Graduation at Milton is a ceremony that carries years of traditions and favorite rituals – formal and informal. For instance, the Friday morning parade from house to house, picking up seniors at each stop and then marching from east campus back to Straus. The longstanding practice of electing the student speakers has assured seniors that they will, at their last Milton gathering, hear a voice of their choosing. That alone differentiates a Milton graduation from most others.
Speech by Austan Goolsbee ’87
First, I want to apologize to the Class of 2004. I was absolutely set up. I was not told that last year’s speaker was the [former] President of the United States. I was not told that before that was a senator from the State of Massachusetts. My graduation speaker was some kid’s dad, and that was the tradition that I knew. And they said, “Oh, yeah, we wanted to get a graduate this year.” So my qualification to be a speaker is my name is in the alumni directory, and that’s why they picked me and that’s it, so that’s what you got.
I just want to tell you: you are here; it’s hot; your clothes are uncomfortable; the chair is bad. Guess what, friends. That’s what the real world is. You are ready. So I’m going to try to be brief. It was about 30 degrees hotter than this on my graduation. We were just dying, and all I could remember thinking was I would start booing – but this is my friend’s dad.
I asked my father-in-law. I gave him the setup. I said the President spoke last year. Now nobody has ever heard of me. What am I going to say? He said, ‘Well, don’t try to be funny and don’t try to sound smart – just be yourself.” So with that I’m going to give you a choice. Doctor Robertson advised, “Maybe you could talk about your research,” and my old student friend, Mr. Ball, said, “Maybe don’t have a point, just remember some stories from when you were at Milton.”
So I’m going to give you a choice. Option A is a laborious summary of the econometrics of tax policy or, Option B, is I will just tell you some things when I was at Milton. How many people want A? Yeah, the parents. They need to know that. Nobody ever picks econometrics, so we are going with B.
My only advantage is I guarantee you that in 17 years you will not remember me, anything I said, or anything about this day. I talked to many classmates: They barely remember. “Don’t you remember? It was that kid’s dad.” “Oh, yeah. What did he say?” “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” It’s funny; I barely remember anything. Forget my essay. I don’t remember [the essay that Mr. Silbaugh said I wrote on my Milton application] – I barely remember my own name. Several of these buildings weren’t here, so I don’t have to feel bad for not remembering that, but Hallowell was a boys’ dorm. I lived in it, right? I can’t go in it now. The only continuity is they are still working on the Big Dig. That was going to be done sometime by our graduation.
And so I asked Mr. Foster to ask his seniors what did people want to hear. And he sent me back a list of what they didn’t want to hear. They didn’t want any mention of the war, they didn’t want to hear about how lucky they are to be here, they don’t want to hear how they owe the world anything or that much is expected of them. Those were going to be my three points.
So first I thought I would tell you how I got to Milton. I was born in Waco, Texas, and my parents moved to California when I was a kid. I had never, I don’t think, been east of my grandmother’s in Waco, Texas. I was basically a total misfit. I’m shocked that I wrote that in the essay [that I was a mental heavyweight]. I had no idea what I was doing. My dad didn’t know what I should wear. I was badly dressed. I had snow pants. I had one of those hats where just your eyes come out.
When we came to visit, my mom was really feisty and said, “I like this school.” “Look, there is a woman on the football team,“ because there was a woman dressed in football pants. And my dad said, “Well, I don’t know.” There’s someone else with a light on top of her head. And I was sad to find out they got rid of Space Day. We had a day we called a Space Day. It turned out we visited on Space Day, and we didn’t know. We thought people just dressed like that. My mom said, “I like this school where people wear a light on their head.” I guess [Space Day] was replaced by Senior Dog Day.
So I thought I would give you some advice that I learned from Milton. So, the first thing I got my old yearbook and the first thing I’d advise you is to show up, because I looked at many things that I did or I remembered doing and my picture is not in the yearbook because I just never showed up. So, Scott [Chaloff], you were punished for not going to class. When you get to college, no one is going to punish you. You can go; you can cut. Trust me, go. You can sleep in, miss class, you will know nothing, you will flunk out, your parents will be upset. So just go. Just show up. That’s more than two-thirds of life is just showing up.
First change your clothes: I am only in two pictures in the yearbook and I’m wearing the same clothes in both pictures – so I’m hoping it was on the same day. There’s one technicality. I’m walking into Ware Hall with the teacher of the Spanish Club. My Spanish – they have problems understanding me when I order at Taco Bell so I know I was not in the Spanish Club.
What you are going to remember is not at all predictable. In my yearbook there is a signature, somebody signed the yearbook and it says, “We will never forget that crazy night in Back Bay, will we?” Evidently, we will. My second advice to you is to take some risks or at least one risk.
In 1990, when Poland threw off communism, I went to Poland. I was working at the Ministry of Finance, and it really was an amazing time. I took a chunk out of the Berlin Wall with a chisel and it’s in the laundry room of my house, which probably wasn’t a good idea. I’ve found out they structured it with asbestos so I probably poisoned myself, but it is there in the laundry room. And I’m glad I did that although it did generate my lifelong distaste for travel. I thought of starting a guidebook series, Let’s Not Go!, but people who don’t want to travel don’t want to buy a guidebook.
So go now, take a risk now, because believe me when you get old there are going to be a lot of things you’re not willing to do. Food you are willing to eat now, you are not going to touch it when you’re old; places you’d go; beds you would sleep in. Now I should say, Mr. Ball and I were on the speech team, and you do not want to share a room with that guy because he can snore wicked loud.
If you ask the people that graduated with me what was the highlight of Milton, they don’t remember much but everybody remembers the night we switched dorms with the girls’ dorm in Goodwin in the middle of the night. So girls were in Goodwin; we were in Hallowell. And we got up – there was no email, no cell phones. It wasn’t that easy to coordinate things. We all got up at 3 o’clock in the morning. We went out along the street. And we had agreed, okay, “We are only going to break one rule,” which was leaving the dorm. We are not gong to meet each other, we were not going to talk, so it wasn’t as if we were cavorting or anything.”
So they snuck out at 3 in the morning, and we went through the cemetery. They all went in. They woke up, we came down, “Yeah, we are the heros.” The dorm heads were really pissed off as well they might be. Thirty-five high school girls left in the middle of the night, and no one noticed. So they were really upset. Everybody remembers that.
The only thing is that much is unpredictable because we hid in the cemetery, and we all ducked down behind the wall. There is that wall across the street. Only it was covered in poison ivy. We all got poison ivy on the back of our heads and then we slept in these people’s beds, and they all got poison ivy. So if you are going to switch dorms, don’t lean against the wall. That’s the only advice I can tell you.
Now, don’t take stupid risks. When I was in Poland there was another guy there. You know what’s great about this – this guy is a Ph.D. – he says, “I’m going to get all my dental surgery done here and it costs 1/8th as much as in the U.S.” I said, “It doesn’t sound like a good idea.” He said, “It’s great. Although they don’t have any anesthetic, what they have is an amnesiac.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “Well, you feel it, but then you can’t remember it.” I said, “I’ll tell you what. If I have dental surgery with no anesthesia, I’m damn sure I want to remember it so I don’t do that again.” What is the logic of that? So don’t take stupid risks.
My third piece of advice is don’t count on others to bail you out. My grandma used to tell me that 80 percent of the world doesn’t care about your problems and the other 20 percent are glad, and I believe that that is true unless you are on the speech team. [Then] it becomes greater than 20 percent. Maybe it’s different now. We didn’t have a building. We didn’t have all the stuff.
We were in the basement of Wigg Hall and nobody really liked the speech team and that year the nationals were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and we didn’t have any money or we didn’t have enough money to go. So they said we need to raise money. Now nobody wanted to give us money to go to Fort Lauderdale. That’s the last thing they wanted to do. And the idea that Ms. Simon and Mr. DeLetis had [was to] have a talk-a-thon and we will get people to sponsor us to talk for 24 straight hours and then they will pay us money and we’ll go to Fort Lauderdale.
Now, nobody was giving us any money. So I realized they would pay us way more to shut up, and so we had a shut-up-a-thon, and we shut up for 48 hours. Nobody was allowed to speak. We got like three times more money than we needed to go to Fort Lauderdale. I had to get a little tape player because everyone had to come up to talk to you. And I just had four things; “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” and “go screw yourself.” You would be surprised how much of life can be answered by those four answers.
So don’t count on them to bail you out, but I’ll tell you this: at least be on their side. When you get to college, your parents or your roommate’s parents are going to call your room. And if your roommate is not there, the correct answer is, they say, “I need to speak to Mike.” “Mike is at the library.” Just tell them that. It always works. He is, really. It’s Saturday, 10 o’clock. Yes, he really had to go the library to get something done. So just lie. That will work.
The next advice – I only have two more. One is do something that you like. Not necessarily the easiest thing. You’re going to get into college, everybody is going to law school, everybody is going to be a lawyer. And then eventually, “Wait, did I really want to do this?” Try something that you like. I was impressed by the senior projects. They are more ambitious than the senior projects when I was here. The tree-climbing senior project. I had a cooking thing going on. That was mine. There is no kitchen in Hallowell, so that was particularly perfect.
The thing I want to tell you is you have to trade off. I can do what I love or I can do this thing that makes money. I wouldn’t be an economist if I didn’t have something depressing to tell you so I will tell you this. By the time that your parents retire the budget indicates that we are going to be about 21 trillion dollars under-funded. So taxes are going to be very, very high and there is never going to have been a more tax-advantaged time to do what you love rather than doing what’s going to make you money.
Now, the alternative version of that is when you get to college you will frequently have to choose between a good teacher and some subject matter that interests you. Choose the teacher. There is not a subject that I took at Milton – I don’t remember anything except in Mr. Connolly’s class, I remember we read The 80 Yard Run. Do you still read The 80 Yard Run? It’s about a guy who ran 80 yards in high school and then he always looks back on his life. That’s all I remember, but if you have a good teacher, you will never forget them as long as you live. Mr. Zilliax is here – Mr. Connolly. You will never forget these people, so always choose the teacher instead of the subject.
By the way, if your parents give you a hard time, “Don’t be a philosophy major; there’s no future in it,” say, “You know, dad, isn’t yours the generation that didn’t save enough and now the social security trust fund is under-funded and they have to raise taxes,” and they will leave you alone.
The last thing that I will tell you is life is not going to be predictable. We had in our class two people that became ministers. And I assure you that one of those people – there was no way that you would have thought that person was going to be a minister. We had two artists. We had a guy who used to sell – when you were hungry you would say, “Hey, can I have a Dorito?” “I’ll sell you each Dorito for 5 cents.” He now teaches public school in South Boston. Many of these things were totally unpredictable.
One guy – I don’t know if I should tell this story but, okay. I will not tell you what dorm. There were two students in one of the dorms that didn’t wash their sheets the entire year. They would bemoan at night going to bed, “Gosh, my sheets are so disgusting. This smells disgusting.” The one on top said, “You think that’s disgusting, I haven’t washed my sheets since the beginning of the year. That’s even more disgusting.” He said, “If you think that’s so bad, I’ll trade with you.” Okay, they trade.
After not washing the sheets for five more weeks, “God, this is disgusting.” “You think that’s disgusting mine are even more.” So they keep switching. One of those guys, the last I heard from him soon after college he went somewhere – he was trying to meet some girl – he climbed up a tree, fell out of the tree and broke both his arms. So this guy he ended up buying a company; he’s the president of something. You would never have predicted it.
When you graduate from college, it’s really not like that. Once you graduate from college most people know what they are doing and you could have picked them out, but here you get the chance to reinvent yourself, to screw up. You’ve got four years before there are any consequences for your actions. Don’t tell them that, but it’s true.
When I was a student I’m going to say an old guy –
he was an old guy, Class of 1920 or something –he came back and he had gone to Yale and that was very unusual at the time because almost everybody went to Harvard. I remember asking the guy how did you decide to go to Yale. He said, “Well, back then people came in and the guy from Harvard had a paper and you had to fill your name out on the paper if you wanted to go, but by the time I got there the paper was full. And I didn’t want to wait for him to bring the next paper, so I just signed up with the Yale guy.” That blew me away.
So I realize now with media and double reach and all the various categories they tell you that you are never going to get in any place; it is much harder to predict where you are going to be but that’s the fun of the thing. So I’m not going to tell you that – I’m certainly not going to mention the war. I’m not going to tell you that you are lucky to be here. I’m not going to tell you that you owe the world.
I will tell you that I was lucky to be here. I’m glad that woman had a siren on top of her head or who knows what would have happened. I would probably be stuck at West Beach: I was in the bathroom and the bus left, and I was just sitting at this bus stop for about three hours until I remembered I was on the team, and I came back. I would probably still be there if I hadn’t seen that girl with the light on her head.
I came as a misfit, totally maladjusted to the world not just to Milton. I am sure my wife would say I still dress badly, and I’m not necessarily normal but I at least am functional. And one of the great things about Milton is I met amazing people who were really, really different than I was. If you went somewhere else, that wouldn’t have been true. Most everybody would have been just like you.
So in closing I’ll tell you two things. I would give you the advice to be yourself, but really for some people that’s about the worst advice you can give. So instead I will tell you, since this is for posterity—it is being videotaped—I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.
Austan Goolsbee ’87
Scott Chaloff ’04
Olivia Sideman ’04