Poet Mary Karr recently delivered the most awesome commencement speech ever.
Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.
One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.
Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.
When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.
Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.
Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.
I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.
But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.
She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.
In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way. (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)
In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.
(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.” He was that inspiring.)
One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.
Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.
Then came the fun part.
We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.
So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!
As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.
But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.
Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.
But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.
I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.