For a long time I made commencement speeches. It started with high schools. One had sons, daughters. They went to high school, alas. Hawk-eyed principals desperate for someone--anyone--to harangue their steamy produce spotted me for an easy mark.
How could one resist making sons and daughters proud by a display of public prattling before their assembled schoolmates? More cunning parents resisted it easily. Wiser parents. Parents with no instinct for self-humiliation. Not me. I war, easily dragooned. "Go forth, youth of America--." The snickering, I assumed, came from the soreheads, from the types awaiting Juvenile Court action for trafficking in hashish.
Word passed along the principals' grapevine. I was in great demand. "Go forth and light the light of wisdom, youth of America--." I was hooked. A certain college, whose scheduled Demosthenes had seen the light in the nick of time and fled to Samoa, sought me in desperation as a replacement.
It was irresistible. The academic robes, the academic procession, the academic drinking on commencement eve with the academic professors, the academic hangover next morning, the glorious June sunshine filtered through the academic elms--all were immensely satisfying. The young whom I had sent forth from high school four years earlier now sat sprawled before me like a sea of Supreme Court Justices, and I sent them forth again.
"Go forth, youth of America--." They were surlier now. As the 1960's crumbled into the 1970's, they were no longer agreeable about going forth. They were of a mind to stay behind and ignite the physics lab or blow up the commencement podium.
This was the period in which I began receiving honorary degrees. Any sensible person would have re-examined his position as soon as the first honorary degree was offered, but we are talking now about a fevered brain.
Was there something odd about an honorary degree being extended to a person who had been put out of college with a gentleman's C, and granted that release only because the professors feared that, if failed, he might return for one more year?