Valedictory Address, University of Virginia
May 18, 2002
It is with great honor and pride I return to Charlottesville to deliver this address today.
I get a lot of questions from people when I go out and speak. What is it like to be a best-selling writer whose books are read around the world? And when I get that question, I always tell them the same story. I tell them the story about my kids. Until she was 3 years old, my daughter didn't think I wrote books for a living. She thought that I signed them -- and made a pretty good living at it.
Now, she must have passed this wisdom on to her little brother because the first time I took my son to a Barnes & Noble, we walked in and we saw all these people and all these books. His eyes were huge, and he took off running at the top speed, screaming at the top of his lungs, "My dad will sign any book you have for two dollars." So, that is what it is like being a best-selling novelist. You are making two bucks a book.
I am very proud of my association with the University and all that it has accomplished. It is an ever evolving and dynamic place. Its name is known far and wide. I have accomplished a few things since leaving here, but I have to tell you that I still tell people about my degree from this university. And it never fails to invoke respect -- and even awe.
I am also very pleased to learn the spirit of volunteerism and public service, as it was when I was here, is alive and well in the Class of 2002.
Now as you leave this wonderful institution, I have a few things to share with you, to talk about where you are going.
Today, the world is in constant to change. What took years to happen before now seems to take days, if not hours. And you know we communicate more and more via machines in this cryptic jargon that grows ever more enigmatic. I got an e-mail the other day that had no words. It was a 16-letter acronym -- -Internet speak -- that I was supposed to decipher. I still have no idea what it says.
Some people argue that language as we know it is obsolete and should be replaced with something more efficient, more streamlined, more abrupt. You buy into such notions at your peril.
Nothing will ever supplant both the whimsical beauty and precise function of language. It is the most powerful tool you will ever have because it represents the power of your mind as communicated to other people. You think in language. How complex can your thoughts be if your language is not up to the task?
Use words wisely and please don't ever believe you can get by without them, because the only thing left behind will be you. If you still don't believe in the power of words, let me tell you a little anecdote.
I have done a lot of book signings over the last eight years. Book signings are sort of like Forest Gump and a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. But, I have to tell you, people are shameless about what they will ask a writer to inscribe in a book.
I must be equally shameless, because I usually write it. But one inscription request I think will stand alone in the annals of least-likely requests. Several years ago, near Christmas, a lot of people were buying a lot of books as last-minute gifts. And I am signing and I am signing and I am signing until there are only three people left in line -- a gentleman who had probably seven or eight copies of my titles and two young women behind him in their early 20s. The women were together and they had one copy of my book.
While I am signing the guy's books, I commit the curse of a writer. I am eavesdropping on the women because writers are very nosy and curious people.
These women are having a very interesting conversation. The woman holding the book whispered to her friend and says, "That man in front of us has a lot of books. Maybe I can use this as an excuse to get out of here."
Now, her friend's response was even more cryptic and even more unsettling to me. Her friend whispered back, "You can't leave without getting that book signed. It is a matter of life and death." So, I totally freaked at this time.
So, the man leaves and the two women come up. She plunks the book down in front of me, she leans really close and she says, "I have got a very special request." And I looked at her and I am sure my voice was quavering when I said it. I said, "I am sure you do."
She said, "My name is Amy. His name is Tom. Tom has read all of your novels. He has heard you speak. He respects you as a person. I am going to give Tom this book on Christmas day and if you write what I ask you to write, it will change both of our lives forever."
Now, Amy also added a little more to the story. Tom had previously asked her three times to marry him. Perhaps Amy was afraid he would not be coming back a fourth time. So here is what she asked me to write to Tom. "Amy loves you with all of her heart. Amy would love to share her life with yours. Amy accepts your proposal of marriage." And then dear, sweet Amy looked at me and added the immortal words, "And whatever else you want to write."
So, I wrote what she asked, but then a curious thing happened. I guess the Christmas spirit must have seized me somehow because I kept going. I wrote down one page. I turned the other page. I wrote down another page. I wrote three pages, bringing to bear all my gifts as a storyteller and a wordsmith. By the time I had finished, she was not merely a mortal woman, she was St. Amy.
She read what I had written and she was laughing and crying. She gave me a hug and off she went, thanking me profusely. I told her to tell Tom he was one incredibly lucky man, and as far as I know, they are still happily married. So, you see the power of words.
A couple of years ago I went to speak at a high school in Northern Virginia. A very famous high school. It was the basis for the movie "Remember the Titans." I went there because the class somehow won me in an auction. I am not sure how. But, I went. Now, I was told that these kids, 350 of them I guess, were interested in reading and in pursuing careers as writers.
Now, when anyone tells me anything about teenagers, quite frankly, I don't believe it until I ascertain for myself if it is actually true or not.
So, I went to the school and there is this big auditorium that is filled with these kids. I was there talking about one of my novels, "Wishing Well."
And I asked them a few questions to gauge the validity of what I had been told. So, I asked some questions, a show of hands, how many of you like to read? Five.
Then I asked, how many of you would rather watch a movie than read a book? All 350 -- and some of the teachers.
And because "Wishing Well" was an oral history, I asked them a third question. How many of you know what oral history is? None of them knew what oral history was.
I asked one more question. How many of you think that you are more independent, and can do more with your life than your great-grandparents? In "Wishing Well" there was a generational span, great-grandparent to great-grandchild. All 350 of them raised their hands immediately.
I was curious about this, I asked one of them in the front row why he thought that. And he said, "It is obvious, isn't it? We are the Internet age. With the click of the mouse, I can get more information about anything in seconds than my great-grandparents probably had in their whole lives. They probably lived in the same small town and knew nothing of the world beyond those borders. Of course I am more independent in what I can do."
I said, "Well, I guess I cede that."
But, I asked a few other questions. How many of you use cell phones? All of them. I asked how many of you can fix it when it breaks? None of them.
When your computer hard drive melts, how many of you can fix that? Clueless.
When your Internet connection doesn't work anymore, how many of you have the skills to tunnel into the earth and reattach the fiber optics? They had no idea what I was talking about.
So, I ended by saying, face it, you are the most helpless, dependent generation in the history of the world. It was the first time in my career that I had ever stunned an Internet teenager. It was beautiful.
The moral of my story is that it is not how much information you have available to you, it is what you do with what you have. And I think the great-grandparent generation, while they might not have had as much, squeezed every drop of usefulness, resource and wisdom out of what they had. And I don't think that we come close to that standard today.
You know, despite all the timesaving conveniences we have, where we have all this enormous information available at a mouse click, what we don't have is time to distill raw tetrobytes of information -- which are worthless -- into something of true value, like college and maybe even wisdom.
As human beings what we do best is think and reflect. You have done an awful lot of that here and you have done it well and that is why the class of 2002 is here today and tomorrow to celebrate the fruits of those labors.
But, in today's world, we are often compelled to receive or react instantly. FedEx is snail mail. Faxes are antiquated. E-mail actually is a little too slow. It must be because my experience has been, as I said, people don't find the time to use words in their communication anymore.
What is next, telepathy? It is as though we have somehow factored our greatest strength, our ability to think and reflect about things, right out of our own future. And we make so many mistakes when we don't think things through. The mistakes that oftentimes-future generations must pay for.
Life can be slowed down. Though we have surrounded ourselves with machines, we are not machines. And maybe it is time we should stop acting as though we are. Each of you has to make your own choice in the matter -- and you do have choices. In fact, Class of 2002, you can do anything with your minds, anything. Not that long ago, I couldn't make that statement in all sincerity. But, today it is true. You can do anything with your lives.
Yet, with great opportunity comes great responsibility, including responsibility to family and friends and loved ones. And even to those you don't know, but who share the same planet. Life isn't an easy place today. Ever since 9-11 we have been starkly reminded of how very small the world is. There is no room anymore to be ignorant of other cultures.
Our way of life, the enormous freedoms that we enjoy in this country, our very survival may depend on us being informed about the world,
As a wordsmith and a grammarian, I have always thought that ignorance and intolerance are a lot like commas. They very often occur in pairs. And rarely, rarely do you ever see one without the other.
I am a big advocate for literacy. It is not just to sell more books. People who don't read, who aren't informed about the world around them are not capable of being independent thinkers. They aren't. Now, if you aren't an independent thinker, you are a dependent thinker. Where do you get your opinions and philosophies and ideas about life and other people? Where do you get them?
Well, you get them from other people, don't you, blindly following a vision of other people like sheep. You become like people who fly planes into buildings.
As we speed to the coming years, we must also remember that our past is never so irrelevant, our future is never so different. We are all better off knowing what came before, if only to avoid mistakes of history. But, that knowledge passed from generation to generation, those shared experiences are what connect us across time as human beings. And in many ways, in many important ways, it constitutes the bedrock of our humanity.
There was a very famous writer-in-residence at this University by the name of William Faulkner. And he wrote in one of his novels, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." There is such great wisdom in those few words. Each of us is the embodiment of the past and the present and the future. And I believe we must fully understand where we came from to fully realize where we are going.
It is largely up to you, graduates, to craft the life that you want that best suits you. If you don't take the responsibility of constructing such a life, rest assured, I speak from experience, life will make one for you. And it may not be the one you really want.
So, take the time to build the life you want. And while you are doing that, never forget that along the way, there will always be people who need your help.
But, today is a day for pride, for you, your family, your loved-ones, and it is a time for celebration for a job very well done. You have earned it.
Well, class of 2002 at the University of Virginia, the world awaits you. Go get it!