The most famous commencement address was never delivered at a graduation. In June 1997 Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, published what seemed like a perennial cliché—the commencement address she would have given if asked—centered around one critical piece of advice: wear sunscreen.
Two years later, Australian film director Baz Luhrmann set Schmich’s column to music, hired voice actor Lee Perry to record it, and released a music single, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” that went on to top the music charts around the world. (If you listen to popular radio, you’re likely to hear the song again sometime during this graduation season.)
Comprising a series of pithy and humorous admonitions to young people, the song begins:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’97:
Wear sunscreen . . .
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth, oh nevermind, you will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded.
But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now, how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked; you are not as fat as you imagine.
Don’t worry about the future, or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.
Do one thing everyday that scares you.
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
Schmich’s column contains the usual commencement clichés (don’t worry about the future), obvious good advice (respect your elders), and useful banalities (floss). But it also includes advice that could be a license for immorality (enjoy your body; use it every way you can).
The most popular commencement address never given falls short of the biblical ideal at several points. But what would a biblical commencement address sound like? And who would be the best person to deliver such a speech?
Several candidates from the New Testament may seem to be obvious choices (the apostles Peter or Paul), though wouldn’t they be more likely to deliver a sermon than a graduation address? Similarly, the Old Testament offers a range of excellent speakers—namely all the prophets. But if you were waiting to get your diploma and head off to the post-graduation party, wouldn’t you be disheartened to see Isaiah take the stage? When you consider all the options there is only one clear favorite, a man who would have been the best commencement speaker in history: King Solomon.
Solomon had all the attributes we look for in a commencement speaker. He was fabulously wealthy, accomplished (his biography as well as three of his written works are included in the best-selling book of all time), worldly-wise (“I have seen everything that is done under the sun. . .”), and able to provide suitably aphoristic advice for young people (he even wrote a wildly popular advice book).
Had Solomon given a commencement address similar to Schmich’s, I suspect it would have sounded something like this . . .
The Commencement Address King Solomon (Probably) Would Have Given
People often ask, “What’s the key to success?” My father—who was quite a success himself—gave me some sound advice on the subject: “Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses.”
One of the most important things I know is this: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
I knew a kid once who was poor but wise. He went from being in prison to become a king. Led a great number of people. But now no one remembers him—at least not fondly. He was better off being poor. What happened to him? Well, after he got in power he no longer knew how to take advice. The lesson: Listen to advice and accept instruction, so that you may gain wisdom in the future.
I had a dream once that God would give me whatever I asked. If you ever have a similar dream, here’s what I recommend: Don’t ask God to give you wealth or a long life. Ask for an understanding mind and the ability to discern good from evil.
Keep your tongue and you’ll keep out of trouble. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. Sure, you may have iPhones and Starbucks now. But when it comes down to it, there is nothing really all that new.
Buy truth, and do not sell it. Buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding too.
Aim to get rich slowly. Wealth gained hastily will dwindle; wealth gained little by little increases.
Go out into the grass and find some ants. Watch what they do. Notice how even this insect works hard preparing for the future? You should do the same.
Don’t ever say, “Why were the former days better than these?” Wise people never ask that question.
Even fools who keep their mouths shut seem wise. So if you want people to think you’re intelligent, close your lips.
Don’t take everything people say to heart. You know that many times you yourself have cursed others.
When you vow a vow to God, pay it as soon as you can. God takes no pleasure in fools, so pay what you vow.
Don’t spend too much time drinking alcohol. It may go down smooth, but in the end, it’ll bite you like a snake.
The more you know, the more the world breaks your heart.
Never trust a woman who would accept half a baby.