Speech by Jerry Spinelli ’63 as delivered:
Thank you, thank you for all this. Thank you for about 56 years. Dr. Riggs, platform party, honored guests, parents, friends, classmates, and the important people: the graduates of 2019. I salute you.
Daisy Sullivan, where are you? So, one day last year, I get an email from a kid calling herself Daisy Sullivan, and she asked if I would be willing to agree to be Commencement speaker. She said students play a role in this, and she wasn’t confident that anybody was going to listen to her but she was going to make herself heard. And I said, “Well sure, I don’t say no to Gettysburg,” and I’m thinking, “Well, she’s just a kid,” and pretty much forgot about it. A few months later, I run into Janet at a reunion reception and she says, “Hey I hear you’re in the commencement speaker mix.” And I’m thinking, “Woah, this kid’s got clout.” So I found myself about the same time passing through my hometown and I thought maybe I better start thinking, just in case it happens. And so I started thinking along these lines:
When I was a kid I spent hours exploring Stony Creek in my hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, two and a half hours. It was a shallow creek with lots of rocks. One of my favorite things was to cross the creek on the stones, stepping from one to the next. The stones were often slippery and not always accommodating to a kid’s Keds. Still, I always made it to the other side–but never, not once, without getting my ankles wet.
So when Janet wrote me a letter and said, if I may paraphrase, “You’re on, dude. We’re going with Daisy,” it was the old creek that came to mind, especially the slippery rocks and wet ankles. So this is going to be more about the crossing than the triumphant landing on the other side. In other words, failure.
While other graduating seniors are being speechified away from failure, my wish for you is not that you never fail, but that you never waste your failures.
I wish for you the other, less celebrated side of success, the often unacclaimed, priceless rewards of being Number Two.
I wish for you the things that success cannot give you.
I wish for you the second places and honorable mentions and the no mentions at all that put grit in your gizzard and spit in your spine. Success cannot be counted on to do that.
But it’s winning we love, don’t we? Did anybody ever shove two fingers into the TV camera coming down out of the stands after the championship game and say, “We’re Number Two”?
Look at Facebook. Winners everywhere. Perfect people. Perfect families.
The whole country is a Loser-Free Zone. Don’t cry, little guy. You didn’t really lose. Here’s a trophy. Take two.
We’re programmed to win. To be perfect. Take this down: Perfection is a dirty word. Scrap it. Whip it hard as you like, perfection is a race horse that will never cross the finish line. There’s no garland of roses, only Adderall and Prozac.
We plan for it. One of my readers started early:
“Dear Mr. Spinelli, I got my whole life planned out. First I’m gonna grow up. Then I’m going to go to college. Then off to the Air Force we go. Then I retire to Hawaii. Then I die. Does that sound good to you?”
We plan our lives around winning.
Losing? What’s that?
We maneuver around it, insure ourselves against it. Our lives. Our cars. Our houses. Our washing machines.
We kiss up to the boss. We move to the best school district for the kids. We smother the lawn in Miracle-Gro. And still we lose!
Quote: “Mr. Spinelli, What were you thinking? That was the worst book ever!”
“Dear Mr. S, I cannot say your book really stinks. Let’s just say I’d rather smell an armpit.”
This one pretty much sums it up: “Spinelli, you suck.”
But then this. A thousand failures, a thousand wet ankles, a thousand No’s are no match for one sweet Yes:
“I want to be an author when I grow up. I read constantly and live for the library. You make my world glow. My small world. Since my dad died I have felt so depressed. You make it a lot better. Tell your family they are so lucky to have you around.”
So who are we kidding here? We all fail. We all shop at Losers R Us. And if you don’t like the prices, there’s the door.
I don’t plan to lose. Neither do you. I’m not saying you should. I’m just saying life is messy. Disagreeable. Life is full of No’s. It’s not about avoiding failure. It’s about looking No in the eye and shaking hands with it. It’s about sitting down and sharing a pizza with No in a club where the only password is Yes.
So am I saying you should enjoy losing? Throw up a cheer every time you cross the finish line last. Not at all. Permission granted to be mad. Scream. Say some bad words. Kick a sofa.
It’s about learning how to fail. We don’t think of it that way, do we? Failure, losing, defeat—learning how to do it well. Done right, losing is an achievement.
I tell audiences of kids that it took me three years to write my first book. Then another three years to send it out to every publisher in the country. Six years of my life—and nobody wanted my book. And then I ask the kids, “What would you do now?”
I get answers:
“Give it a better title.”
“Become a plumber.”
And here’s the funny thing–I only ever seem to find one kid, one right answer, often in a timid, peepy voice with a question mark: “Write another one?” I’ve got my kid.
Sometimes I’ll play the kid, stoke the drama.
“Wait a minute…you just spent three years writing your book, write another, another three sending it out to every publisher…six years of your life down the drain, your poor heart is roadkill…and you’re saying you want to start all over again? The craziest thing of all? Seriously?”
And I pray the kid will hang in there.
Bless ‘em, they always do.
“Yeah,” he says, she says.
After a few years of this I began to ask myself: Why? Why–when I say “What would you do now?”—why isn’t every hand waving wildly in the air with the right answer: Write another one.
You can answer that for yourself. Me? I think it might have something to do with how we educate our kids. Look, we teach them how to succeed, right? Succeed in everything from writing their name to having a productive life. And then—twelve, sixteen years later—we send them into the real world, over there, to the other side of Carlisle Street, and sooner or later they bump into failure. Mr. No. And they’re flummoxed. They don’t know what to do.
If I were a curriculum director, you couldn’t get out of my school until you took a course called “Failure Is My Friend” or “Beginning Failure” and “Advanced Failure.” You will have learned that your chances of eventually reaching your holy grail on the other side will depend not so much on how you handle your successes as on how you handle your failures.
You will have learned to cross the creek on the stepping stones of defeat.
Take this down, your last note at Gettysburg: The more I lose the better I get. The more I lose the better I get.
So instead of falling apart when you meet Mr. No, you’ll drape your arm around him and say, “Yo, dude, what’s up? C’mon, let’s do Mamma V’s.”
Now swear on Pickett’s Charge that you will do your own losing.
And if the Butterfly Man comes along, get outta town.
The Butterfly Man…came across a chrysalis hanging from a milkweed leaf. It was quivering. He stopped, looked. He watched the chrysalis crack. He watched a thin black thread of a leg come out, then a head. But it was taking so long. It was such a struggle for the butterfly. So the man helped it out, widened that crack to a gaping hole…and sure enough the butterfly practically tumbled out. The man left it clinging to the bottom of the empty chrysalis, drying out. He walked away, happy, maybe a little proud.
Two days later the Butterfly Man passed the same way. He looked for the milkweed plant. There it was, with the empty chrysalis—and the butterfly, still hanging from it. Dead.
He was a nice man—sensitive, empathetic. He thought he was doing the butterfly a favor. He didn’t know that without the struggle, the butterfly was doomed. Without the struggle it would never have the strength to flutter from the milkweed and fly to Mexico.
Are there kids already here or in your future? Should you support them? Of course. Inspire and guide and nourish them? Yes, yes, yes. But know when to stay out of the way. The kid who has never been allowed to know anything but first places and blue ribbons is a kid who will enter the real world as helpless as an over-assisted butterfly.
Hey—this isn’t news to you. Look at you. You’ve already made it across the first creek. That’s why you’re here. You know a slippery rock when you fall off one. Your socks are still drying out. Some of you were offered a zip line over the creek, and you said, “No thanks. I can do this.”
And you did. Good. For. You.
And now you’re ready to cross the next one, the Big One. And when you finally reach the other side—wow, there it is. As beautiful, as thrilling as you’ve always pictured it. The trophy. The banquet testimonial. The big title. The Lifetime Achievement Award. Success…success. It glows with the rewards of achievement, it sparkles with status, hums with acclaim. And you’re about to pick it up—your well-earned success—pick it up and press it to your bosom, when something else catches your eye. There’s something else waiting on the other side…and you…you are about to have the surprise of your life.
For you have just discovered that the glittering grail you have been pursuing all this time is only the second-best thing on the other side. The best thing is there…behind it, up and down the bank…the people. The people…who cheered you every step and stumble and slip of the way.
“You can do it!”
“Don’t give up!”
“We got your back!”
The teacher who gave up her hair appointment to help you after school…
The stranger who jerked you back as you stepped into the street while texting…
The kid who said you made it better…
If you’re lucky like me, a Stargirl.
She already said it. Ask JMR. Ask her what she’s going to cherish most from her time at Gettysburg. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not her title. Spoiler alert: Time will pass. It’s what it does. And sometime by sometime you’ll drift back from the water’s edge, you and a world full of rock-hoppers. And sometime after a time, you’ll find yourself on the other side of the other side, where you’ll be able to see it all, everything you couldn’t see when you were too busy hopping rocks. The big, big picture. The whole shebang. Carlisle Street?…Glatfelter Hall?…that success so bright it nearly blinded you? Forget it. You couldn’t see them with a Hubble telescope. From out here, your planet is just another sprinkle in the never-ending blackness. That pale blue dot there, a little to the right of Alpha Centauri, you can’t make out any other colors. No fences… No scoreboards… No U.S.A….no China…no Kenya…No left, no right… No black, no white. Good grief, you can’t even tell a Republican from a Democrat.
And you see now that your address was never really Pine Street or Harding Boulevard or Box 419, Gettysburg College. It was:
Earth. Solar System. Milky Way.
And now you feel a hand slip into your left hand…and another into your right…and a squeeze on your shoulder and an arm around your waist and a hug and a kiss…and you’re thinking: They’re wrong, you can take it with you.
Earth. People. Love. Don’t leave life without it.
So backpack these wishes of mine with you as you cross your creek: That you achieve not one grand and fabulous thing, but many small and special things. That your wealth be not in your bank, but in your heart. Not that the occasion make you smile, but that your smile make the occasion. That you leave room for unscheduled, unplanned, uninsured surprises. That you win power, not over others, but over yourself. That your name be a household word not throughout the land, but in your own household. That your monument be found not in public parks, but in the lives of those you’ve touched.
There he is, Commencers…right there on the other side of Carlisle…Mr. No…waiting for you at the creek, shin-deep in the water…licking his chops…splashing water on the rocks, making them nice and slippery. Mr. No. He figures after one fall-off you’ll go back where you came from. He thinks you’re scared of him. He thinks you’re going to fall apart when you see him. Mr. No. Be bold, Commencers. You can do it.
Okay, final spoiler coming. You are in for a treat. Wait ‘till you see the look on the face of Mr. No when you drape an arm around him and say, “C’mon man, let’s go to Mamma V’s.”