Insight from the seniors: The runner up’s graduation speech

Daniel Bidikov, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

A committee of teachers and students selected Murphy Siegel to speak at the June 22 graduation ceremony.  Below is an excerpt from the runner-up speech by Daniel Bidikov.

This is the way that graduation speeches work: first, the speaker will humanize the struggle of leaving school and growing up.  Usually, he or she does this by sharing an anecdote or drawing out a metaphor—something that’s poignant, inspiring, but leaves room for jokes.  Then, the speaker will say, don’t worry!  It’s okay.  Your education has prepared you in some way that you didn’t consider to, at the very least, deal with the grueling experience that is the rest of your life.

I don’t think this’ll work like that.  I don’t think it can, possibly.  Because, unlike the former presidents, celebrated authors, famous actors and overachieving high school seniors who often give graduation speeches, I have no idea how to succeed in life.  Nor do I have a clue how getting an education might relate to doing so.  I’m not even the valedictorian.  As someone who is barely a high school graduate, I have little wisdom to offer that I can say with any confidence will make you a better high school graduate.  I have nothing to say about growing up and facing the challenges of the future.  We’re the same age.  I do, however, have something to say about why I went to school.  It comes from a question my parents used to ask me a lot—

“what did you learn in school today?”  and the groans of “nothing” and “whatever” that I offered as a response more or less always.  I wrote it to sound like a graduation speech, so that nobody feels like they didn’t get what they came for.  This is the way it’s going to work:

Like you, I’ve been learning for a long time.  And for some of that time, education seemed to make sense.  Potty training, the alphabet, don’t touch hot things.  But at a point, the purpose of being schooled became less clear cut.  And the act became more difficult.  It started to require homework, practice, discipline, waking up, pants—a lot of things I feel like I could do without in my life, and still be pretty happy.  I feel, sometimes, that I would be better off had I stopped receiving an education after “don’t touch hot things” became clear.  I considered the benefits.  I would still have plenty to talk about—conversation exists and even thrives without any thought behind it (watch a political debate for reference).  It’s not like education is that hard to avoid—no one really makes you keep it up, it’s not more than a little paperwork to drop out, and if you’re willing, you can make a decent to decadent living without learning anything on the job.  Plenty of bank executives have done that.  No offense, present bank executives.  And then it’s the weekend.  A chance to spend two full days reveling in blissful ignorance, basking in refusal of awareness, thankfully to be busied quickly enough with work before it starts to sink in that living that way is boring.

Besides, we are a practical people.  And we don’t prioritize fun, nor do we make it our goal in most professional situations to minimize how boring things are.  Fair enough—it’s hard to argue that having fun is more important than making a living or raising a family or carrying out whatever other easily misunderstood activities we traditionally attribute to adulthood.  It’s even harder to argue that learning is fun.  But if by some ridiculous stretch that is the case, why is it worth the apparent sacrifice of being serious?  It all begs the question, why bother?

After a point, it doesn’t seem like you get much mileage out of learning something, whether it’s strictly academic or more personally, emotionally relevant.  The value of lessons as you go along becomes less basic and more abstract.  I believed, as I’m sure most high school students believe, that I was constantly obligated to justify the fact that I had learned something that didn’t involve food or shelter or toilet skills—a few personal examples: how to play an instrument, do calculus, cope with failure and loss.  Maybe I had to explain it to someone else, but usually to myself, because I wanted to be absolutely certain that the life I had spent on whatever it was I learned was worth it.  And it’s not hard to do, outwardly.  Consider: I spent hours and thousands on violin lessons to make nice sounds, I did my math homework (sometimes) so that I could grasp an employable and impressive skill, and I learned by losing, over and over again, to deal with losing, because the television told me that when you are an adult, your life is very difficult, and thus, full of failure.

But that’s too easy.  Because learning all of these things was tough and required a lot of work, and as a result, the reason for learning them, it feels, should be a little less superficial-sounding, a little less in plain sight.

A disclaimer: I am not the type to hunt for meaning in meaningless experience.  I do not advocate treating every coincidental “anything” that happens to you as an essential pivot point in your life story, nor do I suggest going about your day looking for personal narrative.  I do not believe that people need to or necessarily can possibly find the reason that they exist in everyday life.  But I did, a little while ago, find myself with a bathroom full of ants.

They were in the toilet bowl, and behind the mirror, and on the edge of the bathtub, and I wanted them all dead.  Because ants are gross.  They have weird heads and they walk all over the watermelon at barbecues and their whole being feels like a weirdly proportioned waste of talent.  Why are they so strong?  Why are they so smart?  The real question is: why do I care?  This is ridiculous!  And the answer, much like what I believe is the real answer to the question of why we have been encouraged so strongly to learn and so strongly to do so further, is sort of hard to come by.

After the ants and I met, I left the bathroom in a confused, inexplicably itchy rage and began to research the most effective way to deal with the issue.  I went to Google, “ants in bathroom,” and found several search results in which people recounted their own disgusting, bewildering experiences with ants in places they would not like to have seen ants.

These are some ways to get rid of ants in your house: borax, red pepper, table salt, commercial baits.  I didn’t try any of them.  The ants went away.  I strongly considered borax.  But then I was walking down the street going somewhere and a woman on her phone walked into me and I got really mad and I turned around to tell her off and then I thought, “what if she has ants in her bathroom, too?”

Well, she could try borax.  Or red pepper.  But it wouldn’t make a difference if she did either or both or nothing at all, because it doesn’t matter that she knows how to get rid of ants, the same way it doesn’t matter if I know that she has a pest problem and may be justified in her aggressive manner of walking because her legs are as itchy as mine.  It matters that the two of us have the capacity to learn something from bumping into each other.  Something about dealing with stress, about considering others, about realizing that no matter how privileged or destitute other people are they still deserve and exercise the same rights to both joy and suffering.  Because, and this is the part of the speech that I think is important, learning is very different from

Somebody on the Internet knew for me that there was a specific way to get rid of bugs the same way that teachers and textbooks and particularly profound movies know for you the explicitly visible lessons that they present.  It was on me, likewise, on all of you, to learn something from the fact that not only does a problem like this exist, but that it can exist for everybody who lives on the same planet as ants, therefore, on the same planet as other people.

My pest problem was an issue that, while a little shallow, involved organisms other than myself, and a problem that, in order for me to adequately resolve, demanded that I consider the fact of the existence of others.  And even though I only imagined that the woman who was so rude to me had a relatable excuse for being like that, it was enough.  Because understanding is as much all in your head as ignorance.  And what really matters, in the end, is what’s in your head, seeing as that’s the only thing you ever get to actually experience.

So I came to realize that people bother to learn because they want, as anybody does, as all of you do at least I hope, to affirm in themselves both independence as people who are capable of action and thought, and the ability to exist in context as people who never forget that everyone’s life is just as bad as theirs.  If I hadn’t put in an effort to learn something, about the violin or math or pesticides or anything, I wouldn’t have the right to distinguish myself as someone who had learned, someone who had a real capacity to be and to do and to think that carries outside of a classroom.  I didn’t end up caring about what problems other people had and how many times their own weight ants could lift because I thought that learning about those things would be at all interesting or useful.  I ended up caring about that stuff because I came to believe via my education that every situation was better if I bothered to learn, if I bothered to think, and if I bothered to keep an open mind.  That being engaged, being tolerant, being equally critical and accepting, that’s what makes day to day situations livable when they’re no longer day to day situations, when they become life.  It’s livable, because it’s not boring.  Because it’s never the same.  Because learned situations invite, as education invites, nuance and further consideration, optimism and opportunity.  Even if you’re not completely sure you know how to think, you know that the option exists.  You know that because you’re here, because you made it this far, because you cared enough to use your head when you didn’t have to.  And being that way, having that pleasure, is great, especially because it doesn’t require further explanation.  No one will ever question your reasoning for wanting to be a person.  And no one you want to know will ever question your reasoning for wanting to be a better person.

So my high school education did not get rid of the ants in my bathroom.  It did, however, get rid of a pretty big misconception in my head, dissolving the embarrassing notion that I was the only person out there.  To that end, it made my life more worth living.  And while some of you aren’t continuing your education formally, don’t feel like this doesn’t apply.  Acknowledge that an education is found everywhere that is worth being.  Not just a school.  That’s why I believe you bothered, and why I believe you should continue to bother.