Janis Hirsch’s Commencement Address

The television and film writer, producer, and author encourages graduates to make happiness the truth and burn brighter than the sun.

Chairman Lord, dedicated trustees, President McAllaster, President Emerita Bornstein, distinguished faculty and administrators, relieved graduates, way more relieved parents, and very good-natured friends:

Class of 2015, I am humbled to stand before you as your commencement speaker, especially because I have no memory of my own Rollins commencement.

Seriously. Can’t tell you where it was held, can’t remember who spoke but I know it happened because my sister has pictures. 

Which is my way of saying, I have no expectations of any of you putting down your phones and paying attention to me. Which is OK because the fact is:

There is nothing I can tell you that don’t already know.

And please, I don’t mean to imply that you act like know-it-alls: that’s something only your parents can imply.

The reason I’m so sure you’ve learned life’s major lessons is because as the mother of a son exactly your age, I’ve inadvertently studied the music you’ve grown up listening to. 

(Left to right) Dean of Arts & Sciences Robert Smither, Hirsch, and Dean of the College of Professional Studies Debra Wellman. (Photo by Scott Cook) (Left to right) Dean of Arts & Sciences Robert Smither, Hirsch, and Dean of the College of Professional Studies Debra Wellman. (Photo by Scott Cook) Take for instance Avici’s “Wake Me Up When It’s All over,” which is what many of you have just said to the person you’re sitting next to.

“I CAN’T TELL WHERE THE JOURNEY WILL END
BUT I KNOW WHERE TO START.”

That right there is a huge life lesson:

Start. 

Start now.

And start again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.

Whatever you’re feeling today—hopeful, grateful, hung-over, whatever—say “yes” to that and see where it leads. Because I guarantee saying “yes” will lead somewhere. And that will lead you somewhere else. And somewhere else after that.  Go there. Don’t buy a house there. But go. 

You know the Fun/Janelle Monae song:

‘TONIGHT
WE ARE YOUNG
SO LET’S SET THE WORLD ON FIRE
WE CAN BURN BRIGHTER THAN THE SUN.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Believe me, not every day’s going to be like that. Not every day is going to be as auspicious as today. Or as happy. Or as terrifying. Or hell, even as boring. 

But if you can remember how you felt when you first blasted “WE ARE YOUNG,” you can remember that it’s possible to feel like everything’s possible.  Keep it on your playlist. Use as needed.

And if you’re scared?  That means you’re doing it right.

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

But how I wanted to feel when I grew up? THAT I knew. When I was eight, my parents took me to see Flower Drum Song, my first Broadway show. I sat there in the St. James Theater smiling so hard I got cheek cramps thinking I had no idea a person could feel this happy.  And hey:

“HAPPINESS IS THE TRUTH,” right?

So that’s where I started.  And that’s what I go back to whenever I’m feeling “meh.”  I listen to the music that so transported me all those decades ago and then I sing along—loud and out of tune—and what do you know? Pretty soon I’m feeling the way I felt when I was 8 and the world was mine.

I majored in theater here at Rollins and after I graduated, I found that same feeling doing grunt work at The Coconut Grove Playhouse. Then I found it working at the National Lampoon in New York—not writing; these were the 70’s and I was a girl. But still, I loved it. I found it again writing funny freelance pieces and cheesy movie reviews. I found it doing publicity for PBS. And then I found it as a television comedy writer.

If I made it sound easy, then I said it wrong. If I made it sound like I didn’t eat my feelings and burst out crying on public transportation and feel lonely and terrified and hopeless, my bad.

What’s that J. Cole line from “Born Sinner”?

“THEY TELL ME LIFE IS A TEST
BUT WHERE’S THE TUTOR FOR ME?”

The road is seriously bumpy, it’s full of dead ends and detours but one half of a baby-step forward brings you one half of a baby-step closer. To… happiness. To success, however you define success. To peace. To grace. To love. To fulfillment.

And when the road gets dark and scary—and believe me, it WILL get dark and scary, I remember what E.L.Doctorow said about writing:  “It’s like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Here’s what else I remind myself when I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed:

Fake it till you feel it.

But you already knew that too.

When you were in middle school, you didn’t honestly think Fergie leapt out of bed every morning thinking:

“MY HUMP, MY HUMP, MY HUMP MY LOVELY LITTLE LUMPS”?

You knew that there were days when she had to think: “That HOLLABACK GIRL makes marching band uniforms sexy and I’ll never be as hot as those PUSSYCAT DOLLS and who’s that gorgeous girl in the middle of DESTINY’S CHILD and look at me all bloated with dirty hair and a giant zit on my chin.”

But that night, at her concert, when she sang

“I’M A MAKE, MAKE MAKE MAKE YOU SCREAM
MAKE YOU SCREAM, MAKE YOU SCREAM.
COS OF MY HUMP, MY HUMP MY HUMP MY HUMP (WHAT)
MY HUMP MY HUMP MY HUMP, MY LOVELY LADY LUMPS”

She believed it. Which meant we believed it.

She faked it ’til she felt it and that made it real.

You apply for a job and they ask you: “Can you come up with a marketing plan? Design a website? Teach third grade? Take inventory? Operate a band-saw?”

Say “YES” and then you teach yourself what you can and watch and listen and learn the rest on the job.

If, however, on this pretend interview you’re asked if you can perform a kidney transplant or negotiate an arms deal with North Korea, it’s probably better to say “no” although I sort of like the image of those jobs being offered on LinkedIn. 

Chances are you’re never going to have

“MOVES LIKE JAGGER.” Hell, at this point I have moves like Jagger…

Hirsch is presented with the honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. (Photo by Scott Cook) Hirsch is presented with the honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. (Photo by Scott Cook) But if you feel like you’ve got the moves? If that gives you the confidence to walk up to someone and start a conversation or ask them out or apply for a job or use their restroom, go for it.

Sometimes, it’s not going to work out in your favor. Anyone remember

“HEY I JUST MET YOU
AND THIS IS CRAZY
BUT HERE’S MY NUMBER
SO CALL ME MAYBE”?

She didn’t get the guy but she got a hit song out of it and you may too… although probably not. But you will get a funny story or cautionary tale or at least something you’ll know not to do next time, and that’s an enormous gift. 

Because saying “OOPS I DID IT AGAIN” was only cute when you were seven and lip-syncing it to your Angelina ballerina doll.

You learned that while Miley made it look like fun, it’s probably not a good idea to

“COME IN LIKE A WRECKING BALL.”

Because when someone says

“I NEVER MEANT TO START A WAR…”

They meant to start a war.

And if you have to quote EVANESCENCE and say

“CALL ME WHEN YOU’RE SOBER,”

Or the Arctic Monkeys and ask

“WHY’D YOU ONLY CALL ME WHEN YOU’RE HIGH?”

Unplug your phone. 

Remember Shakira going on about how

“MY HIPS DON’T LIE”?

Well, sometimes they do. Especially when you’re trying on jeans.

Or what about Robin Thicke—or Marvin Gaye’s—“Blurred Lines”?

A dude can say:

“I KNOW YOU WANT IT
I KNOW YOU WANT IT
I KNOW YOU WANT IT”

… but the chances of Mr. or Ms. Right being a mind-reader or a hypnotist are slim to none:

YOU’RE the only one who knows what you want. That’s your superpower. Don’t play games with it. And for God’s sakes, don’t give it away.

Speaking of playing games, I love me my Queen B and it’s a completely great song and video but

“IF YOU LIKED IT THEN YOU SHOULD’VE PUT A RING ON IT”?

Oh no, do not be that person. If you wanted a ring on it and yet never brought it up in conversation, who’s fault is that?

My own opinion is if you want a ring so badly buy it yourself but if you’re not getting what you want out of a relationship—which could be a friendship or a working relationship as well—begin a dialogue. And if that goes well and you’re so moved, by all means hike up your skirt and twerk till the cows come home.

You’ve learned that sometimes you have to say

“WE ARE NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER
LIKE, EVER.”

And sometimes you have to swallow your pride and say:

“MY LIFE WOULD SUCK WITHOUT YOU.”

Now with apologies to the esteemed faculty, I need to tell you a cold, hard fact:  You’re going forget a lot of what you’ve spent the last four years learning. Facts and figures and data and terminology may leave your brain-pan but there’s a Wiki for that.

But what I pray you’ll never forget are the lessons you’ve learned about yourself.

Maybe it was Lorde accepting and embracing who she is:

“AND WE’LL NEVER BE ROYALS
IT DON’T RUN IN OUR BLOOD
THAT KIND OF LUXE JUST AIN’T FOR US.”

Although I hope you learned it with better grammar.

And you learned the Black Eyed Peas mantra:

“TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR MIND AND MEDITATE
LET YOUR SOUL GRAVITATE TO THE LOVE...”

Because let’s never forget you were:

“BORN THIS WAY.”

However, I implore you not to trivialize this beautiful, powerful sentiment.

Do not lie or cheat or steal and then shrug it off with “I WAS BORN THIS WAY.”

Do not bully or mean-girl someone because “I WAS BORN THIS WAY.”  No you weren’t and you know that.

Instead, try to be a little more like Rihanna and promise to always share your

UMBRELLA ELLA ELLA

Be a good friend, you know? And not just to your friends. Be a good friend to yourself, too. Treat yourself kindly and with compassion, the way you treat an elderly cat or your favorite crazy aunt. 

Like Betty Who says:

“WHO KNOWS YOU CAN’T BE REPLACED
WHO THINKS THAT YOU’RE ONE OF A KIND?”

So yes, while I hope each of you finds someone or something you can sing this to, for starters sing it to yourself.

Value yourself.

Rely on yourself.

Enjoy yourself.

Forgive yourself.

And for God’s sake, laugh at yourself.

Year before last, I came down to Winter Park for a 40th reunion of all my Annie Russell Theatre buds and it was astounding. Richer and deeper and more meaningful, more joyful than any of us prepared for or could’ve imagined.

My wish for you, Class of 2015, is that in 40 years’ time, you’ll come back to Rollins and shout from your heart your favorite “oldie” from my favorite Canadian electric dance music band DVBBS:

“WE WERE YOUNG, WE WERE DUMB
WE WOULD DO IT ALL AGAIN.”

Live the life you’d want to do all over again.

Thank you and congratulations.