PARTING SHOT: Parting Words Provide Choices

A Commencement Choose Your Own Adventure!

Good afternoon, ______ (members of the Harvard Class of 2037, Mrs. Edison’s fifth grade class, members of the Parole Board). It is my honor to be here with you at ____ (Class Day, your anti-drug program graduation, my hearing). Presumably your selection committee knew what they were getting themselves into when they selected _____ (a real American hero, an adult, a white-collar criminal). I’m here to share with you today some of the things I learned in ____ (my time at Harvard, my post-fifth grade life, prison). Many of those lessons came while I was _____ (at The Crimson, in sixth grade, in solitary confinement). In the grand tradition of speakers before me, I’d like to send you out into the world with some totally original and not at all trite words of wisdom about what I’ve learned about ____ (how life imitates sport, algebra, remorse for my crimes).

The first lesson is that the good guys don’t always win and the bad guys often do, especially when the bad guys are ______ (Cornell, binomials, Cornell alum Big Tony). Even if you are the good guys, you can’t—and won’t—win every battle, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The best moments often come as a triumph on a second try, like ____ (beating Cornell this year, figuring out that “x” is not just a letter, asking Big Tony his SAT score).

And if you ever get down on yourself, the good news is that there will be another day for success, unless _____ (you’re a JV sport at Harvard, you drop out at 14, you never get out of prison).

The second lesson is that you should always try to reach out to those who are different from you.

You are among a small percentage of Americans who are _____ (college-educated, former students of Mrs. Edison, in charge of the prison system). Never forget that most people have had profoundly different life experiences from you, especially if _____ (they are Detroit Lions fans, they were in Mrs. Graham’s class, they were part of a prison gang).

But there are ways to cut across all differences of race, class, upbringing, politics, or anything else.

We all have shared experiences ____ (as sports fans, as people who learned fractions, as people who don’t want to be in prison), and those experiences should enable you to interact with virtually anyone you come across on mutually agreeable terms. It is these shared experiences that allow cohesion and healing in moments of pain and crisis, as well as shared joys.

The third lesson is that you will occasionally be called on to make sacrifices. This generation, like mine, faces ____ (a deepening economic crisis, the scourge of boy bands, the temptation of white-collar crime), and confronting these issues will require tremendous strength. I dealt with this issue _____ (by going to grad school, by downloading illegally to undercut the music industry, by embezzling funds), but we all have to chart our own course through the perilous waters that mark our lives. No doubt your _____ (grade inflation, public school education, prison job training) has equipped you as well as it did me to meet these challenges.

Now I’d like to talk a little about your future. You’re all very successful individuals, and as we all know, success breeds success.

This is especially true if you’re ____ (Harvard football, on the honor roll, a repeat offender). But there are always places for improvement, like ____ (sports travel budgets and certain coaches, multiplication, the prison library). Never lose the drive to improve yourself, and try to be a lifelong learner. That ____ (core you took, crazy “new math” you did, license plate manufacturing course) will help you throughout life, or at least make you the life of a cocktail party someday with your witty insights on _____ (Japanese anime, fun ways to do the same math cavemen did, proper license plate thickness).

Thank you all for your time and your kind attention, and congratulations on _____ (graduating, graduating, listening to me the whole time). Please enjoy your _____ (commencement speakers, Kevin, Joe, and Nick Jonas; next speaker, Principal Weathers; next convict). All the best for the future!

—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at