Valedictory Exercises 2005: Suskind Speech

Ron Suskind
Valedictory Exercises, May 21, 2005
University of Virginia

Thank you so much for the introduction.  I’ve heard some of those things said before.  In a life like the one I’m leading at this point, you go to some universities, you say some things, but at this point, I feel like other things should be put in that bio like, slept through psychology, botched history paper junior year.  It’s interesting to be back here.  I lived an extraordinary passage in this place.

There’s a line I heard back when from Einstein.  Here we’re celebrating the hundredth anniversary of his big year in that patent office and it was a good year for him, God knows, but he said something later that I love.  He said, “Time is an illusion, though a stubborn one.”  I think he’s right about that, because I’m feeling those illusions right now.  These buildings around me, while they carry memories of things that happened here, some of them frankly which I wouldn’t mind forgetting actually.  Others that changed me.

I was saying to my wife I had a nightmare a couple of nights ago that I was here and before I got up on the podium, someone stopped me and it was an old professor and he said, “Suskind, you never finished the political science paper.”  And as I’m waking up, I’m thrashing, saying, “but, you gave me an extension.”

What happens here is extraordinary.  In some ways the greatest product of the American experiment is the production of the college undergraduate.  Whatever they think of us around the world, what’s indisputable is that Saudi sheiks and foreign potentates and African villagers all dream about sending their kids to a place like this.  It’s an extraordinary combination of things- bracing independence, meeting big ideas.  That’s the mix, but independence starts-I see the parents out there and you presided over this.  Three-and-a-half-years ago, where were you?  You were dropping them off, right?  It’s an amazing day, a seminal American day when parents drop their kids off at college.  You remember it, don’t you?  You’re looking at them intently like they might vanish.

And there’s that great moment when all at the same time, it’s like a big choreograph thing, the mothers all make the bed, right?  It’s like a Busby Berkeley thing.  It’s amazing.  Oh, the care with which that bed is made.  The smoothing of the sheets, the tucking in that hospital corner.  I was at a university and I was talking to a psychologist, he’s a British guy, about the bed.  What’s with the bed?  He said, “you know, there’s all sorts of things wrapped up in the bed, you see.  It’s the mother’s way of protecting the child against the demons of college life.”  Sex. Sex.  It’s always about sex.  Now, we don’t need to consult a psychiatrist, of course, to know why the mothers spend 45 minutes making that bed.  It’s because it’s the last thing they do, often a whole life of doing and then they kiss you goodbye.  I would venture a guess that in the last three-and-a-half years, some of those beds have not been made even once.

But I can say this and I think I can say it emphatically that up ahead–I say this to you graduates–once in a blue moon in the real world, you’re going to have to make your bed, other things.  You roll out of that unmade bed, you’re a little late and you rush to your chair in some office and then you fall asleep, they actually fire you.  You can’t do that either.

I had a very interesting moment about a year and a half ago.  You learn so much here but often you don’t know what it means and I was caught in one of those stuff spots.  I was writing this latest book, The Price of Loyalty, and I’m sitting there in my office in the late spring with 19,000 documents.  Even someone who learned how to cram here at UVA, that’s just too much to cram.  The White House wasn’t very happy with my project, in case you haven’t heard.  And all of a sudden, an extraordinary thing came to me.  A line I guess I heard, but you know how it is, you forget things from these days and it was that line–for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead nor to tolerate error so long as reason is free to combat it.  And there I saw it in front of me and I said, good God, that’s my whole life.  Here’s a guy who writes an extraordinary declaration on parchment, but in some ways I think that may be one of the best things he ever wrote, our friend. Time is an illusion, but a stubborn one.  I feel like he’s here.  In the great pageant of humanity it’s the blink of an eye that separates us from Jefferson and this line defining my life, coming to me 24 years after I leave this place.  It’s interesting how it actually got to me.

In this country, obviously, everything’s for sale.  That’s part of the genius of America.  This comes to me, this quote, at the moment of great need.  This inspiration, it was on the back of a t-shirt from Mincer’s, from Mincer’s over there.  My son, my brilliant 16-year-old son, got it online and gave it to me for Father’s Day.  Bobby Mincer still defining my life.  Thank God.  I feel like at this point I’ve supported this man enough I should have like a kiosk, a magazine rack at the store.

For here we are not afraid.  God.  These days I feel like I would love if I were king to get everyone in America one of those t-shirts. It’s a time when there’s a lot of fear out there.  Everyone in this class knows it.  You’re the 9/11 class.  You arrived here just after.  You spend these extraordinary four years in a place built on the notion of search, of search and find, of reason emerging from rigor, through those years here, wow.

I’ll just say this.  These days I feel like so much of this great American experiment had been relegated to the marketing department, marketing and advertising.  We’re not supposed to be too clear about some of our natural confusions, some of the messiness of democracy, the need for dissent.  It is messy.  That’s part of its genius, and the folks over there, and I’ve been over there, all across the world overseas, they know that, too.  They actually love us for that, for not being oh so sure of ourselves all the time, for not embracing certainty because it’s convenient.  You’ve got to earn certainty.

And I just want to say something to this class.  You are a special class and here’s why.  I’m at the tail end of the baby boomers.  We are a big giant generation and you know that.  We are called the pig in the python by the demographers, but the fact is you’re our kids and we’re the old pig and I guess I’d call you the new pig and for a Jewish guy, that’s a stretch.  I love pigs.  What does that mean?  That means you’ve got your hands on the levers of this great American experiment.  You’ve already got the popular culture.  You already own the damn thing.  You’re big.

And you’re more confident than we were in a variety of ways.  Make no mistake.  Your baby boomer parents may not tell you this.  I’ll tell you.  Back when, we believed in the miracle of mass, mass behavior.  We were in the early days of TV.  We didn’t do anything in groups of less than 30 million. You’re more confident than we were.  You pick and choose more judiciously.  You outfit your speedboats elegantly.  I look at them and I say, look at that.  There’s a kid who likes Frank Sinatra and 50 Cent.  How does that happen?  There’s somebody who is confident to make their own way. That’s evolution.  It will give you power.  Use it well.

Twenty-four years ago I was right over there.  I had a room on the Lawn, 31 West Lawn, right over there.  It was an extraordinary spring here.  This spring of senior year is an amazing time.  What’s fascinating about it is that spring works so well for this stage of your life.  It is the springtime of your life.  Twenty-one is big center spring.  You’re full of a kind of bursting possibility, curiosity, growth, passion.  I won’t get more specific than that, and spring here in Charlottesville is, research shows, the most beautiful place on the planet.

So in this lovely springtime I’m in the room and people keep coming to the room and they’re old Wahoos.  They keep knocking on the door and they’re all more or less the same.  They’re all actually about my age and the guy’s are in khakis and sort of too-tight golf shirts and they kind of nose in and, “excuse me, you mind if I look around a little bit?  I used to live in this room.”  I’m like, “oh, gosh, yeah.  Come on, yeah sure.”  And they walk in and they look around; they give it one loop and then they start to go and as they’re leaving they stop on the threshold and they turn, every one of them, and they say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”  Here I am, I’ve got a month left of school and I’m, like, get out of here.  This is the last thing I want to hear. I thought a lot about those guys over the years.

You know, I think it does get better.  There’re some things that are not ever going to be like this again, but what gets better is you get better.  You get bigger.  You build on this and you start making choices.  I know now you don’t want to make too many choices.  It’s nice to play options.  Options means you don’t have to decide and then you can’t go back, but you will make choices and that will define you.  It will make you deeper and broader.

But there we were, on graduation day, and we were scared.  It was a big crowd of us.  You’re supposed to go down like two by two, back in 1981, you were, and instead we went eight of us holding on to each other, like a scrum.  We were in our caps and gowns and we were singing a song. I don’t know where it came from, but someone started singing it and then we all started singing it, walking down the Lawn.  It was “this train is bound for glory.  This train is bound for glory, this train”-Let me think.  “This train is bound for glory, this train-“  We didn’t know any other lyrics, just that one.  That’s right, just that one.  And so we kept singing it over and over and holding onto each other.  What did we fear?  We feared we would never be us again, that once this time passed, we would break apart, that the compromises of the grown-up world would be too much.

But we didn’t have to fear.  The fact is your buddies here are going to be maids of honor and best men at your weddings.  You’re going to call them when you’re in your 40’s, believe it or not, and say, “hey, it’s me.”  And they’ll say “hey, yeah.”  And they’ll know what that means.  Because when you’re with people here in this act of being and becoming, you know them like you know almost no one else.

None of us actually found any glory, in case you’re wondering.  We were bound, let me see–Two for law school, one for business school, one medical school, one dental school, two not sure.  I was one of them.  The one who found, I think, any glory actually is the dentist.  Yeah.   It’s interesting.  He’s a rich guy.  He was actually the offensive guard on the 1981 UVA football team, a big, gigantic guy. Hands like this.  And now I think you could call him the world’s most ferocious orthodontist.  He drives a Bentley.  I think what it is is that parents pay him not to touch their children’s teeth.  Nice guy.

I don’t think you really find the glory and that’s the thing that your parents actually know and I want to just make note of that.  And that’s why they’re looking at you the way they are and will tomorrow.  They know that the key is being bound for that sunlit uplands, that future, that unseen that’s just ahead.  See, right now, you are all glorious, so remember to smile tomorrow when you get your diplomas and stand up straight.  That smile that they saw at the very first smile, that winning smile, because the only things you really want them to tell you-I can say this as a parent.  There’s not much you want your parents to tell you, but it’s really two things–I love you and I am proud of you, and everyone here knows and feels that in their bursting hearts.

So, good luck.  God speed and remember, you carry a charge as honorable and august as any students graduating on this planet to never be afraid, to stand tall and also to remember, I suppose, as the poet said to the philosopher one night when the day was done, Wahoo-wa.  God.