Ask most 40-somethings to recall the subject of their high school graduation speech and most will say, “Huh?” They were way too busy sneaking sips from flasks to pay attention to some old duffer talk about the importance of this moment, a new beginning, opportunity unlimited, yadda, yadda.
I, however, remember my high school graduation speech quite clearly because I am a geek and because that man whose name I don’t remember said something I needed to hear. It resonated in my soul, this thing I already “knew” but had never thought relevant to myself. So I listened.
And I was a geek. Did I mention that?
Nameless Graduation Speaker began his speech with a reading from The Hobbit. A little background on my relationship with the venerable J. R. R. Tolkien is in order here. My long obsession with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings began in seventh grade. When I was a senior, my mother walked into my room and picked up my dog-eared copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. She read a random line from a random page. I promptly told her she was reading from the chapter titled “The Council of Elrond” and that Boromir was speaking, and then I quoted the poem below that bit of dialogue in its entirety. Mom threw the book on the bed in disgust and walked out. I smirked in a very self-satisfied sort of way, and there the memory ends.
Yes, I was a geek.
So when Nameless Graduation Speaker launched in on The Hobbit, he captured my complete attention. For those who haven’t read it, the first chapter of The Hobbit takes our unlikely hero, the fat, comfortable, complaisant Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, and whisks him away on an adventure—nasty, dangerous, uncomfortable—that changes Bilbo and the history of his world forever.
Now, I knew I was heading off on an adventure, going to college and away from home. Unlike Bilbo, I wanted my adventure and never thought there might be anything nasty or uncomfortable about it. After all, I HAD A PLAN. I was heading off to Duke University to major in chemistry, then off to graduate school for a PhD. Bilbo forgot his hat. I wouldn’t forget anything. I had lists.
But Nameless Graduation Speaker’s point was this: we may think, like Bilbo, that we have our futures all worked out, planned to the least detail. In reality, it is the unexpected, unplanned adventures we need to be open to, or we may miss our chance to make a difference and maybe even become a hero.
Perhaps it was this speech that made me so willing to modify my plan. Or maybe I just woke up one morning and realized my plan was stupid. Or I was too stupid for the plan. Whatever. Six months after hearing this speech, I ditched the chemistry major, declared for English, and never looked back. That bold little move has changed my life and taught me more than I could ever have anticipated. For instance,
1. I can speak in public without dying or even passing out.
2. If I can write intelligently about Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” I can also write respectable copy about rebates on Ford pick-ups and successfully edit a white paper on synchronous dynamic random access memory (without understanding a word of it).
3. Best of all, skills used when reading Beowulf or Derrida or the sonnets of John Donne will also help a person identify urban myth emails without checking Snopes and navigate the murky waters of autism treatment literature.
Valuable life lessons, indeed.
Pursuing English was a choice, but since then, many unexpected adventures—sometimes nasty and uncomfortable—have swept me away. Like Bilbo, there were times when I wanted to run back to my hobbit hole and let the trolls get on with roasting or boiling the dwarves as they saw fit. Going out your front door can be a dangerous business sometimes, and whether I’ll turn out to be anyone’s hero in the end is questionable. I’ve never to my knowledge saved a life, found a magic ring, or played riddles with a creepy little monster. I’ve certainly never stolen the Arkenstone and brought peace to the land.
My adventures have been more . . . real. I married the United States Air Force and served my country as a “dependent spouse” for 20 years, which included such exciting duties as being designated driver to drunken Air Force aviators every Friday night for two years in Wichita, Kansas. I taught reluctant and occasionally hostile college students that you may indeed start a sentence with “and” or “but,” but generally not with “however.” I moved nine times in twenty years, saw my husband off to two wars, grew two aliens in my womb, and went from working woman to stay-at-home mom—my biggest and most unexpected adventure yet.
Hellen Keller wrote, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” I love this, especially when you consider that anything can be a “daring adventure.” You don’t have to sneak your dwarf friends away from a bunch of drunken wood elves to have a daring adventure. (Now that I think of it, though, I sort of had that adventure in Wichita....) If you’ve never thought of grocery shopping as a daring adventure, then let me loan you my two boys. You’ll get my drift before you finish picking out the lettuce. Daring adventure, indeed.
So thank you, Nameless Graduation Speaker, for showing me that the stories I love are relevant to me and to my life, and for giving me permission to abandon my plan and to be whisked away on my own daring adventure. I heard you.