Here’s what I remember about my graduation from Oberlin College thirty years ago. William Goldman, the author of The Princess Bride, was the commencement speaker. Did he tell us that life is pain and anyone who says differently is selling something? He could have, and we would have laughed. But I don’t think he did. The way I remember it, at the end of his address, he fixed us in his gaze, squinted his eyes Miracle Max style, and sent us off with:
“Have Fun Storming the Castle!”
How can you top that?
We laughed, and all anxiety about the future evaporated.
On Monday, my daughter will graduate (also from Oberlin). She grew up on The Princess Bride, so I tell her this story because it seems like such a happy way to head out into the world.
But she says, “Mom, The Princess Bride came out in 1987; you graduated in 1985. It doesn’t add up. Are you sure you’re remembering this right?”
OK, so maybe it was like this. William Goldman also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you know. It came out in 1969–long before my graduation. Remember that great scene when Paul Newman and Robert Redford are surrounded on all sides and the only way to escape is to jump off a massive cliff? Robert Redford is visibly scared, and he tells Paul Newman that he can’t swim.
And what does Paul Newman do? He laughs. I mean, he really laughs. (And we believe it’s real laughter because he’s Paul Newman.) And then he says (and we believe him because he’s Paul Newman):
“The fall will probably kill you!”
That’s how William Goldman ended his commencement address to all of us standing on the cliff in May of 1985. Scared to jump? Think you can’t swim? No worries, the fall will probably kill you.
And we laughed, and all anxiety about the future evaporated.
That makes a nice story for my daughter, doesn’t it?
But that’s not really what happened either. Actually, what I remember William Goldman telling us had nothing to do with his movies. He told us a story about his graduation from Oberlin in 1952. He told us that after the graduation ceremony was over, a friend who had graduated in 1951 told him to take one last look around Tappan Square, one last look at the painted rocks and the Russian House and Old B and and Wilder Bowl and Mudd; and then this evil friend gleefully said:
“You see those kids on their bikes? They want you to leave. All this belongs to them now, not you. You don’t belong here anymore. Nobody wants you here anymore. There’s no room for you here now and there never will be again. Your time is over.”
In the past four years when I’ve visited my daughter at Oberlin, I’ve felt a bit of that sting. My daughter is one of those kids on their bikes, not me.
I’ll say it flatly: I am not reconciled to being one of the middle-aged parents instead of my 1985 self flying across Tappan Square on a clunker. It still doesn’t feel right. But that which we are, we are, and I remind myself that William Goldman ended his commencement address in 1985 by assuring us that, in fact, his friend was wrong. That Oberlin will always have room for all of us.
That’s what I’ll tell my daughter Anna on Monday: Oberlin will be here for you. Jump.