It’s a warm, sunny day in early June. Hundreds of black-robed high school seniors are sitting on uncomfortable metal chairs like giant crows in the middle of a grassy-green football field. They are pretending to listen to a succession of important adults make speeches. Hundreds more relatives of the graduates are perched on the hard bleachers, half-listening to the drone of the speeches and taking distant pictures that will make their sons and daughters look like fruit flies.
The principal of the school, a friendly, gray-haired man in a shiny gray suit, is thanking the previous speaker.
“That was a truly inspiring speech, Dr. Wilson. I’m sure our graduates will be thinking about your advice for years to come.” Feet shuffle, robes rustle, cameras click. “Now I’d like to introduce the valedictorian of this year’s class, one of the school’s highest achievers, Ben Zuckerberg.”
Polite applause ripples through the crowd as Ben, a thoughtful but diffident young man, makes his way to the lectern in his ill-fitting cap and gown. He places the text of his speech on the stand and clears his throat. His hands are shaking slightly.
“Thank you, Mr. Johnson. Dr. Wilson, Dr. Chan, distinguished faculty, proud parents, fellow classmates—
“It’s a great honor and privilege to be able to, mnn, address you today. As my classmates know, we’ve had four great years here, and, uhh, we feel secure in the knowledge that you’ve prepared us for the, mnn, challenges we will face in the years ahead.”
He starts slowly, uncertainly, but sounds more confident as he goes along.
“Certainly there will be challenges. The world is a scary place. We face war, terrorism, poverty, global warming, economic crises, nuclear threats, ethnic violence, gender discrimination, infectious diseases. The list goes on and on.”
The crowd is starting to get restless. The students are whispering to each other, and their parents are chattering like magpies. People are shifting in their seats. Suddenly a speaker-equipped music player—probably smuggled in by one of the graduates—blasts raucous chords across the field, drowning out Ben’s words.
“So I leave you,” concludes Ben, sounding like a public radio station competing with a hard rock channel, “with the thought that”—the words are lost—“despite the fact that”—garbled transmission—“we can succeed only if we—” Pounding drums, distorted electric guitar, then nothing. The music player goes silent just as quickly as it exploded into the soundspace.
“—work together. In the end we are all one.”
Ben picks up the text of his speech and heads for his seat on the dais. Someone claps. Others follow, though tepidly.
Ben is followed to the lectern by his more outgoing friend Bao, who, unlike Ben, seems resplendent in his black robes despite the fact that his unlaced white tennis shoes clash with the dull, inky black of his cap and gown. A slightly demonic grin plastered on his plump, Buddha-like face, Bao bounds to the microphone without waiting for an introduction and starts zinging lines at the audience.
“Hey, I’m Bao Nguyen.”
The announcement is greeted by cheers from some of the students.
“I didn’t earn the right to give a speech like my friend Ben. I didn’t do anything special. In fact, I’m not sure what I’m doing up here, but I’m going to make the most of it.”
The crowd, parents included, responds with cheers and laughter.
“Yeah, it’s been a great four years, and I think that before moving on we ought to look back and remember the good times, the difficult moments, and the important things we’ve learned. We’ll never forget Mr. Zamora’s bilingual jokes in Spanish class, the joy of cleaning out mouse cages in advanced biology, the day Ben Zuckerberg somehow fell asleep in the girls’ locker room and like Rip Van Winkle woke up to a world he never dreamed of. Or probably did dream of, but that’s not our concern here.”
Snickers and titters emanate from the sea of black robes. Ben, seated behind Bao, tries to adjust his tight collar. Of course he never ventured into the girls’ locker room, but he remembers the sweat, the clamorous voices, and the clanging lockers of the boys’.
“The difficult moments we faced include the night our basketball team almost made it to the state finals. Double overtime. That was tough. The day that twenty-three seniors ate the chef’s special in the cafeteria and came down with food poisoning. Barf city.”
More laughs and cheers bubble up from the graduates. The parents are more subdued.
“But that was nothing compared to the night when four of our best and brightest had a little too much to drink, climbed into a car, and crashed into an embankment, leaving one of them dead and another paralyzed for life.”
Uncomfortable murmurs start to dampen the laughter. Ben remembers the memorial service, where most of the seniors and many of their parents turned out to hear speeches much like the ones they heard today. Well, maybe not like Bao’s.
“That was really tough. A challenge. They didn’t prepare us for that one. Actually Amy wasn’t drinking. She was just riding in the back seat. Not wearing a seat belt. What could we learn from that, I wonder?”
Some of the murmurs turn to jeers, but a few people clap.
“Well, at least we learned a thing or two or about Shakespeare, Spanish verb forms, and the root causes of World War II. Actually we never made it to World War II, but we would have learned a lot if we had made it all the way through the curriculum. I’m sure of that. Now that our leaders are thinking of expanding the current war by pretending to wind it down—you figure that out—we might want to learn something from history. Thankfully we did pick up a few things about the origins of Islam, the Cherokees’ March of Tears, the reasons why America’s homicide rate is ten times higher than Sweden’s and Japan’s, why school shooters are always male—”
Mnn. Ben doesn’t remember any of that. Did he miss class those days? Is America’s homicide rate really ten times higher than Sweden’s? Why wasn’t it on the AP test?
Jeers and boos rise like drumbeats. The graduating seniors start to stamp their feet. Catcalls come from the bleachers, where some of the parents are standing up and yelling.
Mr. Johnson, the gray-haired principal, makes his way to the front of the podium, clapping as he goes.
“Thank you, Mr. Nguyen. That was quite entertaining.”
Bao ignores him.
“What!?” the young graduate continues. “You mean we didn’t learn those things? That’s not what we were tested on? The bubbles we filled in had nothing to do with that stuff?”
The boos grow louder.
Mr. Johnson reaches the lectern. “Thank you, Bao. Now—”
“I guess they’re saving those things for college. Or maybe they’ll make a TV show about them. A reality series. A video game. Or a supercaffeinated energy drink. They’ll make an energy drink that’ll give you knowledge as well as energy so when you drink it to stay up all night while cramming for tests you don’t even have to study because everything you need to know will be in the drink, and—”
Boos drown out Bao’s final words, and Mr. Johnson hustles him off the podium. Ben leads the mostly unheard applause.