North Woods Graduation
At the Jackman commencement, I may have been the only one wearing a sport coat.
- By: Michael Burke
The auditorium at the high school in Jackman was also a gym, the kind of gym where if you went in too hard for a lay-up you were likely to mash your face on the stage, or, at the other end, fall through the serving area into the kitchen. It was also sweltering inside, for Maine, and I may have been the only person wearing a sport coat.
I was there as the commencement speaker for the high school graduation ceremony of Forest Hills High School, a ceremony held to honor the tiny class of eleven. I was an unlikely commencement speaker. I’d never done one before, and had no relation to the high school, or to Jackman, for that matter, except for being there once, years before, flying in with a Maine Game Warden pilot who landed on Wood Pond and taxied up on a lawn near a café where we ate lunch. I didn’t notice the café as I drove into town that afternoon, distracted by the impressive views to be had in all directions as one approaches the Moose River valley in which Jackman rests.
I had been invited to speak by a former student, now an English teacher at Forest Hills, and, given the novelty of the invitation, couldn’t refuse. My job, as with most commencement speakers, was to say something meaningful, but not take too long about it. I thought I knew what I would say as soon as I agreed to give the talk. I wrote a couple of drafts, tinkered a bit, read it out loud once or twice, and was set.
There had been many pieces to the program by the time my turn came — a song sung by a local mother; a slide show covering the lives of the graduating seniors; flowers delivered by the seniors to family members in the audience; “Pomp and Circumstance” played on a rickety old piano; introductions of each of the seniors; the class president’s greeting; the valedictorian’s speech, done partly in French, in homage to Quebec next door.
Then me. I mounted the wooden steps to the stage, told the seniors closest to the podium in a stage whisper that I’d be quick, which got a grateful smile, then I launched in.
I said that I would be briefer and less profound than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous “Divinity School Address,” and longer and less profound than Lincoln at Gettysburg; told them I wasn’t going to offer any advice, as they were now graduates, the ones who knew things the rest of us didn’t know, or had now forgotten, and besides, “one shouldn’t take advice from strangers”; and then I introduced my theme: “I want to tell you how lucky you are to be graduates of Forest Hills High School in Jackman, Maine, hard by the Quebec border.” I continued, “You are the fortunate few precisely because you are here, in Jackman. Eighty percent of Americans now live in what are defined as urban or suburban environments, where, if they’re lucky, they have an eighth of an acre of land with a house on it — you have space here. Most Americans spend about twenty-five minutes a day commuting to work, a hundred hours per year in traffic. If you drive twenty-five minutes a day to school, I’m guessing it isn’t in traffic.
Most Americans don’t know their neighbors; you do. And from my point of view, the most important reason why you’re lucky is that every day you have a fairly immediate experience with the natural world; most Americans don’t.”
I had hit my stride, I was on my way home, I was feeling good about the message I was delivering. I assured them they should be proud of being from a small town, that they were lucky in all sorts of quirky ways to be different from the rest of twenty-first century America. And then it dawned on me: they probably knew this already. It might never have occurred to them to doubt that they were lucky, and they weren’t ashamed of being from a small town (“the Switzerland of Maine”). They didn’t need to be told they were
unusual and to be envied, even in a stuffy auditorium cum gym.
It was an act of arrogance on my part, a remnant of the assumptions I brought to Maine with me from urban California years ago. Like many other commencement speakers before me, I got halfway through and began to sweat — not just from the suffocating room — realizing it was all wrong; I’d written the wrong speech, my assurances to the graduates about their uniqueness unneeded.
Fortunately, the eleven forgave me. I left Jackman with a brand new Forest Hills “Tigers” ball cap, a tie, and a gift certificate for a steak dinner in town, and a reminder that rural living doesn’t require excuses, or apologies, or defenses. At least I’d been right about one thing: they did possess knowledge I’d forgotten, or not yet learned.
- By: Michael Burke