Column: A Graduation Cliche Never Dies
June is the season for graduations, and my thoughts turn naturally to cliches. As a high school teacher for four decades, I attended a dizzying number of graduations and heard many of the same words and phrases year after year and felt, year after year, a mystifying enchantment because there’s a certain charm to the young and their cliches. For me, it’s their innocence, their partial understanding, and their excitement with words that to an older ear sound flat and lifeless, but to them ring with originality.
This year once again seniors will step to the podium and fortify their words with quotations from poetry they remember from English class or childhood rhymes their parents once read to them at bedtime. For poets, they will turn to Tennyson —
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
… strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
or to Frost –
And I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It takes a cold heart not to be moved by these brave and hopeful words in the mouths of young speakers about to set out into the world.
It doesn’t matter that they so often misinterpret the lines they quote. Frost’s line “And that has made all the difference” is meant to be ironic. The speaker is amused with himself because he knows that one day he will look back over his life and find meaning where there was little, or none at all. Tennyson’s poem creates a twist on a Homeric epic where his Ulysses, a man who has finally made his way home to his family after 20 years of adventures, is so restless after three days of domestic life that he decides to sail away in the night. He is not a role model many parents in the audience imagine for their children. But that’s the paradox of cliches. They mean whatever we want them to, and we are moved at a graduation when a young speaker urges his classmates to be bold and original and, as Tennyson writes, to sail beyond the sunset.
In writing class, cliches are another matter, and teachers are trained to detect them like foul smells in a kitchen. I used to circle them on student papers and write, “Avoid these like the plague!” in the margin to make a point; but what I remember more clearly is the sadness I’d feel when I tried to explain how the words could not carry the meaning the writer intended. It’s a hard case to make. A student using the expression “It is what it is” for the first time hears only cadence and truth, and words that make me cringe are for him or her a kind of magic. I remember a revelation that arrived one day when as a young adult I took a vase of wilting wildflowers from the mantle piece — drooping mulleins and bugloss and many others, all far beyond their time, with one exception. Suddenly I understood the real meaning of the cliche “as fresh as a daisy.”
Most often, it was when I graded papers that I entertained existential questions. Halfway through writing a sentence in the margin, I would hear a voice. “Why, exactly, are you doing this?” it would ask as I fixed a cliche a student had mangled somehow in wording or intent. At first, what I’d feel was the sting of hypocrisy as I explained how the cliche was supposed to read; and then as I added the warning “Now, never write these words again!”, I’d feel a wave of sadness as if I’d uncovered for him or her one of life’s sordid truths.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that cliches give me as much pleasure as pain because in every one lies the potential for a pun, an irony to exploit when life gets too serious. What I like best are the puns others stumble into accidentally. Years ago when I was very new at teaching and grading papers was a task only to dread, I came upon a startling turn in the essay of a sophomore girl. All I remember of the context is that it was wrong for what followed. “It’s a doggie dog world,” she wrote to nail a point she was making, conjuring in my mind a vision of puppies tumbling over bowls of food, an earthly canine heaven. These are the moments teachers wait for, and I was sure I would never again see anything like it. Then many years later when I was in my final decade in the classroom, it happened again, a different writer, but the exact same phrase — a doggie dog world. Enough time had passed for them to be mother and daughter. They weren’t, but there I was, attending the birth of a new cliche.
Cliches are born because we are drawn to imaginative language. When they are new, we remember them for their poetic turns and their dazzling metaphors; we summon them subconsciously to grace our own speech. This brings me back to the young and their June addresses. They will share the podium with academics and public figures, people who know better than to use words and ideas so familiar they have lost much of their meaning. But the young, blessedly, don’t always know better, and that is what we love in them. If we listen carefully and imagine ourselves at that age, we hear exactly what they mean.
Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.