Last weekend was full of commencement speeches from semi-famous people, successful folk, teachers, valedictorians and student leaders, all of whom were supposed to impart a little bit of wisdom to area high school graduates.
The key with these speeches is to not bore the graduates to sleep, not offend the institution that's invited you to speak and, ideally, move right along so everyone can get on to their family BBQ or fancy party or perhaps some secret kegger out in the woods. If there's an iota of actual wisdom included in your remarks — not canned cliches or Hallmark greetings, but actual thought-provoking wisdom — then you go down as a freakin' superstar.
Colin Meloy is probably used to getting that label at this point. Last weekend the Decemberists' frontman, author and former University of Montana student traveled back to his old stomping grounds to deliver the commencement address at Helena High. It was pretty darn good and it's now getting passed around the net like Steve Jobs' memorable commencement speech or that fake one attributed to Kurt Vonnegut — at least by Montana viral standards. And that makes sense because Meloy's address deals specifically with being a Montanan.
Here's a small bit of what he said:
When I was growing up, I had this impression that the party was always happening somewhere else; that I had had the profound misfortune in being born in a place somehow removed from the world. As a kid, television created a window into a world from which I was totally separated: the brick walls and the brownstones, the urban playgrounds of Sesame Street – this was totally alien to me. As I grew older, that feeling of disconnection grew: The bands I loved all came from big cities; movies showed a more dramatic, fashionable world than my own. I got the feeling that I was living somehow outside; that everyone else was getting a richer experience than I was, here surrounded by the Big Belts and a population that boasted a fraction of a single suburb of some of those big cities I so admired.
I suspect there are some of you out there who feel the same way.
I have since been to those places, I’ve since met the people who live in those places; and I always come away with an increased appreciation and respect for the state of Montana and those who were born here or choose to live here and assimilate.
There is a deep streak of respect and intelligence in the Montanan mindset; there is an empathy for one’s neighbors that goes beyond a simple respect of privacy. It’s brusque, it is a little rough-hewn, but it follows logic over ideology. It grows from a community that at least tries to understand the mentality of its fellows. Conservatism might abound in the Montanan mindset, but so does a kind of feckless as-long-as-you-keep-it-to-yourself belief, which, in certain light, could almost be mistaken for true-blue liberalism.
I'm not sure that excerpt does it justice. Luckily, Meloy has posted the raw copy of his speech on his Tumblr account, so you can read it in its entirety. As a Montanan, consider it one last bit of homework before the summer.