"Why do you always wear black?"
"I'm in mourning for my life."
A little homage to Maupassant that Chekhov uses to start his Chaika ("The Seagull"). In Chekhov's hands, a young school teacher works to impress and woo a farm girl who drinks and takes snuff. The farm girl is moved and touched by the school teacher's efforts, but doesn't love him. She tells him as much. She finds him irritating.
So, of course, she winds up marrying him and having a child with him.
It's graduation season again. What useful advice should we give them? What shall we say to our graduates who will march across a stage and into another unmapped realm – the rest of their lives?
In another time, I've suggested the most useful thing would be to really understand how to make a great chocolate chip cookie. In good times and bad times, a really good homemade cookie can be a really wonderful thing.
But the next 80 or so years of a graduate's life is full of puzzles – because life is far more puzzling than school. School has the small advantage that it shares with all institutional life – everything is planned. Forget arguments over Common Core and No Child Left Behind and all other policies of panjandrums and preceptors. The child has had 12 to 16 (to more?) years of regimented life. A race to please teacher all wrapped in a little grade. Get the rubric and the study guide. Ace the test.
Then life happens. It's 3 a.m., and your daughter is puking out her guts, and a very scared bird has found his way into your house. Both you and your wife have important deadlines, and thus, very big days at work in about 5 hours. And, inexplicably this is when you catch a nail in your car tire.
Here's the test. There's no rubric. Sorry. No study guide. Good luck.
Your boss comes into what may be laughingly described as an office and announces, "Bert's gone. His sprocket project needs to be shown to clients on Wednesday. You and Joe figure it out. " Your boss disappears. Was Bert fired? Did he quit? You knew he was a bit highly strung, but what was that all about? The sprocket project? What the hell's that about? You faintly knew that Bert was working on that for the better part of a year, but he was working with the folks on the third floor on it. And I have to work with Joe? Joe, who always tells those slightly sexist jokes that aren't funny and aren't ever blatant enough to get him on a harassment complaint.
Please teacher? No, please the boss, or you might have to find another job in the midst of a bad economy.
So, your average graduate sits at a ceremony with a nice mÃ©lange of pride in accomplishing this cultural milestone mixed with inchoate anxieties and added to a little leftover buzz from the graduation parties. Now is not the time for a list of platitudes.
You know what would help? Putting on a play.
Maybe something by Aeschylus. Here you have a veteran of Athens' major battles against the Persians. He inherits the cultural religiosity of the Iliad. In the Iliad the gods behave as gods will. But in this relatively new form of "tragedy" Aeschylus starts asking questions. The gods seem to tell Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Then Apollo tells Orestes to kill his mother to avenge his father's murder at the hands of his mother and her lover. So this up-standing veteran seems to suggest you might want to think about what your family ties mean and what the gods appear to tell you. Healthy skepticism might not be a bad thing. And that pre-dates our friend Socrates.
Maybe something by Shakespeare. The son of a glover, he probably had the opportunity to look at people's hands – hands that had labored and hands that knew leisure. He saw what hands could do. He grows up in an ordered world. Now Shakespeare is no "small-d" democrat nor no "small-r" republican. He has some respect for strong leaders, but he's also wary of them. Look at how much trouble is caused by them. Henry V, someone who looks like a real hero, is ready to put the babies of Harfleur on pikes. And Henry threatens this in the "winning hearts and minds" campaign, talking to the city leaders. And let's not forget such winners as Richard III, King Claudius, or the Scottish chap. Othello is such a wonderful fellow that the leaders of Venice hire him to oversee their troops, but he can't control his own jealousy enough to prevent himself from committing suicide? Watch out for your leaders.
Maybe something by Chekhov. Oh, I know, I know. Nothing happens. Yeah, right. They just talk. Yep. And nothing happened when your parents said "I do" in front of the preacher or the justice-of-the-peace or the Elvis-impersonator. It was just talk.
Chekhov seems to remind us that what seems inconsequential at the time can have major and lasting results. Oft times in life, we don't say the right thing. We say a whole pack of wrong things. We do silly things. We have the "gun" trained on the target at point-blank range, and we miss.
And the good doctor is always there to say, "That's all right. You'll get on. Do some work. Look out for the world. Live. That's good enough. You may not want to be Hamlet. Hamlet died awfully young.
But, no. I take it back. At a graduation ceremony, you don't have an audience for the subtle. A hammer is the appropriate tool. A little pomp and circumstance. A list of platitudes. Walk them across the stage. Take the pictures.
Why does the graduate wear black?
She's in mourning for her life?
Nah. Ya big goof, don't you know that black goes with everything?