Rod Serling’s Speech to Binghamton Central High School Graduates
Sunday, January 28, 1968
Graduates, ladies and gentlemen, faculty, friends and old acquaintances, unless you’ve reached my age and are as familiar with the taste of Serutan as you are with bourbon, it’s unlikely that you can understand what kind of bitter-sweet poignance attends the return of a man like myself to this city … this school … this room. In its aged mustiness, in its archaic ugliness, in its depressing sameness … it is nonetheless filled with ghosts and certain haunting memories that conjure up faces and names, sights and sounds, laughter and events almost too sweet to be bearable. But, as I say, nostalgia is the privilege of the aging and to you young graduates who have only sipped at your cup of life I’m sure you must look upon this aging writer from the West Coast, with his hundred and forty-odd pounds of solid grizzle, and wonder, albeit patiently, what is there about a room … a terribly familiar auditorium … a study hall, a classroom, a gym that still carries with it the ingrained scent of socks and sneakers to turn a man so wistful and so reminiscent.
Well, I’ll tell you, though I seriously doubt if you can appreciate the mood or even understand the language. I’m thinking back, now, to my own moment on this stage in 1942, when the hundred and forty pounds were then a hundred and eighteen … the hairline was unreceded … when my dear friend, Helen Foley, out there, had less gray in her hair but was no more beautiful than she is today, and when the late and beloved Henry Merz tried to explain to me why I couldn’t get into the varsity football game because he found it difficult to reconcile playing a quarterback who weighed less than the team bulldog. All these things come back now, and have during the forty-eight hours I’ve been walking these streets of my youth.
So I preface a few remarks this evening with this plea for some degree of compassion on the part of you young people. Allow him this moment of recollection and keep in mind that twenty-five years from now you may well retrace your steps as I have and come back into this ugly and beloved room and wish in your heart of hearts, as I find myself wishing, that the twenty-five years had not gone by and that they could be relived. With more wisdom, perhaps, with more farsightedness, with more logic and reason and balance but however to be re-lived so that the mirror would once again reveal the unlined, marvelous face of youth that looks back with no fears and no trepidations, with an acceptance of challenge and with a dedication to meet the challenge.
And this is, of course, what I’m here to talk about. Challenge. Are you tough enough that’s the theme. That’s the question. Are you tough enough? I submit to you, young ladies and gentlemen, of all the virtues of man—toughness is the singular quality most required of you on this 28th day of January, the nineteen hundred and sixty eighth year of our Lord. Roddy, that kid of twenty-five years ago, and his contemporaries, had a few challenges of their own. World War Two. A brief lemonade after the Graduation ceremonies, and then a train to the induction centers. It was that way for most of us. But we had some things going for us that you don’t have. We had a sense of rightness. We had a sense of morality. The world had been botched up by the preceding generation, but our course was relatively clear. We were simply there to repair the damage that had been done and to make damned sure that our children would have no such chore. But … the best laid schemes o’mice and men go oft a-gley. So here, this evening, this member of a preceding generation stands in front of you by way of an apology that we did our job most improperly. We, in a sense, settled nothing and we have left you a world far more botched than the one that was left to us.
But what follows are very subjective opinions of my own. You don’t have to buy any of these commodities. I offer them not as undying truths, but personal points of view. And if you question them, that’s not only your right, it is very much your responsibility. Because part of your challenge is to seek out truth, to come up with a point of view not dictated to you by anyone, be he a congressman, even a minister, and most certainly not this aging writer from Hollywood, California. But these are the things I believe. You’ll be moving out of this room into a world at war. And the war is fought on different fields, on different levels, and with different weapons. There is Vietnam staring at you, ugly, demanding, vague as to cause, even more vague as to settlement. Many of you will be asked to fight in this war. You won’t be given a chance to pose the question of conscience as to the rightness or wrongness of fighting it. The one thing you shouldn’t do is burn a Draft Card. The one thing you shouldn’t do is flaunt the law.
If conscience dictates that you disapprove of it, speak out that disapproval. Carry a sign, if you like. Or a placard or a banner. Yell out the slogan that comes to mind and that comes from heart. Too many wars are fought almost as if by rote. Too many wars are fought out of sloganry, out of battle hymns, out of aged, musty appeals to patriotism that went out with knighthood and moats. Love your country because it is eminently worthy of your affection. Respect it because it deserves your respect. Be loyal to it because it cannot survive without your loyalty. But do not accept the shedding of blood as a natural function or a prescribed way of history, even if history points this up by its repetition. That men die for causes does not necessarily sanctify that cause. And that men are maimed and torn to pieces every fifteen and twenty years does not immortalize or deify the act of war. Are you tough enough, young ladies and gentlemen, to try to build a world in which young men can live out their lives in fruitful pursuit of a decent, enriching consummation of both his talents and his hopes. But if survival calls for the bearing of arms, bear them, you must. As we all have.
Keep in mind only this, that province of combat is not the end, it is simply the means. And the most essential part of the challenge is for you to find another means that does not come with the killing of your fellow-man.
A lot of you will be pushed and driven to smoking pot and sniffing glue and trying L.S.D. and any one of the myriad of hallucinogenic drugs … if, indeed, some of you have not already tried them. Well if that’s your bag, I guess you have to live with it. But are you tough enough to accept the fact that any drug is a crutch, a cane, a bolster of the spine to be succumbed to by people too weak, too spineless, too cowardly, to face up to whatever are the realities … as harsh as they are … as ugly as they are … as sometimes unbearable as they are. The taking of drugs is a surrender. It’s a cop-out. It’s an admission of such frailty, of such defeat, of such a lack of courage, that however pleasant the trip, the last stop has to be shame. And this is all quite apart from the tragic waste of the thing, the fact that it distorts your mind, cuts off your will, ends your perspective, muddies up your logic and turns you into a stumbling self-deluded creature of the habit who can contribute nothing and who will contribute nothing.
If you’re on your way to college campuses, get ready. They seethe. It’ll be one-half class, one-half protest. You’ll find yourselves marching as much as you’ll be studying. I say, God speed and good luck on this one. When I was in college, and this was shortly after Lincoln sent out a call for his first twenty-five thousand volunteers, our commitment was to eating goldfish and crowding telephone booths and stealing panties from girls’ dorms. It was a ball…a swinging, effervescent, very happy ball. But the commitment in every true sense was to nothing. The dedication was to a very short and unprotracted laugh. Thank God for college campuses today that breed a dedication to commitment to far more lasting and meaningful things. That you march for the wrong causes may well be your lot. But that you march at all, this is of the essence. Because dedication and commitment must be yours. You have to have a point of view about things. You have to take a position, assume a stance, believe in something strongly enough to raise a voice about it.
Are you tough enough to take the divisiveness of this land of ours, the fact that everything is polarized, black and white, this or that, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This is one of the challenges. Be prepared to seek out the middle ground … that wondrous and very difficult-to-find Valhalla where man can look to both sides and see the errant truths that exist on both sides. If you must swing left or you must swing right, respect the other side. Honor the motives that come from the other side. Argue, debate, rebut, but don’t close those wondrous minds of yours to opposition. In their eyes, you’re the opposition. And ultimately … ultimately, you end divisiveness by compromise. And so long as men walk and breathe, there must be compromise.
Are you tough enough to face one of the uglier stains upon the fabric of our democracy, prejudice? It’s the basic root of most evil. It’s a part of the sickness of man. And it’s a part of man’s admission, his constant sick admission, that to exist he must find a scapegoat. To explain away his own deficiencies, he must try to find someone who he believes more deficient. If you find yourself thinking words like “Nigger”, or “Kike”, or “Polock”, or “Wop”, or “Bohunk”, or “Sheenie”, or “Dago”, consign them to the lexicon of race-haters who aren’t fit to breathe the same air as you are. Make your judgment of your fellow-man on what he says and what he believes and the way he acts. Be tough enough, please, to live with prejudice and give battle to it. It warps, it poisons, it distorts and it is self-destructive. It has fallout worse than a bomb … and worst of all it cheapens and demeans anyone who permits himself the luxury of hating.
And lastly, are you tough enough to have faith in the things worthy of faith? A belief in your own particular God … an adherence to the tenets of your particular religion … all this with a decent regard and respect for the God and religions of others. Believe without proselytizing. Believe without peddling. Believe without working both sides of the street, trying to sell to others that which is uniquely your own. But most major here, simply believe. There’s no alternative to faith … and God help us, there’s no salvation without it.
So in summation, let this be said to you. Be tough enough to wear what you want to wear, wear beards or don’t wear beards, enlist or carry placards … but always, always, do the things that you believe. Don’t become monuments, sway with the wind. Change opinions, if the change is natural and believed. But believe in something and fight for those beliefs. Honor them by your commitment. Further them by your effort.
And what a wondrous and what an incredibly grand world you might build for your children. Now this millennium may not be in sight, let alone in reach. The route to it may be pretty damned close to impassible. It may be as distant and as complicated to reach as the moon or another solar system. BUT IT IS THERE! It’s there for the taking, the asking and the fighting. And the rhetorical question, are you tough enough, I think is already answered by simply the look of you and the feeling that’s in the room. Indeed, you’re tough enough. And you’re also human enough and sensitive enough and caring enough.
I wish you God-speed, good luck, and all the success that is your due. My only regret being … that I can’t stand in your midst and pick up the diploma just as you’re doing. It’s an exciting moment and a fulfilling moment and a very important one.