A Graduation Send-Off Speech to My Former Students

Maria Nazos

As we approach stranger times, I keep wanting to say something to my former students.

You’re entering the world at a precarious time. Many if not most if you didn’t enjoy all the accoutrements of a proper graduation. Now, regardless, whether you’re ready or not you’ve plunged headfirst into an unpredictable and uncertain world.   

Still, the real world needs you. Interpret that term, “real world,” as you want. The real world may be a Scooters coffee shop. The real world may be an overnight job as a copy-editor. The real world may be a tenure-track position, or a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia.

The real world may be bartending on a whale-watch boat. The real world may be (and this is autobiographical) a nonprofit organization in Lincoln, Nebraska. I have done these jobs, and promise that whatever you do, this world needs you. 

When I heard those words, I was sitting in Ted Kooser’s office. Ted has been a friend and mentor from when I was a lost graduate student embarking on an endless PhD, up until now, seven years later. 

I was telling Ted how much I loved my job, how strange it was (and is) to receive amusement, warmth, and appreciation from the very professionals I’d feared because I thought they’d reject me. Or, upon pending the real world’s acceptance, I’d assumed I’d need to sacrifice my character, my outspokenness, a limb.

Ted said, “Maria, the real world needs you. You’re talented and fun and smart.”

Suddenly, my tiny world broke open into a place of abundance. The real world needs me, and it needs you, too. You beautiful weirdos, you artists, poets, visionaries, madmen.

Consider me the idiot-bell-ringer. I’ve been called worse: The real world needs you

This world may not be welcoming, but it will welcome you provided that you keep your options open, your hope alive, and your interpretation of “real” as that which remains authentic to you. 

Whether you’re looking for a full-time job, are about to give up, or want to pursue a creative graduate degree, and parents and advisors are telling you that path isn’t practical, I’m here to tell you to tell them as respectfully as possible, that is bullshit. 

What you do has less to do with your degree, GPA, or talent, and more to do with the handwritten thank-you cards you write to those who took the time to support you, how little you whine, and how many applicable skills you learn. 

Creativity isn’t an either-or mentality: either I go to grad school and become a professor or I bartend. Either I obtain a full-time corporate job or remain “creative” as an academic. Either I publish a book and succeed, or I don’t. Either I blog or write creatively. Either I take my BA in Marketing and get a job, or I take a degree in English and I’m forever unemployed. Either I am unhappy, creative, and broke or abundant and healthy, and don’t write.

These ultimatums need to stop. 

If your current profession isn’t working, if you’re an overworked graduate student driven to apply for teaching jobs despite well-meaning albeit tiresome reminders that the academic job market sucks, I am not telling you to quit. 

I am telling you that there is a world that embraces thoughtful, weird, well-spoken, well-written people. People will think you are an absolute trip. Those who work in the professional field tend to love people who are a bit strange; you make them think. You make them laugh. They embrace your weirdness. They’ve never met anyone like you.  

That world will welcome you. Maybe not today or how you envision, but keep your mind and heart open, and you will be welcomed. 

I can’t prescribe your solution or tell you that your life will mirror mine, but what I can tell you is that the following statements are untrue: 

a) English majors don’t get jobs

b) The arts are dead

c) If you can’t secure a career in higher education, then certainly you must swallow a bottle of Klonopin and go to sleep on a bed of broken dreams

d) Writers with full-time, fulfilling jobs don’t have time to write creatively, 

and e) If you are a writer, you should teach

The academy may not be alive and well, but the professional world is. The arts are not dead: MFA and doctoral programs are thriving, and there is an abundance of organizations that yearn for a well-spoken, thoughtful writer. 

Meanwhile, SEO, blogging, and reporting are alive and well.

I am not saying to stop applying for academic jobs; I am saying that we live in an abundant world where, despite its ugliness, your talents are a commodity, so don’t sell them short. 

From my years as creative writing instructor, graduate student, bartender, sunglass salesperson, and, for about a week, a go-go-dancer, I was shocked by the “can’t” and “don’t” and “should” language emphasized by a world which needs to empower us. 

The world needs creatives. Many people, due to a lack of privilege, cannot write well, and I’m not just talking about students. I am referring to corporations, small and big companies, and start-ups, all need writers, bloggers, strategists. 

I can’t promise the real world will be gentle: this world can be cruel, which is why we can’t submit to the incant of “can’t.”

As someone who pursues a well-compensating, fulfilling life as a writer, I’m aware that the world isn’t perfect, that’s why we need you.  

You know how at the end of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter escapes his maximum-security cell speaks on the phone with Clarice Starling before he disappears? 

He tells her that he’ll let her live; she makes this world more interesting. 

My fellow artists and former students, this world is Hannibal Lecter, and you are Clarice. No, life isn’t kind, but it’s more interesting with you here, and you are needed. 

 

Maria Nazos

Maria Nazos’ poetry, translations, and lyrical essays are published in The New YorkerThe Tampa Review, North American ReviewThe Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of A Hymn That Meanders (2011 Wising Up Press) and the chapbook Still Life (2016 Dancing Girl Press). Her work has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from The Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s English Ph.D. program, she can be found at www.marianazos.com.