Congrats to the class of 2020! For everyone graduating this year, I know it must feel exciting, despite the current circumstances. It’s been exactly 20 years since I “skipped” my high school graduation, and after watching John Krasinski cover graduation on SGN, I began to think about how I missed out on my own graduation and what it feels like looking back 20 years.
To rewind, I’m a musician and composer, and playing in orchestra was my greatest joy in my high school years. Except for playing the graduation ceremony which I did each year of my early high school years. It basically boiled down to sitting for a long time waiting to play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March on a loop for what feels like an hour straight, while names of people I mostly didn’t know were being read out loud.
I had big dreams in high school. I knew at 16 I wanted to be a film composer, so I could one day write the melodies that would make movie moments memorable. But I felt like high school music classes weren’t challenging me musically or helping me make enough progress towards my ultimate goals. People told me if I wanted to be a film composer, then the University of Southern California was the place to go, with its proximity to the heart of Hollywood, its illustrious composer alums, the quality of its music school and its being next door to the top cinema school. I was ecstatic to find out about, apply, and be accepted to the USC Resident Honors Program, an early entrance program that takes high school students and allows them to trade their senior year of high school for freshman year of college, while also simultaneously earning the credits to complete a high school diploma.
I know what you’re thinking, that’s crazy to miss senior year of high school, that’s the best year! I certainly took that into account, I would give up having a blast as head drum major of the marching band, but remember, I had big dreams, and I couldn’t wait to get started with them at my dream school. So at 17 years old, I left my hometown, left the friends I had made, missed out on prom (though I don’t know if I would have had the skills to find a date, I was such an awkward nerd), and went to the big city of Los Angeles, to enter the top music school on the west coast. It was worth it!
Coming back after my first year of college, having earned my high school diploma, I was invited to walk at my high school graduation with all the classmates I had come up with. I was so busy looking forward to this fantastic life that I was already beginning to work towards, I didn’t want to look back. I felt like I was too cool to return to a high school graduation, being a college kid already, and don’t forget the orchestra playing Pomp and Circumstance on an endless loop (likely badly and out of tune, since all the graduating seniors are no longer in the orchestra).
I think the day of my graduation, I was working a part time job at Barnes and Noble (if you kids don’t know what that is, it’s basically an Amazon Books store before Amazon invented physical stores). I skipped walking the graduation ceremony to earn money rather than spend hours bored out of my mind while Pomp and Circumstance looped like the soundtrack to an impossible Nintendo game level that you just can’t beat no matter how many times you try (video games were a lot harder in the 80’s, when you couldn’t save your place and had to beat it from beginning to end in one go). I suppose I was already beginning to see the monetary value of my time, or maybe the shy, introverted part of me just didn’t want to deal with the attention of having to confront all the people I had left behind and hadn’t seen for a year. Though I did go to a graduation party later that night to see a few of the friends I had gotten to know in high school, though many of them I don’t think I’ve seen since that night, as Los Angeles has truly become my home.
You might be wondering if I ended up going to my college graduation. I kind of skipped that too, though not all of it. USC is so huge, that they have an early morning ceremony and commencement speech for all graduating students, and then they break up into smaller satellite graduation ceremonies for each school, which has its own commencement speaker in a related industry.
Being the night owl that I am, I didn’t want to wake up “early” for the 9 or 10am commencement speech. Believe me, taking the required 8am music theory class that all freshmen music majors had to take was brutal for me. The sophomore year 9am music theory class wasn’t much better for me either. Still to this day, some of my best creative moments happen after midnight. So I told my family to meet me after 11am, and we went to the afternoon Thornton School of Music graduation.
Now, I’ve seen some amazing graduations with incredible inspiring commencement speakers. This can be the best part of graduation ceremonies. When my best friend graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, I was inspired and entertained to hear speeches made by Paul Feig (a prolific comedy writer and director) and Susan Downey (the wife of Ironman, Robert Downey Jr). The year following my college graduation, my idol and maestro of the movies that formed the foundation of my childhood, John Williams spoke at the USC Music School commencement, wishing the graduates “may the force be with you,” and personally handing diplomas to the composers. I was so jealous! That of course made my own music school graduation pale in comparison, where our commencement speaker was a college professor who pontificated on the importance of giving back by teaching. Don’t get me wrong, teachers are so important, I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without incredible music teachers every step of the way, and I fully support music education, but I’ve never had any interest or passion for teaching, so it wasn’t a speech that particularly resonated with me.
I’ve come to see graduation as only a moment, a blip in the timeline of your life. It’s certainly a moment to savor and celebrate, but you still have the excitement of your future to look forward to. I hope you hold onto your enthusiasm and passions, it will be what guides you through the tough moments that life will throw at you. Live to create a life filled with joy, try to make the world a better place, and look forward to the future, I hope you will make it great!
And here is John Williams playing Pomp and Circumstance (which is a piece I actually do love, it’s just not meant to be played over and over), and wishing the USC School of Music class of 2020, “May the force always be with you!” You lucky bastards!