Vermont Author, Chris Bohjalian's Graduate Address

Greetings, class of 2013.

Today is indeed an auspicious day: National Star Wars Appreciation Day. May the 4th be with you.

Here are two critical words of advice that I wish desperately had been given to me back in the Mesozoic period, when I was sitting where you are this very morning.

Ready?

Stay here.

Let's face it, do you really want to venture out into a world in which Honey Boo Boo Child and Lindsay Lohan have greater name recognition than our Secretary of State?

Are any of you honestly looking forward to joining a country in which some states categorize coal mining debris as "fill" rather than "waste," so it can be legally dumped into our nation's rivers and lakes?

The fact is, the ten hottest years in history have occurred in your lifetime. The Arctic Ice Cap is melting. A quarter of the Earth's species may be extinct in 50 years. And so far not a single television network has taken me up on my big idea of putting the "American Idol" finalists on "Fear Factor" and seeing just what they'll eat for a recording contract. Or, perhaps, simply having Paula Abdul be the next Bachelorette, so she can judge...

Chris Bohjalian

Never mind.

Our earth is a great spinning gumball covered with war, famine, disease, and indescribably bad television. Moreover, the worst is yet to come: Yet another "All Star Celebrity Apprentice" in which Donald Trumps finally fires the guy who spray-paints his hair.

How many of you have read a novel in the past 12 months? How many of you have read two?

Well, you are the medieval monks of the digital age. Here are some actual statistics about reading in America from the National Endowment for the Arts:

* 57 percent of American adults had read at least one novel or short story in the last 12 months in 1982.

* Only 50 percent had in 2008.

But here is something that's interesting: In 2002, only 43 percent of adults 18 to 24 were reading fiction; in 2008, the number had increased to 52 percent.

And while the biggest thanks for that spike go to a whole lot of teenage vampires — thank you, Stephanie Meyer— the fact is, your generation is reading! You're turning pages and scrolling through tablets, and finding fiction on your phones.

My point? If I could trade places with you and sit where you are right now, I would — in a heartbeat!

Oh, I'm kidding. I don't really think you should stay here. As a matter of fact, I want all of you to go forth into the world and get jobs. After all, if you're not working there will be no Social Security left for my wife and me when we turn 65.

I sometimes allude to how old and bald I feel on occasion, but the reality is that it wasn't all that long that I got to do what many of you are doing today: Wear nothing but Nikes and boxer shorts underneath my commencement robe.

Actually, that's not completely true: I did not wear sneakers to my college graduation.

And these days I actually like to lounge around the house in precisely this get-up. Commencement chic. (Welcome to Hogwarts.)

And today is your commencement, and you should take great pride in that - in what you have accomplished in your time here at Champlain College.

Of course, because it is a commencement that means you all have to endure hearing me share with you the most loathsome construction that can be made from any five words in the English language:

"When I was your age..."

Here goes.

When I was your age, I was deciding whether to sue a beer company because in the days before my commencement a beer keg exploded in the dormitory living room that I shared with three roommates. I was 21, and I saw a world filled with inestimable promise when I gazed upon the shattered glass and the way the chair in which I was sitting when the keg exploded now looked like a serial killer had used it to sharpen his knives.

And so while my fellow seniors were wasting their time preparing for exams, my roommates and I were asking a lawyer to represent us in a lawsuit against a company whose annual sales dwarf the state of Vermont's annual budget.

We, of course, had the belief in ourselves shared by all college graduates that we could do anything, and so we decided to represent ourselves —especially after a lawyer told us that his costs would rival a year of college.

Besides, we thought it was an open and shut case. One of my roommate's brothers was a McDonald's refrigerator repairman, and he built us a keg cooler. Students were not allowed to have kegs (or keg coolers) in their rooms, but because we were seniors we decided we were exempt.

One night someone pumped up the pressure in the keg. He pumped it up a lot. The next day, while I was in the easy chair that we had bought for five dollars and smelled like feet, the cork in the keg's side wanted to pop but couldn't because it was trapped in the metal drum by the walls of the cooler.

And so the contraption exploded.

When the dean of students surveyed the damage, he informed my roommates and me that we would have to shoulder the repair costs.

Consequently, we wrote the beer company, hinting at "legal action" if they didn't pay for the damage. We were confident that we had scared the heck out of them.

A week later, we saw how frightened they were. They sent a guy our age to meet with us, and the conversation went like this:

BEER GUY: So the college does not allow kegs or keg coolers in dormitories, right?

US: Well, yeah.

BEER GUY: And the cork would have popped out of the keg - thereby preventing the metal from exploding — if you hadn't wedged the illicit keg into your illicit keg cooler? Correct?

US: Well, yeah.

BEER GUY: Okay, ‘bye.

The lesson here? Distinguished educator Derek Bok was on to something when he said, "If you think education is expensive, just try ignorance," though what I think he really meant was. "If you think education is expensive, just try paying for the damage caused by an illicit exploding keg cooler."

Standing ovation for Bohjalian's graduate addressIn truth, the problem isn't that I wasn't reading enough Turgenev or Pushkin or George Elliot when I was your age...because I was. The problem is that I probably don't read them enough at middle age.

Now, if you do not want to get high-paying jobs so Social Security has something better than an ice cube's chance in hell of existing in a couple of decades, then — at the very least — you should change the world. No pressure.

But this world is so muddied right now — your elders have screwed things up so mind-numbingly, inspirationally, preternaturally badly — that you have to try.

Heaven knows there are plenty of places to begin.

The problem is that genocide, hunger, pollution, terrorism, our nation's absolute inability to initiate meaningful gun control or formulate an energy policy that makes any sense at all seem like such unconquerably high peaks that sometimes it actually does make us all want to cocoon in our tents.

To stay...here.

Let's see, what should I do tonight? Find a replacement for fossil fuel or watch "Game of Thrones?" Write a poem that will probably never be published but, if it were, might remind people that what binds us is far more important than what separates us — or watch "Duck Dynasty?" Or "Dancing with Stars?" Or "Dancing with the Duck Dynasty?"

But you have to try.

You have to try, despite the fact that inertia is easy and cynicism is easy and disregard is easy.

It's easy to be jaded.

It's easy to be callous.

It's easy to be tired.

So, here's some advice. And this time it's not mine, so it may actually have some merit. It comes from the novelist Ian McEwan, well-known for "Atonement" and "Amsterdam" and "Enduring Love." He is immensely gifted and wise, and — trust me — if he were with you today instead of me, he would not be telling you tales of exploding beer kegs.

The McEwan advice comes through his 19-year-old character, Theo Perowne in his novel, "Saturday." Theo is, roughly, a fictional peer of yours. He is not too much younger than all of you, and — like you — he is very, very wise.

Early into the novel Theo offers his father an aphorism: "The bigger you think, the crappier it looks." When his father asks for an elaboration, he offers, "When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in...then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto — think small."

Indeed. Some of you may do great things on a big scale and become MacArthur fellows, pioneering research scientists, humanitarian leaders. Some of you may actually figure out how to get the road salt off my lawn before Memorial Day. One of you may be the second Vermonter to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

There is, however, nothing wrong in changing the world one child, one family, one neighborhood at a time.

If nothing else, it may help keep you sane in a world that more times than not seems certifiable.

Will even that be easy? Of course not.

But here is what will be easy: You can't possibly do a worse job than my generation or the generations that came before me. When I was sitting where you are, I was surrounded by people who anticipated making documentaries about the downtrodden and starting shelters for the homeless and writing musicals that would make people forget Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Some of them choose instead to become lawyers at very large, multinational corporations that don't care a twit about the Third World as anything more than a profit center.

But not all. Not all.

Some really have gone to places where there is famine and poverty and plague. And they haven't had to go far.

Others are the schoolteachers and the social workers and the nurses who change the world one student, one foster child, one patient at a time. We don't read about them in our alumni magazines, but they make a difference in the universe that is incalculable.

There's an old Ben & Jerry's bumper sticker that always frustrated me a little bit: "If it's not fun, why do it?"

Make no mistake, I love Ben & Jerry's and all that they have done, so I am giving them a mulligan — a do-over, a pass — on this one. The Ben & Jerry's Foundation is a force of nature for good.

But the fact it, the world needs you to do lots of things that aren't fun.

Do you think it's fun to change a patient's catheter? Do you think it's fun to be a victim's rights advocate at the Edward J. Costello Courthouse on Cherry Street, meeting day after day with battered women?

Do you think it's fun to be Rita Markley of COTS, working 24/7 to champion the homeless and find them shelter? Or Mark Redmond of Spectrum, sleeping outside at the Unitarian Church to raise awareness of the work his organization does with teens? Or Spectrum's Annie Ramniceanu, helping people younger than you win their wars with substance abuse?

Look, Rita IS fun. Mark IS fun. Annie IS fun. I know them all.

And they LOVE their jobs.

But be brave like them and accept that life is not. . .an ice cream cone.

Moreover, there is something more meaningful than what we do. It's who we are.

There is something lovely to be said for knowing that, if nothing else, you can have writ large on your tombstone in sixty years any or all of the following:

  • Tried like hell to be a good dad.
  • Loved her children madly.
  • Was always there for his family.
  • Made time for the people she loved.
  • Walked lightly on the planet.
  • Never left a room without telling her family she loved them.
  • Remembered, on occasion, to say thank you. Thank you for the small pleasures that can fill a life.
  • Took the time to reread Turgenev.
  • Was grateful.
  • Was decent.
  • Was kind.

I've sold a good number of books in my life, but the reality is that isn't what will go on my tombstone when I die or represent my legacy. Because it really is the small things that comprise a life, those moments that are transcendent because you are with someone you love or have surprised yourself with a haphazard, completely arbitrary deed that has given someone else (and, thus, you too) an unexpected moment of grace.

That is my daughter's name, incidentally. Grace.

Her middle name is Experience.

And so she goes by Grace Experience. Grace, the gift which we are all given at birth, and Experience, that which we earn every day of our lives.

All of you have worked hard the past four years.

Well, some of you have. Your professors have told me who hasn't.

But if you're wearing your cap and gown now, it doesn't matter. You're getting out. You're getting out with a diploma, experience, and a measure of grace.

Once more this great spinning gumball has reason for hope.

For renewal.

For rejuvenation.

And so speaking as a guy from a generation that still doesn't quite get it, I congratulate you. I applaud you. But more than that, I thank you. This is your world: Live it, love it, heal it.

God bless you all.


Since 1878, Champlain College has provided career-focused education to students from its hilltop campus in Burlington, Vt. Champlain's distinctive educational approach embodies the notion that true learning only occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain offers traditional undergraduate and online undergraduate courses, along with online certificate and degree programs and eight master's degree programs. Champlain offers study abroad programs at its campuses in Montreal, Quebec and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 378 Colleges: 2014 Edition. Champlain was named a "Top-Up-and-Coming School" by U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges and is ranked in the top tier of 2013 Regional Colleges in the North. For more information, visit www.champlain.edu


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