Ladies and gentlemen, teachers and seniors, this is a ritual we’re enacting—a rite of passage, if you will, and a mild and pleasant one, comparatively speaking. None of the seniors will be required to kill a lion singlehandedly, or have a body part removed. All that’s necessary, in our gentle rite, is that the seniors be draped for a bit in these anachronistic vestments, sit with modesty and patience through some brief solemnities, and be handed a piece of sheepskin, which licenses them to begin making their own dubious choices, rather than having to tolerate the dubious choices of their elders.
Rituals such as this one are fictions – but special fictions, whose function is to convince and reassure. What we, as parents, teachers, and friends would like to be assured of is that you seniors are now equipped to breast the rough currents of adult life, without our constant guidance.
You seniors, very probably, would be happy to be convinced on that same point; but walking off this stage with your sheepskin may provide only momentary conviction. The rough currents of adult life beat endlessly; they will carry you, not soon but eventually, beyond the range of our instruction, if not beyond the reach of our love.
I know most of these seniors, at least a little and am touched and honored to have been asked to be their speaker tonight. The advice I would offer them, as they proceed on toward adulthood, is brief and simple: seniors, remember your manners, be courteous, behave appropriately, be decent, be generous, be kind.
But, Mr. McMurtry, that’s not a very original or very exciting program, you may say. You taught us: you know what nice kids we are; shouldn’t courtesy and decency come naturally to us, now that we’re grownups, officially?
In partial answer I’d like to quote the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who fruitlessly pursued his great love Maud Gonne for almost thirty-five years before giving up. When Yeats did give up he married a nice woman named George and promptly had a daughter, for whom he wrote an immortal lyric, called “A Prayer For My Daughter.” Reflecting on the life he wants for his young child, Yeats wrote these lines:
In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as gifts, but hearts
are earned, by those who are not entirely beautiful.
Yeats was wrong about hearts—his own, after all, had been had as a gift for thirty-five years by a woman who had done nothing to earn it.
But he was absolutely right to put courtesy first, when considering what would most benefit his child.
The great spasm of social romanticism that shook our culture in the 1960s left good manners and courteous behavior rather discredited. The sedate codes of conduct that are the most supportive legacy of our ancient civilization—codes that promote stability rather than excitement—were found, temporarily, to be less interesting than drugs, sex, and rock and roll.
Seniors, it’s the Nineties now, and time, I think, to say a word for manners—even for table manners. It was once thought that only snobs cared which fork you use first, or whether the soup comes before the salad; but that was before anthropology had worked its way around the global village. We know that all peoples—even so-called primitive peoples—pay intense attention to the proper selection, preparation, and serving of food. In world folklore food rituals outweigh sex rituals by a wide margin. Even headhunters—such few as remain—care about which fork you use first.
Why? Because it is the deepest wisdom of all peoples that eating together—the sharing of food—binds us together; the small traditions, even the table manners, of a family, a tribe, or a culture, encode within them the great qualities which enable the family, the tribe, or the culture to survive. Everywhere, except within the most broken and degraded elements of a given culture, the customs and rituals of the family dinner table shape our character, and do it by encouraging the right things: generosity, tolerance, fairness, patience, laughter, reverence, hope, loyalty, dignity. And grace.
Not for nothing has your upbringing and your education been designed to instill these very qualities in you, for it is these qualities which will enable you to survive and support your loved ones when the currents of adult life become so rough as to be almost insupportable.
When you mate and form families, seniors, buy a dinner table and eat at it. Resist the evil eye of our culture, television: evil because it isolates us amid our own, and encourages passivity and withdrawal at a time when there should be activity and engagement. Eat at a proper table, looking at those you live with and love; even if you fight like tigers over who gets the drumstick you will be healthier emotionally for having taken your meals with your chosen people, rather than while being bathed in an empty blue glow.
In asking you, above all, to be courteous, I’m not proposing a ridiculously easy life program, either. A democratic courtesy, practiced over a lifetime, without regard to gender, rank, or race, held to through years of triumph and longer years of disaster, sustained whether you’re rich or whether you’re poor, whether you’re succeeding or whether you’re failing, whether you’re mated or alone, is not only not easy, seniors: it may be the hardest thing the character can aspire to.
Remember that the founding fathers of our country proposed to guarantee you a right to the pursuit of happiness, not to its capture. No one can guarantee you happiness, and you will all, unless you are supremely lucky, have times when happiness is simply unobtainable. In such times your manners are your hope. Happiness, after all, is neither a natural right nor a moral absolute; but loyalty and duty are moral absolutes; they are the soul and spine of any well-lived adult life.
Your clean merit is our reward, seniors. You bring us all the sweet breeze of youth; and you’re moving now along the upward path, toward maturity and achievement. It will be yet awhile before you need trod the downward path to wisdom. But there was that old Greek, Heraclitus, who, at the very dawn of Western thought, pointed out that none of us ever step in the same river twice. The river of time flows always, toward the mother sea. A splash or two in the river, seniors, and your children will be sitting here, awaiting their sheepskin, a splash or two more and it will be your grandchildren. Then the swan will begin to sing for your generation, as it sings for all generations. When that happens if you can say that you have been courteous, and have treated your loved ones and your fellow citizens decently, then you will have fulfilled the very high expectations which we—your parents, your teachers, and your friends—hold for you tonight.
— Address by Larry McMurtry –June 5,1995