Northwestern University is a prestigious place, and it's not inconceivable that graduates might aspire to the office of presidency.
As in, the presidency of the United States.
Not that my nephew has such aspirations, but he graduated on Friday and I took the day off to be sure I could make the ceremony. Jerry Springer was to be the keynote speaker.
I'm not a fan. Nevertheless, I like graduations, probably because I missed most of mine with the exception of kindergarten and eighth grade, and we know which one of those mattered.
As much as I like the idea of pomp and circumstance, when it comes right down to it, you have to be in the mood for all that brass, the crowds and commotion.
Although the gowns aren't bad. And the hats are hysterical, let's face it. I'm in it, really, for the speeches. Anything inspirational drugs me.
The Arie Crown Theater is a shlep for us, and as is the nature of our family, we got there an hour early. We're not the only neurotic Jewish family in Chicago with someone graduating Northwestern University Law School, so I had a chance to catch up with some people I've know since kindergarten, people I hadn't seen in thirty years.
None of us look the same, but we all say we do.
(You look the same!)
The show started with a graceful young graduate from Japan, Koki Nomura, who talked about food and quoted an old Japanese saying,
Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur.
read "ichigo ichie".(Second part is read ichi-eh)*
This I liked. Who wouldn't be in it for this?
Then an obvious rising star, Suneel K. Gupta, a young man who truly may become the first Indian-American (meaning his family is from India) President of the United States followed Koki. Marvelous, such a delivery, and he quoted his mother. Jerry Springer would quote his mother, too.
Mrs. Gupta is the first female engineer to have been hired by the Ford motor company. She let her son in on the following story, appropriate for graduation, one that speaks to launching. You get the short version.
A priest found three birds who couldn't fly and he thought, I'll teach them.The implications for graduates are obvious; you really can fly beyond the world that taught you how. Don't settle for walking, keep trying. Fly.
He brought them inside and taught them to flap their wings, to soar, to dive. They lived happily in the rectory, flying to and fro, until it was time to leave.
They left, but outside the confines of the rectory, couldn't fly. So they returned to the rectory.
And that is where they stayed.
For family therapists the lesson is severe. Silly priest. You let them back in.
Suneel received rousing applause, but everyone wanted to hear Jerry Springer. Actually, many people didn't want to hear Mr. Springer. The students protested his appearance because he represents what not to do with an education, sell out to the sleaziest type of journalism, sensational television.
He didn't wait a minute to address that.
I've been everything you can't respect: a lawyer, a mayor, a journalist, a talk show host.Then he talked about ethics and said that no matter what a graduate ultimately does with his or her life, ethics will be a challenge. He gave concrete examples of how ethics are in every vocation, every profession, there, waiting to be violated.
Despite the words, he seemed apologetic to me. He never said, I'm sorry for selling out. Instead he told us his history, bits and pieces of his life. He reminded us that when he graduated Northwestern University Law School, forty years ago, that the world was in turmoil and his future a blur.
He treated the subject of ethics rationally, and yet, when he spoke of ethics, seemed, how shall I say it? Ashamed.
I am not superior to the people on my show, and you are not superior to the people you represent.And finally, the great equalizer. We learn how he lost his entire family in Nazi Germany, and whatever they had, how a tree became a single vine, and how he immigrated to America on a boat, the Queen Mary, at the age of three (or maybe five).
The ship passed the Statue of Liberty and everyone made a big deal, LOOK! Look at that!
What are we looking at, Mama? What is this?
Ayin tas alles, she said.
This is Yiddish, and I think I heard it correctly, someone please correct me if I got it wrong. Mr. Springer translated it to mean, One day you have nothing, the next day, Everything.
"This is how a person like me," said Mr. Springer, "Can go from total annihilation to ridiculous privilege. All because of a silly show. One day nothing, the next day everything."
A silly show? Is that what it is? He sees the crowning point of his career as some silly show? We're dismissing it now. It's a silly show. But who even remembers him as Mayor of Cincinnati? Who even knew he had graduated Northwestern until today?
It came off as, Forgive me my privilege, my wealth. This is America and this is how some of us earn it. We make our decisions. We choose our destinies. Don't judge me. I suffered. My family lost everything, everyone.
That's the subtext. When I met with him outside the auditorium, he virtually hung his head, his demeanor truly abashed, humble, as if to say to me and to anyone listening, Please, people, I know I'm a shmuck, but I'm really not so bad, not deep down. Let me be with you. Let me be one of you. Sure, I'll take a picture with your son, your daughter. I'm not so bad.
It seemed that this particular exercise of self-reflection, addressing a law school convocation at his alma mater, speaking to hundreds of bright, hopeful, intellectually honest, and critically thinking scholars, lit something different in this American immigrant. Self-effacement.
Although I could be wrong.
So here is what I suggest, and it is with no disrespect, seriously; it took great courage for him to appear at that convocation. But I would humbly suggest that now, now that he has alles, now that he has everything, he drop the sleaze.
Stop the show and don't look back, Mr. Springer. Tour the country and tell the people of America,
"Actually? I made a mistake. I should never have sacrificed my ethics for money. I should never have participated in 99% of the shows that have aired with my name, with me. It was a shallow enterprise and sometimes morally bankrupt. Wrong."
We could use men like you, Jerry, to talk about ethics. You quoted your experience in the sixties, how difficult it was to graduate in 1968 to a world full of turmoil not knowing what you would become, where you would go. You graduated at a time of protest and unrest and had no idea what was in store for you. Like so many graduates today.
Who would ever have predicted that you would host a show like the one with your name on it?
So maybe you've looked at life from both sides now, as that song from the sixties goes, Both Sides Now. Remember Judy Collins? Joni Mitchell**? I'll bet you even know the words. Be honest with us next time, though.
Tell us all about it.
*thanks Pam for the correction on the Japanese text!
** For a more mature Joni, (You look the same!) see this video