My eldest daughter graduates from university this week, along with thousands and thousands of other young people ready to take on the world, which makes me glad I’m not looking for a job right now.
This will be the first university convocation I’ve sat through since my own, 27 years ago, when I graduated from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. My convocation address was given by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a formidable champion of human rights, an inspiring orator and a great man of modern history.
I don’t recall a single word he said.
This was 1988, the height of the anti-Apartheid movement. The western world was outraged over the situation in South Africa, the only African country North Americans have ever really cared about, mostly because there are white people there. Plus, it made them feel a bit better about their own race relations. North Americans supported South Africans by making their own great sacrifice: not drinking their wine.
Nelson Mandela was still in jail then, so Desmond Tutu was the movement’s global voice – a voice that was wise, eloquent and, more to the point, adorable. Tutu was like the love child of the Dalai Lama and Yoda.
I’m sure he offered my graduating class some awe-inspiring words. I only wish I could remember what.
“If you give a man asparagus,” he might have said, “he will eat for a day. If you plant asparagus in his garden, he will grow sick of asparagus pretty quickly.”
Perhaps he told the graduates, “Anyone who says, ‘Don’t tell me to calm down,’ usually needs to calm down.”
Or: “As blessed as it is to forgive others, so must one forgive oneself for confusing Sonic Youth and the Pixies, for they both have female bassists named Kim.” That surely would have been a comfort to me in those dark times.
But I don’t know what he said.
I don’t recall much about the ceremony at all, except I know I was there because there’s a diploma on my wall – although they could have mailed it to me. No, no, I was definitely there.
Why don’t I remember this major milestone in my life? Was I drunk? No! Not with my parents there! Asleep? Well, it had been a long year, but no.
It’s possible that I was still preoccupied with the fact that I had been passed over as class valedictorian, a position I felt entitled to based on the sole qualification that I was editor of the campus newspaper where I had once written an editorial about my shoulder-length hair entitled, “My Hair: Babe-Bait or Cultural Threat?”
Instead, the valedictorian was someone charming and actually popular. I don’t remember what he said, either. He’s a criminal lawyer now. Of course he is…
Was I just so self-occupied that I tuned everything else out? Was I worried that my gown made me look dorky? Correction: dorkier?
Regardless, it’s one of my life regrets that, for whatever reason, I paid so little attention to such an important moment, and I suspect I’m not alone.
At this point, you’d expect I’d offer up some advice to young people, encouraging them to stay in the moment, be always aware of the world around them, otherwise they might miss out on wisdom and wonder.
Instead, my advice to you is: always keep your cell phone charged, because you’ll want to whip it out to record everything around you. But then, you already knew that. Even better than hearing Desmond Tutu? A selfie with Desmond Tutu!
Thank you for reading. I’m sure this has been a forgettable moment for us all.
A version of this piece originally aired on CBC Radio’s “Breakaway.”