The best commencement speakers are brief, and rich in their imagery

By James W. Dolan
Special to the Reporter

I’ve been attending a lot of graduations recently, two at colleges and two at high schools. It’s one of the benefits you get when you marry young and have lots of grandchildren. Unfortunately my late wife missed these events, but she was there in spirit. After listening to a variety of commencement addresses, I concluded that they’re all the same. It takes real imagination to come up with something that’s fresh and inspiring.

I heard a good one at Elon University, a beautiful school tucked away in the hills of North Carolina near Greensboro. The recently retired 20-year president of the university, Leo Lambert, took the podium by force with a rousing appeal that captured the audience. His theme was a song by the singer-songwriter Peter Mayer, which he described “as a blend of hymn and folk song.”

Lambert found in the song, “Blue Boat Home,” what he described as the “kernel of a commencement address.” He then went on to pop that kernel to the delight of his audience. The song poetically describes life as sailing the wide universe in a blue boat home to earth. It reads in part:

“Sun, my sail, and moon my rudder
As I ply the starry sea.
Leaning over the edge in wonder,
Casting questions into the deep.
Drifting here with my ship’s companions,
All we kindred pilgrim souls.”

Further developing that beautiful metaphor, Lambert addressed the audience as “kindred pilgrim souls,” with every human being on the planet as shipmates. “What matters,” he said, “is how we treat our ship’s companions” Our journey through the heavens is “precious and fleeting” … how tragic the time we spend separating ourselves from our fellow passengers.”

Too often, he explained, we want to throw people off the boat rather than offering love or understanding. “What matters is the compassion we can show each other every day. Think about those good people who have to summon their bravery just to go to the grocery store – a Muslim woman in a hijab, a transgender person, or a person who suffers debilitating anxiety.”

He cited children as the most important little shipmates on our blue boat who often attend school in dilapidated buildings without adequate instructional material with underpaid teachers. For the students, he defined responsibility as “helping others to gain access to rights and privileges, especially education and dignity.” Lambert urged the graduates to “stand up for your shipmates!”

The blue boat metaphor captures an astronaut’s view of earth – a small blue beacon floating in the immensity of space. From that vantage point, it’s hard to imagine the discord that exists on something so bright and tranquil. If we could only see ourselves as shipmates on this celestial vessel, dependent on each other for survival, we might be able to cooperate, stay afloat, and maintain our course to whatever harbor destiny takes us.

A skilled orator, Lambert, in ten minutes, took his audience on a poetic journey wherein we were all transported by a creative vision of mankind’s need for solidarity. I listened to similar themes of responsibility, compassion, and unity at other commencements, addressed at length and without imagery. The contrast was remarkable, from bored disinterest to thoughtful attention.

The lesson I drew from the experience was that a commencement speaker should be brief and imaginative. The address is a teachable moment, so please use it wisely. It may not be what you say but how you say it that’s important. The creative use of perspective and imagery brings a dull topic to life.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.