If all fairy tales begin "Once upon a time," then all graduation speeches begin "When I was sitting where you are now." We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it's what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn't there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost. For me this feeling is compounded by the fact that Sarah Lawrence was my own alma mater. I look out at all these chairs lined up across Westlands lawn and I think, I slept on that lawn, I breathed that wisteria. I batted away those very same bees, or at least I batted away their progenitors. Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn't changed so terribly much, and so by an extension of logic I must not have changed much, either.
But I have.
That's why I'm the graduation speaker. Think of me as Darwin sailing home on the Beagle. I went forth in the world just the way you are about to go forth, and I gathered up all the wondrous things I've seen; now I've brought them back to you. As the graduation speaker I'm the one with the wisdom, or at least that's the assumption, but you as the graduates have something even better: you have youth, which, especially when you multiply it by several hundred, is a thing so fulgent it all but knocks the breath out of those of us who are up on the stage. I'd like to tell you to appreciate your youth, to stop and admire your own health and intelligence, but every writer has a cliché quota and I used up mine by saying, When I was sitting where you are now.
When you leave this place, as you will in a couple of hours, be sure to come back. Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours—long hallways and unforeseen stairwells—eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn't a bread crumb in sight—there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you're supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
The first time I reached that particular impasse in my life I was in high school, and the burning question concerning my future was where I was going to college. Every day I stood at the window watching for the mailman, and as soon as he had driven safely away (for some reason I thought it was important to conceal my eagerness from the mailman) I would dart out to the box and search for the documents that would determine my fate amongst the grocery store coupons, utility bills, and promotional fliers. But not a single envelope bore my name. It seemed in those days the world only had one question for me, and it was not, How are you feeling? or What is the state of your soul? or What is it you want from life? No, the only thing anyone asked me back then was, Where are you going to college? Everywhere I went I felt as if I were being hounded by my own Greek chorus, and even though all those people hounding me quite possibly had good intentions and were genuinely interested in my future, after a while the questions started to feel like nothing more than a relentless interrogation: a dark room, a single chair, a blinding light in my eyes. "I don't know!" I wanted to scream. "I don't know where I'm going to college!" What if I didn't get accepted anywhere? Didn't they ever think about that? What if I had to live at home forever and find a job waiting tables and never got the education I needed to be a writer? If the people who questioned me had any notion of the depth and the darkness of my fears, I doubt they would have had the temerity to ask me anything at all.
But thanks to the natural order of the universe, for better or for worse, everything eventually changes. One beautiful afternoon the mailman drove off and I ran out to the box and there it was, my entire future in one slim envelope. I ripped into it right there on the lawn and read the contents again and again until I had it committed to memory. I was going to college. In that instant everything in my world was different because I had an answer for the inevitable question. In a funny way that was even more meaningful than the acceptance itself.When the aunt and the dentist and the best friend's mother asked me where I was going, I could reply with a level of nonchalance that made it seem there was never any doubt, "College? Why, I'm going to Sarah Lawrence."
Oh, I was set. My sense of time was so underdeveloped that four years sounded like a glorious eternity. I had gotten into the school that I wanted to go to and . . .
Excerpted from What now? by Ann Patchett Copyright © 2008 by Ann Patchett. Excerpted by permission.
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