I normally review concerts; however, this week’s blog observes and comments on an academic commencement. This deviation is due to two things: For one, I finally finished my Master’s degree in music from Webster University in St. Louis, MO; secondly, the concert I attended this weekend wasn’t blog worthy—unless you considered drunk slurring and vociferous, oppressively bad rock music celebrating, or, rather, degrading the sanctity of Mexican independence to be worthy of a short story.  I can see the title now: “Cinco de Mayo Gone Wry.” So no, I didn’t end up going to the city with a cute girl; I will this upcoming weekend! Therefore, this week’s blog is devoted to a sunny day at “The Muny in Forest Park.”

Platitudes Commence: Commencement 2016

“Dear God it’s hot.” I think to myself as “Pomp and Circumstance” marches through the PA speakers on this sunny, windy day 7 May 2016. “The Muny at Forest Park,” as the commercial anthem goes, is packed with thousands of soon-to-be-graduates adorned in square hats complimented below with colorful robes further embellished with sashes, tassels, stripes, scarfs, maces, and berets signifying varying levels of academic achievement; basically, the more embellished your attire, the more surly you’re allowed to be without coming off as haughty. In this sense, lavished sartorial designs reflect honorable intelligence rather than state-of-the-art fashion sense.  Thankfully, such aberrations in decorum are appropriate but once a year.

“Why are the ladies on both sides of the stage conducting Pomp and Circumstance to nobody?” Asks the simply dressed fine arts graduate sitting next to me.

“They’re acting as translators for auditory impaired patrons in attendance today.” I reply with a haughty tone of condescension belied by the comparatively lavish sash I wear around my neck. Luckily, the condescension passes over the cute brunette sitting to my right as she chuckles and then says, “Oh, right.” And now the fine arts section of the audience, and, everyone else in attendance, braces for the procession of bagpipers as they march on stage and the commencement begins.

As the bagpipers belt out their Celtic theme in a major key, the lavishly dressed professors and PhD candidates process in succeeding fashion from the rear of the theater and take refuge on the shaded Muny stage. Everyone in their seats, a chamber ensemble of talented young vocalists take the stage to sing Webster’s new alma mater, “Webster U. You are Our Home.”

“I’m so happy for Chris.” I think to myself in recognition of my fellow fine arts graduate and composer of the above mentioned alma mater. You see, Chris won the composer competition last year for composing “Webster U.” And now I’m hearing it for the first time; tears are swelling up in my eyes as I take in the beauty of the piece and sense the piquant adoration I am feeling for the man sitting two rows in front of me; Chris is going to the prestigious USC next year to attend film-scoring school. “What a pleasure it is to share this commencement with such talented, intelligent beings both on and off stage.” I think to myself as Webster University’s president, Elizabeth J. Stroble, now takes to the podium to provide us with the commencement’s opening remarks.

After a few bromides are spoken in acknowledgement of the hard work achieved by today’s graduates, the moment of the commencement speech finally comes. Jim Weddle, managing partner of Edward Jones Investments, takes the podium and makes an honest observation of how all speeches should be orated:

“What I know about good speeches is this: they should all start with a great opening statement, end with a great closing statement, and be as close together as possible.”

So true. With the sun beating down on the thickly dressed graduates, now sweating profusely through their undergarments, the orator addresses a bulk of the demographic sitting below him:

“The majority of you fit into what is called the ‘Millennial Generation.’ That is, most of you were born in the early 80s to the early 2000s. And us baby boomers [Mr. Weddle initially graduated from Webster in the 70s…] are having a hard time understanding you. You all just do whatever you want.”

And now I’m thinking to myself, “Is he really going to spend the majority of his address talking down to the generation in front of him?”

“You all have a hard time communicating with people . . . My advice, just put down your cellphones while you’re in a meeting at work. Pay attention.” Mr. Weddle continues his harangue of condescension. Although the speaker is doing his best to woo the young constituents in from of him, his opening remarks sound quite acerbic in my ears. Finally, the speaker switches gears and makes a meaningful observation about us ‘Millennials’.”

“Whenever I think of your generation [the Millennial Generation], I quote the late Oscar Wilde who once said, ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ You see, your generation stays true to themselves more than any other. You seek what is truly in your heart.”

And now the condescension transmutes to emphatic inquiry as the speaker asks us ‘Millennials’ to continue our quests of self-enlightenment and to not retract from our current paths of truthfulness.

“Why hasn’t every generation acted in a similar way?” I think to myself. “Why haven’t all generations sought the truth in everything they due instead of settling for a relegation of the truth brought on by oppression; the strictures of society and Uncle Sam delegating everyone to a shameful existence of fallacy. Instead, neglect the oppressions and move forward towards enlightenment in everything you do. Because if you strike out attempting to please others, you only learn that true fulfillment comes from within.”

This speech is beginning to have the effect on me that all good speeches do. I’m challenging my perspective, thinking critically about what’s being preached, and observing how big of a splash it produces in my pool of ideas. Sadly, lot of commencement speakers have a more soporific effect, due to, their lethargic, not well thought out prose inundated with useless clichés adorning hard work and perseverance. Contrarily, Jim Weddle’s speech is building vigor and interest. Now my thoughts subsume me and a political rant is taking place in my inner dialogue:

“Why is it that people don’t seek fulfillment in their dreams? Why the hell should we increase the minimum wage to $16 an hour when fast-food joints and other minimum-wage jobs are simply a stepping stone to more fulfilling careers? I get the argument that workers living in poverty most likely aren’t qualified for higher paying gigs. However, I believe the crux of American enterprise is due to lacking work ethic: the McDonald’s worker who keeps forgetting to put napkins, ketchup, or, your order in the to-go bag, the Starbuck’s barista who puts whole milk in the lactose intolerant customer’s coffee, the Taco Bell worker at the drive through window who keeps forgetting to put the soft taco in with the rest of your combo of inauthentic, Mexican cuisine, and the retail associate who rings out two different-sized shoes for a customer with equally proportionate feet. None of them should be awarded for these lacking efforts. Now, I realize that not all lower-level employees practice such failing work efforts. However, adding to the wages of such a dilapidated work environments only increases the acceptance of poor work ethics. If only everyone in the world could attend college, or gain the personal edification that qualifies attendance at this commencement.”

The fact is, everyone deserves to be lifted up with a commencement speech. Everyone deserves the fulfillment that comes from working hard and the succeeding address that compliments such success. Everyone deserves a career that fuels their catharsis and the equivalent monetary bonus to pay for the sweat and tears, the perseverance, and hard work accomplished along the way.

“Essentially, I believe pecuniary interests should not become augmented until the equivalent work ethic and sustained results have been proven. I’m not for an authoritarian leadership. I simply believe my ‘Millennial’ constituents and I are for the fulfillment that results from pouring your heart into your dreams. No one has the dream of working in fast food the rest of his or her life. I’ve never seen such a dream reflected in the eyes of anyone working for the pittance that is minimum wage. But that’s what it is, a pittance. Like most scholarships and grants, the limited monetary support underwrites the beginning of a better existence; the beginning of a future life of fulfillment; and, the beginning of a dream soon not deferred. Everyone can and deserves to achieve thus. I hope all of us in our fancy robes and colorful embellishments realize this and take action. I know I will.

The bagpipes reenter. The commencement is already over.

-Layton (5/7/2016)

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