Life After Graduation
According to Garp
Baccalaureates take heed: None of us is pretty for long
Originally appeared in Esquire, March 27, 1979, page 53. Copyright: John Irving.
    Mount Holyoke College, where I taught for two years, had its one hundred and forty-first graduation exercises last May.  The senior class asked me to speak at the baccalaureate service.  Mount Holyoke is a women's college-- one of the last all-women's colleges-- and I wondered what qualifications anyone imagined I had to advise these young women.  I had in common with them only the fact that I was also leaving Mount Holyoke; most of the graduating seniors knew that I had just resigned from the faculty.  I've taught college students for six of the last ten years.  Some of the seniors who knew me well also knew that I hoped I was resigning from teaching forever-- to "just write", as my mother puts it.
     In the last ten years, I've written four novels.  Unlike mot of these women, I not only knew what I wanted to be when I grew up-- I was lucky enough to have always known that I wanted to be a writer and lucky enough to have it turn out that way.  I felt I had no authority to address a group of young people on the subject of their future-- few of them knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Only a few of them were truly brilliant, although an encouraging number of them seemed to me purposeful and determined; and a number of them were individuals who would keep their independence, I hoped.  Only a few of them were truly pretty; but none of us is pretty for long.
     The only other graduation exercises I had ever attended had been my own, I told them, my graduation from Exeter.  I had listened very attentively to the commencement speaker; I don't remember who he was, but he was male, he was old, and he was a liar.  He said that he envied us-- so he was either a liar or an idiot-- and he told us how we were standing on a threshold he wished he could cross again.  He said he envied the options that were ahead of us, he said he envied the vigorousness of our youth.  I'm sure he was thinking of someone about twenty-nine, someone who was already "successful", because he implied to us that we would have fun with the seductiveness of the world out there waiting for us.  Either he was a liar or he was senile and simply had forgotten his own youth, because I have never felt so badly misled.
didn't envy the young women at Mount Holyoke at all.  If they thought they had options, I said, they should look them over more carefully.  And if they thought the world was seductive, watch out.  I commiserated with their anxiety-- which is all I remember from once having been where they were now.
     Most of my friends-- most of the people I went to school with, most people I know who are my age now (thirty-seven)-- are rather unhappy.  Some of my friends still don't know what they want to be when they grow up.  And many of those who are what they wanted to be are disappointed.
     I advised the class of '78, therefore, to be tough on themselves and kind to other people, to be hard on their expectations and gentle to the friends who would suddenly be failures around them.
     "Because the world is unfair is no excuse to be shoddy," I told them, hoping it was true.  "You have to keep making pictures of who you are, and you have to keep revising the pictures."  I have two sons, nine and fourteen; I make a bore of myself by repeating this to them.  And here I was speaking in a chapel, so I felt encouraged to preach.
     I told the seniors about my family: my father the schoolteacher and treasurer; my mother, the mother and hospital volunteer; my sister the forklift driver and artist; my brother the nightclub performer and paramedic.  "It doesn't matter if you don't know what you want to be when you grow up," I told them, hoping it was true.  "The important thing is passion-- you've got to have it.  And energy-- you've got to give it."
     I did not mention luck, except through this illustration: In 1906, a boy from the Midwest named Jimmy Gatz wrote a plan by which he meant to better himself.  I read Jimmy's plan to the women of Holyoke because, as plans go, it's a decent one:

     6:00             Rise from bed
     6:15-6:30      Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling
     7:15-8:15      Study electricity, etc.
     8:30-4:30      Work
     4:30-5:00      Baseball and sports
     5:00-6:00      Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it
     7:00-9:00      Study needed inventions


     No more wasting time at Shafters or [a name indecipherable].
     No more smokeing or chewing.
     Bath every other day.
     Read one improving book or magazine per week.
     Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week.
     Be better to parents
    Jimmy Gatz had some noble goals.  In a world like this, it's not a waste of time to give a few minutes a day to "dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling".  And "one improving book or magazine per week" is hardly too much to ask.  I suggested to the graduating class that they make some general resolves for themselves-- even if they spend much of their time revising them, or violating them.  "It is especially worthwhile, in the next few years," I told these twenty-two-year-olds, "not to lose track of your expectations for yourselves."  Jimmy Gatz had the right idea.
     Of course, most college students know how Jimmy's plans turned out in the end.  He changed his name-- to Jay Gatsby.  He was "The Great Gatsby," who threw his life away on a dream and on a woman not worth even the least of his time.  He was murdered in his own swimming pool because he was mistaken for someone else.
     "Even so," I told these young women, and anyone else who was listening, "you ought to have a plan."
     We define ourselves, at least in part, by the plans we make for ourselves-- even if we can't keep them.  And we grow, at least in part, out of the necessity of making new plans.