David placed first in the inaugural Trop Short Fake College or High School Class President Commencement Address Contest.
Transcription by Devon Brown, Paw Paw Daily—comments in parentheses are Mr. Brown’s pre-article notes and by no means reflect the opinions or beliefs of the staff of the newspaper or its owners. Due to lack of space in May 26th issue, this article was never written.
(Student speaking, male; 18 y.o.; seven miles off County Road 7 (unpaved); tent set up in field near woods; twenty foldout chairs)
Welcome, Paw Paw Unincorporated High School of West Virginia. It’s a lovely day to be outside, away from the bustle of city life.
(village of Paw Paw is home to 400 residents, a stop sign, one gas station (illegal DVD rental in back), and Susie’s Famous Diner (six tables))
As you know, my name is Bert. I am this year’s valedictorian of the 2013 graduating class.
(clapping; seven people in attendance, including myself; PP Uninc. is one-room cinderblock school without AC, hence venue for hot day (May 25))
My comments today are to the rest of this year’s class. Jay, that’s you.
(only one other person in blue cap and gown, sits in first row, claps at hearing own name; strangely shaped head)
I know you and me had our differences, Jay. There’s that time we got into a shoving match by the road, when I pushed you and you got hit by that coal truck, and that’s why you can’t think clear anymore. And it’s how come you have to wear that helmet, and how come I helped you all this way and tutored you, ’cause I felt bad about pushing you, even though it was when we was seven and I didn’t know much better. But what I got to say is this: once you graduate high school, the world is your oyster. I never knew what that meant until last summer when I went to Myrtle Beach and I had oysters for the first time. You slurp ’em right out of the half-shell and leave the shell behind.
That’s what I want to say to you, Jay. Now we’re graduating I paid my debt to society and am moving on to college, which you can’t do because of your brain and all. You’re my half-shell, Jay. I’m leaving you behind.
(Jay moans audibly, reaches out to Bert, who stands behind podium (gold cross on front) that someone has transported from nearby church; Jay speaks in gibberish)
Of course, I’ve learned some lessons in my day. Being only eighteen, I know I still have much to learn, but I’ve amassed some knowledge and would like you to hear it—and that’s so you can get on by yourself when I go away.
(Bert gives thumbs up to Jay; Jay settles and gives thumbs up, both hands)
One: you got to be independent. Start wiping yourself all the time instead of me doing it sometimes when it’s messy and you start hollering for me across the hall from algebra class. That’s one.
(Jay smells hand)
Two: you got to be goal-oriented. For me, this is like picking a major and such. Me, I want to be a counselor and maybe a psychologist someday. Or psychiatrist. Whichever it is doesn’t have to go through medical school but can still help people, just not through drugs, which I see as wrong. Except for you, Jay, as you need drugs so as not to have your seizures.
(Jay holds up hands, alert bracelet on left wrist)
For you, Jay, that means maybe getting a job at the gas station washing the windows and cleaning out the trash. Mr. Laubacher said you could get yourself there Monday and Wednesday afternoons and do them jobs and get paid for it.
Mr. Hopper, I hope it was okay me asking for Jay.
(severe-looking man (gray buzz cut), large sunglasses, nods)
Three: you got to live up to your potential. For me, that is helping people in Ohio or somewhere in Illinois or something. And Jay, maybe, for you, that means learning not to be so needy. I don’t want to worry about you when I’m taking Biology 101 or Victorian literature. I don’t want to wonder if you ever learned how to put mayonnaise on a bologna sandwich right. Okay?
(Jay rises; he hugs Bert; holds Bert; Bert pats Jay’s arm; Jay is a head taller; Jay butts Bert kindly/gently with helmet; Bert swipes at eyes)
This is what I’m talking about. You can’t go hugging everybody as soon as they start talking about your bologna sandwiches or whatever.
(severe man guides Jay back to seat)
In closing, what I mean is, we can all be great. And living out my dreams, I’m going to be thinking about you, Jay, even though you can’t come with me on that road less traveled, as the poem says, because it’s a one-man road. A scary road, sometimes, I think.
(nods from adults; Jay says something like ‘scaaaaarry’ (heavy impediment); Bert looks flustered)
I didn’t mean to say that about the half-shell earlier. I guess what I’ve been thinking—just now, I mean—is that I’m the half-shell. Because, the way I see it, I’m the one being tossed out. I’m the hard one that’s got to protect the good stuff on the inside so as people can experience it, and maybe Jay—you’re the good stuff, buddy.
(Jay cheers; thumbs up)
You’re the oyster.
(Jay extends arms, raises one, lowers other, and brings back together, like croc or oyster)
You’re the world. I’m real sorry I pushed you in front of that truck, but at least I ain’t throwing you out.
(thumbs up, both boys)
I guess that’s what I have to say to the class of Paw Paw Unincorporated in the year of our Lord, 2013. You got to treat everybody according to their potential and give them a break. I got to say, that when life gives you lemons, it’s really maybe oysters. And I liked those oysters, Jay. They were real good in Myrtle Beach. I ain’t giving them up.
David Armstrong’s stories have won the Mississippi Review Prize, the New South Writing Contest, Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction Contest, Jabberwock Review’s Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Fiction, and Bear Deluxe Magazine’s Doug Fir Fiction Award. He currently serves as fiction editor of Witness Magazine and is recipient of the Black Mountain Institute Fellowship at UNLV, where he is a PhD candidate in Fiction. His latest stories appear or are forthcoming in the Mississippi Review, The Baltimore Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Potomac Review, New South, Yemassee, Bear Deluxe Magazine, and Apalachee Review, among others. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Melinda, and their dog, Prynne.