The Unlikeliest Commencement Speaker

It’s commencement season. Time for celebrities and politicians to alight on college campuses to dispense wisdom and encouragement to graduates. Cognoscenti contributor and comedian Jimmy Tingle recalls his own moment ascending the dais at Harvard five years ago — and the unlikely path that got him there.

One of the best things about going back to school in your 50s is that you get a student ID and the senior discount.

When I was accepted into Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government after 25 years as a professional comedian, people often asked me, Jimmy: Why would a stand-up comic want to go to Harvard? The answer was very simple: I got in!

I loved everything about the experience, especially entering the commencement address competition.

Though I grew up in Cambridge, on the edge of the country’s oldest and most prestigious university, I was, admittedly, an unlikely choice to give a commencement address at Harvard. I had traveled the world-performing stand-up comedy. I had recently been to Europe! Which, I assured the commencement panel judges, was, indeed, an excellent country.

I told them that, as a young Catholic, I’d had my first spiritual awakening praying to God to get away from the Harvard students and campus police chasing us through Harvard Yard after we tried to steal a bicycle. While other college campuses during the 1960s were deeply divided over Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam, my friends and I were able to unite students and law enforcement.

In my proposed commencement address, I wrote of my academic struggles with statistics. I took every extra help session I could. Usually it was just me and 19 students from other countries. All of us supporting one another across racial, ethnic and religious lines. And I say this as a native Bostonian: All of us with English as a second language.

My experience at the Kennedy School reinforced my belief that almost anything in this world is possible. For example, I got a B in statistics, which, for me, was a miracle. Actually, in the spirit of honesty, it was a B minus. So, a minor miracle. But if I could get a B minus in statistics in grad school at Harvard, there was hope for World Peace.

Despite the unorthodox content of my proposed speech, I was chosen to give the 2010 graduate school commencement address at Harvard.

And if that could happen, then, my friends, there is hope for World Peace.