Even though not everyone in the Class of 2011 was graced by the presence of Tom Hanks or Toni Morrison at graduation this year, commencement speeches have been a popular topic lately. It is graduation season after all. But from “The Today Show” segment on Memorial Day to Amy Poehler’s speech going viral on the web, it seems hotter than ever. One speech that will forever live in my memory, although it has not gotten much press, was that of Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation, who spoke at Boston College on May 23. Yes, it was my commencement, but that is not the only reason that Mr. LaHood’s words really “spoke to me.”
In early May, I volunteered to write an article on the Her Campus Boston College branch updating our senior readers on Boston College’s commencement speaker. Everyone had been hoping that James Franco, who had visited campus earlier in the year, would give our speech. So our Her Campus BC team thought it would be nice to give some facts about our actual commencement speaker so that our senior collegiettes™ would have an idea of who was sending them off. It was honestly a quick write, and I thought little of its publication.
Let’s fast forward to the commencement ceremony. As my friends and I sat groggily in the plastic chairs, we watched Mr. LaHood climb the pedestal. Meanwhile, the kid next to me pulled out a copy of The Catcher in the Rye while others stopped trying to hide their snores. I attempted to listen intently, even though my eyelids were heavy as he began by talking about how nervous he was to give our commencement address. He listed the past three commencement speakers: two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner David McCullough, documentary filmmaker and Emmy winner Ken Burns, and CEO of General Electric Jeffrey Immelt. “He isn’t helping himself,” someone whispered behind me.
He told us he wasn’t usually one to read the reviews before seeing the movie, but admitted he did a bit of research to see what the general reaction was to his election as speaker. Claiming he stumbled upon the blog of one of our own he asked, “Will Allison Lantero please stand up?” I felt my jaw drop to my knees. I slowly raised myself out of my chair and waved to the 20,000 eyes staring at my face on the jumbotron. Then as I went to sit back down he told me “we weren’t done,” and proceeded to read the introduction and conclusion to my fast facts article where I referred to the reaction as “sighs of disappointment” and asserted we hoped the speech would be short. I was standing and filmed on the jumbotron for the entirety of this passage, so all I could do was play along, shrugging jokingly when he read the part in my introduction that asked, “Who is Ray LaHood?” and nodding, along with the rest of my classmates, at the bit about wanting a short speech. He told me that he was, in fact, Ray LaHood, and he promised to be brief. I sat back down to notice that Catcher in the Rye had been forgotten, and no one seemed to be sleeping anymore.
He kept his promise of brevity, speaking to us of the history of Boston and allegations of our generation as uncivil. He also asserted, “When you can tweet, or blog, or post to Facebook from a device that fits in your pocket, it’s easy to forget that your digital words can be far more callous and cutting than your verbal ones. People regularly type things on the Web that they would never say in person. In the process, they take technologies that hold enormous possibility for good and use them for ill.” At this passage I could feel eyes boring into me searching for reaction, and I just laughed. Although I agree with his sentiment, I did not think he was referring to my words.
At the end he confided that he had no idea who his commencement speaker had been 40 years ago, and he was sure that most of us would forget him by 2051. He then added, “Well maybe Allison will remember.” A I gave him a thumbs up in agreement, he said, “I love you, Allison,” words that were written on the jumbotron for all to read.
In the break between the two ceremonies my friends and I rushed out to take pictures and my phone started going crazy. I didn’t get service in the stadium, so once my cell picked up a signal it went from 0-15 messages in half a second. The reactions were diverse, ranging from congratulatory to consoling to asking me if it was rehearsed. I laughed as I went through texts, and people I didn’t even know kept staring at me or asking if I was “the Allison,” as I came to be known.
I returned a little late for the Arts and Sciences graduation ceremony, so I was searching for my seat when someone I didn’t recognize waved me over. “Allison, you’re right here.” “I guess it pays to be famous,” I said as I slid across knees to my seat. Just as I sat down I heard someone calling my name, looking for “the Allison from the speech.” I stood up, and my roommate’s boss escorted me to the banquet room where the President of the University and Mr. LaHood were having lunch. I was able to take a picture with them and the President even teased that Mr. LaHood would offer me a job. I hinted that I would not be opposed, and then ran down to collect my degree with my class.
Overall it was an experience to remember and a story I will never get tired of telling. I still have people posting on my Facebook asking what happened, or telling me they feel bad. Some of my professors, and professors I do not even know, have been emailing me thanking me for my part in the ceremony. Part of me wonders if they are worried that I was hurt or mortified by the experience. My words were taken out of context, and made to sound like I was a whining student who wasn’t pleased with our commencement speaker. I had a lot of friends asking if I was OK and saying he had been “terrible” and “a jerk.”
However, I found the whole thing funny. The day before I had been wondering how I would be remembered at Boston College. I now know I’ll be thought of as the girl who shared a joke with the commencement speaker, wondered “Who Ray LaHood” was, and hoped, like everyone else, that the speech would be short. It isn’t a bad way to go out in my opinion. I’d like to thank Mr. LaHood: not only did he give a short speech, but he made my graduation completely unforgettable.
So thank you, Mr. LaHood. If you stumbled upon the last one, I am sure this one won’t be hard to find. And to any aspiring writers out there, think before you publish. You never know when or where you will see those words again. I certainly did not expect to hear mine on my graduation day, but I greeted them with a smile on my face rather than fear of the backlash.
Video of the commencement can be found here. My moment starts at about 39:30.
Boston College’s remarks on the ceremony can be found here.
Remarks prepared by Ray LaHood for BC’s Commencement: [http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/rvp/
My original article, “Who Is Ray LaHood?”: [http://www.hercampus.com/
] school/bc/commencement-2011- who-ray-lahood