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Tom Robbins’ Graduation Speech

When I was the editor of the newspaper in Oak Harbor nearly 40 years ago, I was given a copy of a commencement address by author Tom Robbins that was delivered to a handful of graduates at the Off Campus School in Oak Harbor on June 7, 1974. The Off Campus School was an alternative for students who previously dropped out of regular high school. Press reports called the program “hotly controversial.”

I tucked the speech away back then and recently found it in my files. I wondered how Robbins came to be on Whidbey Island that night. The Off Campus School commencement was a very small event — graduates numbered just 20. And at the time, Robbins was already well-known. His 1971 book, Another Roadside Attraction, which described the discovery of the mummified body of Jesus Christ at a highway zoo and hot dog stand, was a best seller and his second, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was in the works. And Oak Harbor was and still is a generally conservative community shaped by the naval air station on its doorstep and the Dutch Reformed Church to which many of its original settlers belonged.

So, Robbins was an unlikely person at an unlikely event, but nonetheless, there he was, in the flesh, talking to graduates who didn’t fit in at regular school. Robbins took to the podium at the Surf and Sands Country Club on that night in 1974 and began:

“I am often asked whether there is life after death. Certainly, there is. There is also death after life, and life before death, and death after life. It goes on forever. There’s no stopping it. You will live forever and die forever. In fact, you already have.”

“As for heaven and hell, they are right here on Earth, and it is up to each of you in which one you choose to reside. To put it simply, heaven is living in your hopes and hell is living in your fears.

“One problem with the notion of Heaven and Hell,” Robbins continued, “is that although they are exact opposites, an astonishing number of people seem to be confused about which is which. For example, all over the United States on this very evening, commencement speakers are standing before audiences not greatly unlike yourselves describing hell as if they were talking about heaven.

“Their speakers are saying things such as, ‘Graduating seniors, you have reached the golden age of maturity; it is time now to go out into the world and take up the challenge of life, time to face your hallowed responsibility.’

“And if that isn’t one hell of a note, it’s certainly one note of hell.

“When I hear the word maturity spoken with such solemn awe, I don’t know whether to laugh or get sick. There circulates a common myth that once one becomes an adult, one suddenly and magically gets it all together. And, if I may use the vernacular, discovers where it’s at. Ha ha. The sad funny truth is adults are nothing but tall children who have forgotten how to play.

“When people tell you to grow up, they mean approximately the same thing they mean when they tell you to shut up. By shut up they mean stop talking. By grow up, they mean stop growing.

“Because as long as you keep growing, you keep changing, and the person who is changing is unpredictable, impossible to pigeonhole and difficult to control. The growing person is not an easy target for those guys in slick suits who want you to turn over your soul to Christ, your heart to America, your butt to Seattle First National Bank and your armpits to the new extra crispy Right Guard.

“No, the growing person is not an ideal consumer, which means, in more realistic terms, he or she is not an easy slave. Worse yet, if he or she continues to grow, grows far enough and long enough, he or she may get too close to the universal mysteries, the nature of which the Navy and the Dutch Reformed Church do not encourage us to ponder. The growing person is an uncomfortable reminder of the greater human potential that each of us might realize if we had the guts.

“So, society wants you to grow up to reach a safe, predictable plateau and root there. To muzzle your throb. To lower the volume on the singing in your blood. Capers all cut, sky finally larked, surprises known: SETTLE DOWN — settle like the sand in the bottom of an hourglass, like a coffin six months in the ground. Act your age, which means act their age, and that has, from the moment they stopped growing, always been old.”

People who graduated from high school in the 1960s and early 1970s remember it as a time of great unrest. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gunned down. The disaster of the war in Vietnam rolled on and the casualties mounted. Universities exploded in protest. Soldiers opened fire and killed students at Kent State. Cambodia was bombed. Black civil rights marchers were hosed by police and beaten with batons. And as Robbins spoke, the walls were closing in on President Richard Nixon, the fall of Saigon was a year away, and everywhere people grappled with a loss of faith in government and social institutions. And Robbins lashed out.

“Growing up is a trap.

“As for responsibility, I am forced to ask, responsibility to what? To our fellow man? Two weeks ago, the newspapers reported that a federal court had ruled that when a person’s brain stops functioning, that person is legally dead, even though his or her heart may continue to beat. That means that 80% of the population of the Earth is legally dead. Must we be responsible to corpses?

“No, you have no responsibility except to be yourself to the fullest limit of yourself. And to find out who you are. Or perhaps I should say to remember who you are. Because deep down in the secret velvet of your heart, far beyond your name and address, each of you knows who you really are. And that being who is true cannot help but behave graciously to all other beings – because it is all other beings.

“Ah, but we must be responsible, and if we are, then we are rewarded with the white man’s legal equivalent of looting: a steady job, a secure income, easy credit, free access to all the local emporiums and a home of your own to pile the merchandise in. And so what if there is no magic in your life, no wonder, no amazement, no playfulness, no peace of mind, no sense of unity with the universe, no giggling joy, no burning passion, no deep understanding, no overwhelming love? At least your ego has the satisfaction of knowing you are a responsible citizen.

“The only advice I have for you tonight is not to actively resist or fight the system, because active protest and resistance merely entangles you in the system. Instead, ignore it, walk away from it. Turn your backs on it, laugh at it. Don’t be outraged, be outrageous! Never be stupid enough to respect authority unless that authority proves itself respectable.

“So be your own authority, lead yourselves. Learn the ways and means of the ancient yogi masters, pied pipers, cloud walkers and medicine men. Get in harmony with nature. Listen to the loony rhythms of your blood. Look for beauty and poetry in everything in life. Let there be no moon that does not know you, no spring that does not lick you with its tongues. Refuse to play it safe, for it is from the wavering edge of risk that the sweetest honey of freedom drips and drips. Live dangerously, live lovingly. Believe in magic. Nourish your imagination. Use your head, even if it means going out of your mind. Learn, like the lemon and the tomato learned, the laws of the sun. Become aware, like the jungle became aware, of your own perfume. Remember that life is much too serious to take seriously – so never forget how to play. Looking at you tonight, I know you are going to do just fine.”

Today, Robbins lives in La Conner and is nearing 90 years old. I heard he only responds to written letters, so I sent him a copy of the speech and asked him how he came to be in Oak Harbor that night and what he thinks about his speech now. He graciously responded:

“Your epistle has caught up with me (or me with it) in this little clam-cawed outpost where I continue to follow the Charmer’s pipes down oblique paths of well, I’m unsure if there is a fitting name for it. In any case, I’m happy to be here (and Here) and both surprised and cheered to be reminded of the one and only high school commencement address I have ever delivered. I must confess that it pleases me to discover that the speech not only fails to redden my cheeks, but actually provokes a kind of prideful grin.”

Robbins said he was invited to speak at the event by a woman he was romantically involved with at the time who had friends in the graduating class. Robbins added:

“It produces a tiny tingle of pleasure to learn that there may be people who can still recall that event and my contribution to it. (The statute of limitations would protect me, I suppose, from any belated accusations of contribution to the delinquency of minors.)”

I checked Oak Harbor’s newspaper, the Whidbey News-Times, which is preserved on microfilm at the Washington State Library, to see if a reporter covered the commencement address. A very helpful librarian at the state library wheeled through the microfilmed newspaper pages for June 1974 and found a story and a blurry photo of students with Robbins. The story was long on explaining what the Off Campus School was and how its future was threatened, but it was short on the substance of Robbins’ address. Most of the words Tom Robbins spoke that night echoed only in the ears of those 20 graduates – until now.

Tom Robbins (third from right back row) poses for a photo with 1974 graduates of the Off Campus School, a program for students who dropped out of high school. Photo credit: The Whidbey News-Times.

“Let me wrap this up with a few short questions I am often asked.

1. Will we be eaten by bugs and worms? We ought to be. We have eaten and we ought to be eaten. This is Justice and there is no stopping it. If you have your body burned, starving the earth to glorify a memory, you are asking for trouble. I have no idea what form the trouble might take, but I do know that if you are too good to be eaten by bugs and worms, you are asking for trouble.

2. Does your soul fly out of your body at the moment you die? No. This is a foolish superstition. Your soul is constantly flying out of your body in just the same way that energy is constantly flying out of the sun. At the moment your body dies, the soul stops flying out.

3. Is Jesus coming back? Yes, all the time. And so are you. All souls echo forever throughout the universe.

I hope you have a wonderful trip.”

9 Comments

  1. Megan May 20, 2022

    My eyes are welling up and I’m brimming with gratitude for Tom Robbins and for you for sharing this, for writing to him, and for sharing the letter. I had a year of reading all his books in 2011 and everything in my life changed. I return to him often but it’s been awhile since I’ve been immersed. Recently I am coming back to the life of his words and feeling it as viscerally as I did when he expanded and brigtened my mind. the first, second, and third time around. I found this article because I have him on google alerts. Thank you, thank you, thank you again for this absolute gem that I’m tucking in my heart even though it won’t stay there because my heart is filled with balloons from the absolutely lovely experience of reading this. I treasure every TR reader and documentarian for amplifying the aliveness of the journey that our beloved opens up. Thank you.

    • Bex May 24, 2022

      I, too, found this by way of goole alerts, and feel the same way as you in every other regard. What an absolute treasure.
      Thank you, Fred!

  2. Martha Kilpatrick May 22, 2022

    I met Tom Robbins at a book signing. It was at a book convention in Florida in the early 90’s. I told him that I enjoyed reading his stuff when I wanted to be entertained at the speed of light! He jumped the ropes and gave me a hug. His words really took the crust off of my life. Changed forever, Thank you so much, Tom.

  3. Vania May 23, 2022

    You guys are my soul family group and I am a Bulgarian so different culture to you. I feel so lucky to have encountered Tom’s books when I was at high school and now 44, being a teacher and youth worker a realize that I teach his philosophy.
    I would love to send him a reverance
    letter for hs birthday
    Do you know his address?

    Believe in everything and believe in nothing,
    V

  4. Melissa Gottlieb May 23, 2022

    This was so special to read about..thanks for sharing it! Loved that you wrote to him..and love that he responded! His books changed me, especially Skinny Legs and All. Totally summed up and crystallized for me my opinion of organized religion. Also love Jitterbug Perfume.

  5. Steve Heilig May 26, 2022

    Enjoyed this “address” very much, thanks.
    Tom Robbins spoke at my college in the late 1970s. My girlfriend and I biked over. He was a good comedian in addition to being a unique writer (this in contrast to Hunter S. Thompson, who’d also appeared in the same hall and just made a crass ass of himself).. Afterwards, milling around at a reception, he took a look at my tall beautiful partner and said “I’ve got a nice hotel room down in town, would you like to come with me?” She, bless her, pointed at me and just said “I’m with him.” Robbins looked me up and down, shrugged, and said “OK, I guess he could come along too.”

  6. chuck dunbar May 26, 2022

    Cool memory from long ago, Steve. And yes, bless your beautiful woman for her loyal, perfect response to Robbins’ proposal. And kudos to him for his just as perfect, and funny, response. I hope all involved were smiling at the end of the exchange. And I’ll bet you smile now at the memory.

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