On my graduation day, I met a man. The meeting lasted only fifteen minutes. He was dying. And it changed my entire graduation and life.
It started on the first day of the graduation ceremonies. I was in my nice if uncomfortable graduation gown, walking to Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome. A few crowds families of other students headed down too.
One man was in those crowds. He wore ragged clothes and swayed slightly as he walked, looking around at everyone. Most people tried not to make eye contact or get too close. I won’t lie, I felt similarly at first. I won’t make say I was just in a hurry or something. I felt uncomfortable since I wouldn’t know what to do if he approached me.
He must have seen me watching him, since he walked towards me and smiled. He was missing several teeth, a few others were broken or rotten, and had a slight Brooklyn accent. There was a bloody wad of paper in his right hand. I froze, waiting for whatever would happen.
He said hello. I paused and said hello back. He said it looked like my big day. I smiled and said I suppose, and joked it was the only reason I’d wear this robe. He laughed and said congrats. Then he turned and spit on the ground. A good amount of blood hit the pavement too. He turned back to me and kept talking.
Somehow we wound up at a nearby bench. We shot the breeze like any other people. We talked about college, education, family, special moments, and eventually ourselves. I talked about how I came to school wanting to write but left wanting to code. How I liked college but felt disillusioned with it lately. How my Dad was here from New Orleans just for this day.
The man’s name was Art, and told me about his life. How he used to live in Chicago and was active in a gang. He had a son and left him behind when he came to Syracuse. Being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and getting six to eight more weeks to live. All he wanted was to return to Chicago before his time ran out.
He paused and spit more blood on the ground.
At one point we talked about religion. Art mentioned what he believed the difference between faith and religion was. That religion was the rules put on us, and faith was the goodwill given to us. I’ve pondered the difference before, but never said it that elegantly.
Fifteen minutes after he first greeted me, he said he should get going. At that poiint I didn’t feel too different from Art. He just wanted someone to talk to. He didn’t need me to promise to help or that things would get better. Just someone to genuinely listen.
A Different Graduation
After that, my graduation was an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t feel any excitement and couldn’t stop brooding.
There were speeches from school and industry leaders about us making great contributions to the world. All I saw were people telling students and parents what they wanted to hear. They’d spent tons of money to get this far and wanted to feel it was worth it, after all. My eyes were rolling and my spirit was growling in annoyance.
There was my medal for being a “Newhouse Scholar,” since I’d been an especially high achiever. I held it and it just felt a hunk of medal. One given to me for grades I’d gotten in classes I’d mostly forgotten the next semester. Many I’d likely never need to know in my career.
There were the cap and gown outfits for these solemn occassions, used to mark academics, intellectuals, high achievers, and elites. I saw people who apparently applied to the Swiss Gaurd, got rejected in the first round, and were sentenced to wander the earth in hand-me-down uniforms spewing vague words. I didn’t understand how such a ridiculous outfit, worn by people who normally valued such a business-like suit and tie attire, were accepted as such a norm for so long. Tradition can be real unsettling at times.
Most importantly, I didn’t know where these thoughts were coming from. Before meeting Art I was as excited as anyone else. Now one of my supposedly best moments was full of cynicism. But I wasn’t angry. I felt like an alien dropped onto a strange planet, wishing I’d been thrown somewhere else.
For most of the ceremonies, I couldn’t figure out why.
A Speaker Without Pretension
I finally understood the effect Art had on me at the commencement. When the main speaker took the podium.
Then I knew little about Mary Karr. Just that she was a writer, poet, and Syracuse Professor. Hearing she was the commencement speaker was a surprise, but I didn’t want to judge until I heard her.
So she spoke. Her first line was about staying out of prison while she was younger. This got my attention fast.
Her entire speech started funny but became brutally honest. Karr addressed the hardened anxieties in all of us, the fear of failure and life and everything else. How we can’t remove this fear so we must accept and overcome it. The purpose of poetry was to not hide from this fear and instead face it.
She described her own journey doing this. Her youth dealing with drug addiction. Having a paralyzed father and an often psychotic mother. Facing alcohol addiction later in her life, like my own father did. Entering a mental hospital for “suicidal ideation.”
The line that hit me hardest was about how this affects us all. Background or luck be damned, we all have messed-up fears and faults at our centers. They try to define us and suck our life away. Half the time we fight them, they get stronger. The other half we know, deep down, we’ll never win.
Her long and grueling climb upward through someone else buying her lunch. Almost as simple as talking to them for fifteen minutes.
The Value of Honesty
I saw that Mary Karr and Art had one thing in common: they spoke about their lives, highs and lows, without any illusion. They accepted their flaws the same as their strengths, and still knew they were good people. Their identities were theirs. There was no point lying about it.
“The most privileged person in this Dome suffers the torments of the damned just going about the business of being human.” - Mary Karr
Looking back, that kind of honesty is rare for graduation time. People make a huge, expensive event from the natural event of becoming adults. This happens worldwide all the time. It’s easier for some and harder for others. Some grow up when they’re older, some younger, and some far too young. It isn’t more special for us than anyone else, despite our massive celebrations, speeches, and many photos. We don’t need those to grow up.
I think that’s why my short conversation with Art affected me so much. This was a man who was no more special than I was. He had different skills, different backgrounds, different names, and lots of other different things. That didn’t make me any more or less special than him. I saw life without all the illusions put around graduation and I liked it. Then I went right back to a life full of them and didn’t like it.
In a way I envied Art. He had no illusions with his identity or the world around him, but I could tell he still held onto happiness. Even in the face of death, honesty helped him smile.
I don’t know if you’re still alive, Art. Even in the slim chance you are, you likely won’t read this. But I still want to express thanks. Those values of honesty are now a big part of my identity. I’m smart, but lots of people are too, and most are smarter than me. I like to pretend I’m the exception to so many rules, but in reality I know I never will be. That I’ll shake up the entire world one day, but know that I’ll never be famous. All of that’s true yet, when I seriously think about it, I’m pretty happy with my life. I’ll never be special but I don’t need to be.
So, on my last day as a student, thanks for teaching me my favorite life lesson.
Cheers, Max A