Graduation Speech

On May 25th, 2013 was the graduation of the Class of 2013 of my school. I delivered a speech during the graduation ceremony; though I did have a decent amount of public speaking experience, it was my first time addressing such a large crowd. And, having watched the video of the speech, I’ve now identified parts of my speech-giving method that I should improve! The link to the GoogleDoc version is provided at the end of the text:

Graduation Speech May 25th 2013, Shaakya Vembar

Dear parents, faculty and board members, and guests, thank you for joining the Class of 2013 on this occasion.

Nine years ago I was sitting on a swing on my school’s playground with my best friend beside me, when I started to get a sense of how strange the concept of goodbye is. It was after she’d broken the news of her imminent move from Jakarta to Singapore- the news that she wouldn’t be there the next year. Blindly anticipating the implications of her words to hit me at a much later point, I continued to swing, exhausting my energy on thinking of ways to express the condolences called for at times like that. The feelings of loss and grief that were expected of one in such situations were frustratingly absent in me, and nine years later I have yet to feel my gut slice out a niche to process the loss of that friend, and many more since.

The goodbyes that I’m most familiar with can be described quite simply as straightforward short business-like and clinical. To an outside observer, my behavior that day on the swings would have suggested the formal completion of a transaction more than anything else. A few weeks ago I was trying to reconstruct and make sense of that nine-year-old memory, when I started to wonder whether a sort of neutral and detached approach to relationships hasn’t become commonplace nowadays. Quick introductions and acquaintances seem to be in fashion, I thought, and I was reminded of my parents’ advice for me to hone the enterprising, and to me sometimes insincere, skill of networking, one I’m hesitant to apply if it means only superficially knowing the person I network with. Is this what friendship is coming to? A networking opportunity? I sweated that day, as nervous energy built up in my chest and I braced for a small-scale panic attack. Worrying about what I thought, in my highly anxious state, was the brewing end of sincerity, I came to a realization that at once disappointed and subdued me: I am, however much I deny it, an embarrassingly sentimental and idealistic person, not unlike those 19th and 20th century modernists in my ardent but cynically expressed quest for some consistently elusive, translucent meaning that’s infused in friendships.

Being a generally reserved person, I habitually make jibes at such exasperated, and at times, severely drawn-out concerns. When our 10th grade English class was made to sit through a taped version of the play Death of a Salesman, I’ll admit I spent most of the time glaring irritatedly at the character Willy Loman and pitying my ears. I’m always incredulous when I catch myself yearning for things like: the bygone days of true camaraderie, the days when people knew those they worked with like they were siblings, and neighbors took care of each others’ children like they were their own. When goodbyes were tragedies- that is, yearning for some idyllic scene possibly made up in my mind. A Portuguese concept called saudade, describes that exact feeling. It is tinged with melancholy, and is uncharacteristically one of my favorite words.

Foolishly I have attempted to disabuse myself of the idea of harboring this kind of borderline emotionality: No way, you can’t be that person, I say to myself. Do you think you’d want anyone around you to know all the ins and outs of your life? I mean, please, you take the stairs to your house to avoid having elevator chats with your neighbors. Nevertheless, a similar sensation carries through in my treatment of farewells. It takes on an appearance of outward disengagement and haste: broken eye-contact, feeble one-armed hugs, two or three concluding words at most, before leaving for the airport. Yet this type of conduct is at odds with a deep-seated, virtually genetically determined desire for a grand, sweeping, romantic goodbye- one fit for someone parting with their small town for good in exchange for a large and impersonal city, never to see their family again. I suppose some of the fear associated with bidding farewell to a place has to do with the fear of losing our beliefs and convictions as we leave, as if our personalities exist exclusively in the air of this or that city that colours us only when we breathe it in. You know, the fear that our personalities are not documented in text messages, and on Google Docs, not scrawled on the Facebook walls of our friends, and not contained in our own brains. It suffices to say that my situation is a far cry from the one just mentioned: I’m going from one big city that’s indifferent to my departure to another one indifferent to my arrival, and if it were up to my parents, I’d be seeing them for two hours every day over Skype.

Given that fact, my subconscious and seemingly apathetic response to goodbye is simply a reflection of its changing nature today. It is not a farewell to the sight or the conversations of people, or to witnessing their development- if anything, social networking has made this easier to do, enabling us to chat to others from the comfort of our beds or bathrooms, and compartmentalizing our lives in detailed and neatly organized timelines. Instead, perhaps it’s a farewell to the intangible and unique quality that permeates the atmosphere when certain people or groups of people interact. It’s the goodbye to human contact that we are, and always have been, wary of, because regardless of any amount of technology that we can get our hands on today, ultimately what we experience of people online is not reality. And that makes us endlessly unsatisfied. Maybe we confuse these two types of goodbyes because we’re in a transitional phase in which though the entirety of our lives is not yet found on the internet, enough of it is so that we’re able to maintain a strong connection with those who aren’t physically close to us. Our sneaking dread of a permanent goodbye, handed down to us by all of our internet-less ancestors, is searching for its role in our society, and as a result when we part with someone we acquire an almost comically passive aggressive attitude as we struggle to reconcile the rational knowledge that this relationship will continue in some form, with those weeping ancestral inclinations that refuse to believe in that rationality.

So where could these moments of mourning go, if they do end up finding themselves in a losing battle against technological objectivity? Surely our inner sentimentality wouldn’t take refuge in the hundreds of newsfeed updates we get on Facebook, or in the obsession of trawling through a former teacher’s timeline to revel in nostalgia and then discover all the lost years. I highly doubt it would make its way into the joy of smoothly unwrapping a person’s identity, click-by-click, like-by-like, photo-by-photo, and status update-by-status update, or into the relative anguish of finding a profile so private that only a measly, unrevealing name is to be seen. Clearly it wouldn’t escape to the pictures on Facebook, ever-increasing in size, wanting to nearly push us into them, and leaving us wanting to be pushed in, nor would it feature in the Tumblr reblogs of hyperrealist paintings, whose artists long to perfectly realize their (sometimes far-away or non-existent) scenes, their own saudades. And it certainly didn’t manifest in the repeated, frantic searches on peoplefinder.com, on Facebook, on Twitter, even on MySpace for that friend who left me by the swings, or in the ensuing disappointment when I found, again and again, not a trace of her online.

While we deal with the transfer of sentimental goodbyes from in-person behavior to internet behavior, over the next two months as we say goodbye to each other, I hope for the sake of optimism that we can at least delay our compulsion to feel totally heartbroken and sullen; the forecast isn’t completely gloomy. Yes, a very strange turn of events has caused me of all people to promote optimism….but only in select circumstances, of course. Thank you!

Graduation Speech

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