Dave Barry

Classic '96: Commencement address


This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, May 9, 1996.

Members of the Class of 1996, as I stand here before you, gazing out upon your eager young faces, watching me so intently, the question that comes to my mind is: What if I have to scratch myself? I'd have to distract you somehow, perhaps by . . . HEY! LOOK OVER THERE! THE UNABOMBER!

No, sorry, I was mistaken. Anyway, members of the Class of 1996, today is a very big day for you. For today you will leave the safety and comfort of the academic world -- a world of college and classes; of tests and teams; of professors and proms; of books and barfing on your roommate after attending the Phi Delta Zeet fraternity's Quart Size Martini Night.

Yes, members of the Class of 1996, college has been fun, but the time for fun is over. Now you must take off your comical rented graduation outfits and go forth into the world, unless you are one of the slower students, in which case you must go fifth. Ha ha! Get it? I will pause here for laughter.

But seriously, young people, you are entering a world that has many problems. I am reminded of the words of President Bill Clinton, who, in a recent speech at Yale University, said: "We, as a nation, must make a decision: Are we going to go out and DO something about our problems? Or are we going to remain here and finish these doughnuts? Because I notice there are still some chocolate ones left."

What do President Clinton and I mean when we talk about "problems?" For one thing, we mean corporate "downsizing." Take for example AT&T, which recently, in a cost-cutting move, fired all of its employees. The only person left there is the CEO, who makes $257 million per year and spends his days squatting on top of his desk, fearfully clutching a letter opener, because the corporate headquarters, lacking even janitorial workers, is overrun by rats.

And believe me, things are no better in the journalism industry. At one time, 100 percent of the content of American newspapers was produced by American workers. But today, because of layoffs and "outsourcing," more than a quarter of the words you read -- including nearly half of the verbs -- are produced by low-paid workers in Taiwan. Newspaper quality are definitely suffering, but ironically the stock prices is higher than they ever be.

So the employment trend does not bode well for you, members of the Class of 1996. It bodes badly. You cannot expect to simply remove your diamond nostril stud, walk into a major corporation and get a high-paying position; you will find that most  of the openings available to you are in the field of retail yogurt. But does that mean you should get depressed? Does that mean that your diploma is a worthless piece of paper best suited for cleaning up spilled Yoo-Hoo? Of course not! It is nowhere near absorbent enough!

Besides which, you don't NEED to beg a large corporation for a job. You can be an entrepreneur! Look at Bill Gates! Here's a person who, despite having few assets and the charisma of paste wax, was able to create a software empire so vast and pervasive that "Windows 95" now comes pre-installed on virtually every personal computer and many kitchen appliances. What is Bill Gates' secret? What, exactly, did he do that enabled him to rise so much faster than his peers, and become so wealthy that he uses disposable helicopters? The answer is: He dropped out of college. While his peers were frittering away their brainpower studying for exams in which they had to name three French Impressionist masters, Bill was out making money. He now has French Impressionist masters painting his garage. The same can be said for Shaquille O'Neal.

But does this mean that just because you, the Class of 1996, have indulged in four years of brain-frittering, your future is hopeless? Does it mean that you have to slink back home and live with your parents? Does it mean that, from now on, you'll be awakened every morning at 6 a.m. by those noises that your dad makes in the bathroom? What is he doing in there? Strangling a pig? Does it mean you'll have to listen to that radio station your mom listens to -- the "oldies" station that never  plays anything except the top hits of 1964, over and over and over and over and over, so that one bleak afternoon, when, for what seems like the 11th time that day, you'll hear the opening strains of Baby Love, and you'll decide you can't take it any more, and you'll make a fatal leap from your bedroom window? Is that what you have to look forward to, Class of 1996?

As the French Impressionist masters say: "Au contraire!" (Literally, "negatory!") For one thing, your bedroom is on the first floor. For another thing, there is always hope for a brighter tomorrow. I am reminded of the words of former president Thomas Jefferson, who, delivering a commencement address at UCLA, concluded his remarks by telling the graduates . . . HEY! LOOK OVER THERE! ELVIS