

Bennington College (2015)

Gloria Steinem begins her commencement speech at Bennington College by proclaiming that “graduation ceremonies are my most favorite event of all time. I love commencements, I love the moment, the ceremony”.

Steinem then manages to relate an anecdote about a snapping turtle to intersectionality within the feminist movement before rattling off her 10 life lessons. Among them is her belief that “laughter is the most revolutionary emotion because it is free” and what Steinem describes as the golden rule: “you need to treat yourself as well as you treat other people”.

Toni Morrison on creating a life

Toni Morrison

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Wellesley College (2004)

The late Toni Morrison speaks as a storyteller in this address, considering the idea of a commencement speech philosophically and pondering on what it means to consider the past and the future. The Beloved author does away with the idea that our university years are the best of your life, suggesting instead that “there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood” - a welcome concept to recent graduates anxious about the future.

Zadie Smith on embracing becoming part of ‘the many’

The New School (2014)

Zadie Smith tackled the unique challenges faced by graduates in the 21st century and suggested that rather than hindering them, they could create a new generation of thinkers. This generation’s virtue, the British author told American graduates, is that it prioritises community over individualism, unlike her generation (at the time, Smith was only 38). Her advice? Dismiss the hard sells of “the life of the few”: “private schools, private planes, private islands, private life” - and instead, embrace “the many”, by smiling at people on the street and seeking out communities, as a lifelong antidote to loneliness.

John Green on the heroism of weaknesses

John Green

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Butler University (2013)

The Fault in Our Stars author begins his commencement speech with nothing at all, maintaining a poignant one minute silence for graduates to think about “those who have loved you up into this day”, before offering insight on how going from being an intelligent student at a prestigious institution to someone who is at the bottom of the job ladder spending their day completing trivial tasks can make you into a better and more generous human being.

David Foster Wallace on the value of living consciously

Kenyon College (2005)

In case you weren’t at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace’s speech has been published in his book, This is Water. This title is in reference to an anecdote Foster Wallace tells at the beginning of the speech about two fish, who when approached by an older fish that asks them “how’s the water?” respond “What the hell is water?”

The novelist and essayist uses this fable to illustrate that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” He considers the difficulties of staying alert and attentive in the world and suggests that the value of a liberal arts education is that it encourages consciousness and awareness. Education, he says, is freedom.

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