Curator’s Comment: It’s graduation season again. Which means it is time to gather on the quad and suffer through graduation speeches while sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs. The following is Professor Sedaris’s 2006 Princeton commencement speech, itself rooted in Princeton’s own history.
It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when I went to Princeton things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.
It’s funny now, but I thought about it a lot. Some people thought about it a little too much, and it really affected their academic performance. Again, I date myself, but back then we were on a pass-fail system. If you passed, you got to live, and if you failed you were burned alive on a pyre that’s now the Transgender Studies Building. Following the first grading period, the air was so thick with smoke you could barely find your way across campus. There were those who said that it smelled like meat, no different from a barbecue, but I could tell the difference. I mean, really. Since when do you grill hair? Or those ugly, chunky shoes we all used to wear?
It kept you on your toes, though, I’ll say that much. If I’d been burned alive because of bad grades, my parents would have killed me, especially my father, who meant well but was just a little too gung ho for my taste. He had the whole outfit: Princeton breastplate, Princeton nightcap; he even got the velvet cape with the tiger head hanging like a rucksack from between the shoulder blades. In those days, the mascot was a sabretooth, so you can imagine how silly it looked, and how painful it was to sit down. Then, there was his wagon, completely covered with decals and bumper stickers: “I hold my horses for Ivy League schools,” “My son was accepted at the best university in the United States and all I got was a bill for a hundred and sixty-eight thousand dollars.” On and on, which was just so . . . wrong.
One of the things they did back then was start you off with a modesty seminar, an eight-hour session that all the freshmen had to sit through. It might be different today, but in my time it took the form of a role-playing exercise, my classmates and I pretending to be graduates, and the teacher assuming the part of an average citizen: the soldier, the bloodletter, the whore with a heart of gold.
“Tell me, young man. Did you attend a university of higher learning?”
To anyone holding a tool or a weapon, we were trained to respond, “What? Me go to college?” If, on the other hand, the character held a degree, you were allowed to say, “Sort of,” or, sometimes, “I think so.”
“So where do you sort of think you went?”
And it was the next bit that you had to get just right. Inflection was everything, and it took the foreign students forever to master it.
“Where do you sort of think you went?”
And we’d say, “Umm, Princeton?”—as if it were an oral exam, and we weren’t quite sure that this was the correct answer.
“Princeton, my goodness,” the teacher would say. “That must have been quite something!”
You had to let him get it out, but once he started in on how brilliant and committed you must be it was time to hold up your hands, saying, “Oh, it isn’t that hard to get into.”
Then he’d say, “Really? But I heard—”
“Wrong,” you’d tell him. “You heard wrong. It’s not that great of a school.”
This was the way it had to be done—you had to play it down, which wasn’t easy when your dad was out there, reading your acceptance letter into a bullhorn.
I needed to temper my dad’s enthusiasm a bit, and so I announced that I would be majoring in patricide. The Princeton program was very strong back then, the best in the country, but it wasn’t the sort of thing your father could get too worked up about. Or, at least, most fathers wouldn’t. Mine was over the moon. “Killed by a Princeton graduate!” he said. “And my own son, no less.”
My mom was actually jealous. “So what’s wrong with matricide?” she asked. “What, I’m not good enough to murder?”
They started bickering, so in order to make peace I promised to consider a double major.
“And how much more is that going to cost us?” they said.
Those last few months at home were pretty tough, but then I started my freshman year, and got caught up in the life of the mind. My idol-worship class was the best, but my dad didn’t get it. “What the hell does that have to do with patricide?” he asked.
And I said, “Umm. Everything?”
He didn’t understand that it’s all connected, that one subject leads to another and forms a kind of chain that raises its head and nods like a cobra when you’re sucking on a bong after three days of no sleep. On acid it’s even wilder, and appears to eat things. But, not having gone to college, my dad had no concept of a well-rounded liberal-arts education. He thought that all my classes should be murder-related, with no lunch breaks or anything. Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
In truth, I had no idea what I wanted to study, so for the first few years I took everything that came my way. I enjoyed pillaging and astrology, but the thing that ultimately stuck was comparative literature. There wasn’t much of it to compare back then, no more than a handful of epic poems and one novel about a lady detective, but that’s part of what I liked about it. The field was new, and full of possibilities, but try telling that to my parents.
“You mean you won’t be killing us?” my mother said. “But I told everyone you were going for that double major.”
Dad followed his “I’m so disappointed” speech with a lecture on career opportunities. “You’re going to study literature and get a job doing what?” he said. “Literaturizing?”
We spent my entire vacation arguing; then, just before I went back to school, my father approached me in my bedroom. “Promise me you’ll keep an open mind,” he said. And, as he left, he slipped an engraved dagger into my book bag.