We are in the season of college graduation speeches, a vexing subgenre that resists candor and originality. It is the rare commencement speech that anyone remembers - even the speechmaker. And yet I well remember the one I heard when I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1983.
The designated speaker was Chuck Robb, governor of Virginia at the time. Graduation at U.Va. is traditionally held on the Lawn - that's with a capital L - and May 22, 1983, was to be no exception. But in retrospect, everyone in attendance would gladly have sacrificed tradition. I doubt that even "Mr. Jefferson" (as our esteemed founder was called by the solemn and the sarcastic alike) would have minded.
The day dawned warm and sticky, with a teasing drizzle that didn't quite qualify as rain. It was up to the president of the university to make the call, and he declared that the ceremony would be held outside. The class of 1983 would march around the Rotunda and down the Lawn and sit facing a statue of Homer in front of Old Cabell Hall. No boring old sports arena for us.
So march we did, even as the teasing drizzle gave way to serious rain. Our caps and gowns were not waterproof, and I remember laughing with a friend as I squeezed black dye from the tassel of my mortarboard. I remember the way my high heels poked holes in the mud. I remember thinking that sitting inside University Hall would not have been so bad.
The formal remarks began amid murmurs and giggles about the downpour. When it was time for Governor Robb to speak, he said that under the circumstances he would forgo his speech. Everyone cheered. He then waved his hand in a sort of benediction, we tossed our dripping tassels, and Homer, the blind bard, never blinked. We had graduated, thank heaven and Mr. Jefferson, too, and now we could sprint for shelter.
I went in search of my parents, sisters, and brothers-in-law. My mother saw me first. Raising her umbrella, she called out to me, "Do you have any idea how much we love you?"
I'd never heard her speak to me that way in public before. Did she mean that only people who truly loved me would have endured the discomfort, the foolishness, of this sodden and exhausting day? That's what I thought at the time.
So I didn't hear an official commencement speech when I graduated from college, and, as it turned out, I didn't attend the ceremonies when I completed graduate school. But I did hear a speech of sorts that day in 1983. My mother had said something I have never forgotten.
I have revised my initial interpretation of what she said. Now I think she meant, "After four years of college, after all the adding and dropping and cramming for exams, after dating and not dating, after staying up all night writing papers and sleeping all afternoon in the library, after calling home collect with bad news and good, after fashioning the beginnings of what will be your adult life - after all that, do you have any idea how much we love you?"
It was not so much a question as a demand, a lesson, and a plea all rolled into one.
After 22 years - a lifetime for many in the Class of 2005 - I remember my mother's words with gratitude. Though it took me a while to decipher it, I now believe the message of love is the only graduation speech most people need to hear.