Chelsea Losh is a writer and full-time farmer (www.babeandsagefarm.com) living in Gordon, Georgia. She was designated the valedictory speaker for Georgia College’s graduating class of 2010. I caught up with her recently to see if she had advice for anyone planning to submit to the Trop Short Fake College or High School Class President Commencement Address Contest.
ROGER: Were you valedictorian of Georgia College’s class of 2010?
CHELSEA: I was not. And also, it wasn’t a valedictory address that I gave, Roger. You’ve got your facts wrong already.
ROGER: So you mean to say you weren’t simply the default speaker.
CHELSEA: No. I was chosen from a great many applicants. Last semester of my senior year, campus officials alerted me that I was to audition to give the commencement address. The candidates were selected for their good grades (I had either a 3.89 or 3.98, I can’t remember, might be dyslexic), membership in an honor society, and anonymous nomination by a professor.
ROGER: You’re particularly qualified for our interview, then. Valedictory speeches are often given by the default valedictorian, who might be a total moonbat or a chemist or something. Do you know of any other schools that vet their student speaker like this?
CHELSEA: Not off the top of my head. But like most schools, I guess, Georgia College has that same great/stupid tradition of having one of the “best and brightest” students of the class give the commencement address. This is all good in theory until you realize that the “best and brightest” student is, like you said: 1) probably not all that exciting because he or she has spent all of his or her time studying; 2) probably not the best performer, because he or she spent all of his or her time studying; or 3) not the greatest at giving life advice because he or she has spent all of his or her time studying.
But here’s how I stacked up: 1) I spent my fair share of time at the bar; 2) I have a background in performance (RHS Guys and Dolls 2006, holla!); and 3) I don’t know why I would give good life advice. I haven’t died yet, or killed myself, so there’s that.
ROGER: What was the audition process like?
CHELSEA: First, they sent me this letter:
I’m so glad you decided to interview! When you arrive, please be ready to respond to the following: 1. What’s the wisest thing anyone could ever say? 2. What questions do people most need the answers to? 3. What is most representative of our time, i.e., what’s “in time”; what exists outside of time, i.e., is “timeless”; and do you believe we have legitimate reasons and means to reconcile the two? 4. What specific experiences have you had at Georgia College that make you the best person for this job?
ROGER: This is an absolutely insane coincidence, Chelsea. I have three of those exact questions written right here. Look.
CHELSEA: Holy Toledo.
ROGER: Can you answer them again?
CHELSEA: Absolutely. I just googled “components of a good commencement address,” and then I’m pretty sure I read that to them verbatim. Then I got this email that said: You are the chosen one! You are perfect and you represent Georgia College so well and we love you!
ROGER: That’s less than helpful.
CHELSEA: Then I had literally like two weeks to write the speech. A speech to inspire an entire class not to move back to their parents’ basement. It would have to change their lives. It would have to launch 1,000 ships/students with college degrees into…
ROGER AND CHELSEA TOGETHER: … the worst economy since the Great Depression.
CHELSEA: Needless to say, I was terrified.
ROGER: How did you go about writing the speech?
CHELSEA: I had the help of Kids Club, a brainchild of our good friend, Tom Dibblee [Trop editor-in-chief]. Every Thursday afternoon, after classes and before everyone went out for the night, me, Tom, my boyfriend Bobby, and anyone who happened to walk by would sit on my front porch, drink a few brewskis and contemplate the meaning of life. It was the ideal place to bring up all the problems I was having with writing the speech.
Before I tell you what happened next, I’d like to say that last night, on NPR, I heard a story about a creative writing professor who encourages his students to plagiarize. He says he recognizes that his students are incredibly adept at “patch-work” writing, a form of writing that involves copying and pasting paragraphs from several different websites and then stringing them together with original sentences and passing the whole shebang off as their own. This is a skill that I am sure anyone who went to high school after 1995 is familiar with. This professor says we live in an era when originality is a moot point (!) and that everything that can and should be said has already been said, and that we should embrace a new literary reality, which includes collaboration and plagiarism. So just keep that in mind as I tell you what happened next.
So this one night we were hanging out on the Kids Club veranda. There were glowsticks involved. We sat around breaking open glowsticks and flicking radioactive paint at each other and talked about what made a great commencement address. Problem was, none of us really knew. Google gave us a few examples, most notably David Foster Wallace’s kick-ass awesome address at Kenyon. We read through a few great speeches, a few boring ones, and then my friends started saying what they would write if they had to write the address. So I took this opportunity to pass my laptop around the porch in the dark, and like magic, speeches appeared on the page.
Here’s some of what we came up with:
Commencement Address BrainStorm
Friend #1: Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of 2010—I know you all have drinking to do so I’ll make this quick. Many times the eternal question of life has been asked. And as we walk across the stage this afternoon to receive the document consecrating the past few years of our lives, this question is the one bearing the most weight on our souls, the one that indeed defines our generation. While I myself have given long hours to this question, I cannot answer it for you, so this afternoon I want each of you to look deep within your soul, and I want you to ask yourself: Did I have sex last night? The answer may quarrel with your morals. It may condemn you to fiery depths unimaginable to Dante. However, in the end know this: the ecstasy, the endorphins released, and the genitalia shared was all worth the black cloud of doubt.
ROGER: Please tell me that was Tom’s.
CHELSEA: No. This next one might be.
Friend #2: My people—we face a blank slate. No one among us can tell us what to expect on this same date, four years hence. This means we may only speak broadly. Some of us will be rich, some will be poor. Some of us will be married and landed, others will be adrift. And between now and then, nobody will tell us when to wake up, where to be, or what to do. This, right now, is the moment we see for the first time exactly how much sway we have over our own fate. On this, we break into basically two camps: those who see their futures as pursuit of power, and those who see their futures as pursuit of a moral good. Those of us who list our ideals as sustainability, religion, and openness to experience assume that our idealism will lead to a higher form of happiness, while those of us who seek ascendance through the material ranks of business and politics accept that happiness, at best, is a fleeting condition, and that the general welfare of the people has already been written… and so on…
ROGER: That’s actually a prime example of what not to write.
Friend #3: Life is an adventure that everyone must take. We sit here because we have taken the adventure of college.
ROGER: Let’s stop right there.
Friend #4 (now my fiancé): Also, I owe everything to my boyfriend, Bobby. He is real great. I promise. Don’t believe what everyone says.
ROGER: Bobby really is a great guy. He once gave me this neat green, floppy backpack made by a company called PicnicTime. I’m complimented on it regularly and I don’t ever give Bobby credit. I mean I don’t even think about giving him credit. Is this what you mean by “collaboration?”
CHELSEA: I don’t think that’s exactly it, Roger. However, I did use some of the advice I got from Kids Club. Some was tongue in cheek, some was too serious, but a good chunk was usable. This was a miracle for me! Not only was the speech started, but I also had a sense of what my peers actually wanted to hear on the day they would graduate. If you read my address, you’ll find little bits of our brainstorm sprinkled throughout. The future is about collaboration, baby! And maybe a little plagiarism.
Here’s an article reviewing Chelsea’s actual commencement speech.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.