Last week I went to my first graduation ceremony since my own in 1990. Mine was filled with caps, gowns, traditional music, flags and honorary degrees. But this one at Hampshire College, settled on a pristine and isolated swath of land 5 miles outside of Amherst, MA, embodied a different spirit. One that was authentic to their culture and personality, and full of really sophisticated curse words and inside jokes.
The “keynote” graduation speaker was a comedian, Eugene Mirman, that attended Hampshire and studied, you guess it, comedy. Remember Hampshire is one of the last hold-outs for a pure liberal arts education. Everyone graduates on time because everyone designs their course of study. I remember reading on their website when my nephew was admitted 4 years ago: “1301 Students, 1301 Majors.” Their final project is affectionately called “Div Three.” When they graduate, they are then “Div Free.”
Mirman was very funny, relevant and well, a little jarring as evidenced by his opening statement:
“Congratulations you very accomplished hipsters and self-righteous hippies.”
Geek spoiler alert: When I was single in the 90s, I would watch C-Span on my free Saturdays in June and their back-t0-back broadcast of graduation talks. I even wrote to George Will and got a copy of his address to Washington University in St. Louis (and yes, I still have the hard copy since email and websites didn’t exist then). It was my sport. So returning to a real graduation (of course, I can’t remember for the life of me who spoke at my graduation from Miami University in 1990 – shocker!) was a bit like old home week.
Mr. Mirman, while he may not have showered before he appeared at Hampshire, did meet my smell test in several categories, most importantly, his laser focus on talking to the graduates (who also probably didn’t shower, come to think of it). His talk, or series of funny one-liners, was peppered with inside jokes about how he barely got into Hampshire, and seemingly, barely got out. The f-bomb appeared about 4 times, much to the discomfort of people like my 80-year old mother but to the delight of the 22-year old capless, gownless center crowd. There was much nervous laughter, the kind you get when you tell something really true and primal.
I was a little surprised however that Mirman appeared to be the juicy meat in a dagwood-style sandwich of other talks by the favorite graduate (also very witty), the favorite teacher, the favorite staff person, the fancy board chair, the new-ish President of the college (his first graduation ceremony ever as an adult I believe- he’d never worked in Academia before), and several other students and faculty introducing other students and faculty. All of this before they brought up the 360 graduates, clad in cut-off tshirts (my nephew), pajamas, sundresses and jeans, one-by-one to the stage.
While the traditions of formal graduations may have escaped the grips of this 40-year old school, one thing did not: I doubt anyone will remember the speech. Sadly. Because he really was funny. If I could just remember another joke he told….