Today is graduation day for me. Wait, Dave, haven’t you already graduated before. Thrice? Yep, indeed, but today I get to participate in graduation from a totally different perspective. I get to be the commencement speaker for my high school graduation ceremony. Yep, Yreka High School class of 2007 gets to sit and listen to me pontifficate. Well hopefully they will survive! 🙂
The speech, or a rough approximation of what I said, is posted below the fold.
YHS Graduation Speech, June 9, 2007
[intro chit chat]
It seems like only yesterday that I was up here myself to receive my diploma from Yreka High School. Shoot, look at my chubby baby cheeks, it really was only just yesterday that I graduated from Yreka High and set out for the wide world beyond. There is, however, a very real sense in which I don’t feel like I’ve ever left Yreka. No, I’ve never left Yreka.
Sure, technically, after I graduated from Yreka High School, I moved down to the urban jungle of Los Angeles and went to school at the California Institute of Technology. Caltech is an amazingly school, a place with a long history of winning Nobel prizes and all that fancy junk. So you can imagine that the student body there were, well lets just say they were overwhelmingly intimidating, at least from my perspective, coming from Yreka. You know the nerdly perfect SAT score intimidating. In my first days there I witnessed a talent show in which a student demonstrated his talent of solving the Rubik’s cube puzzle in only a few seconds. Okay, pretty cool. Turns out he was the current world’s puzzle champion. Another fellow 18 year old I met in those first weeks was writing an academic paper to be published in a prestigious scientific journal. On the astrophysics of black holes. With his mother and father who were both professors at Stanford. Holy mole, was I out of my league! I remember thinking to myself (1) how the heck am I going to compete with these students and (2) how could anyone who was world puzzle champion ever ever ever get a date?
I quickly decided that I needed some sort of identity. Something which would make me, well not necessarily intellectually intimidating like the astrophysics writing genius, but memorable. When you start college the first thing everyone wants to know about you is where you are from. At first I would say “Northern California.” When they would then asked me where in the Bay Area I lived, I used to put get very mad and put on a very serious face and say “No, Northern California” and point up in the air, so as to indicate, in some strange way, just how far north Yreka was. Eventually, however, I discovered that if I just told everyone I was from “Yreka”, well this was definitely something people would remember. First of all because they would check to see if their hearing was working correctly: “Eureka, you mean?” “No, Yreka!” Then you could tell them “Yreka, Y-R-E-K-A…you know Yreka Bakery spelled backwards is Yreka Bakery.” Aha! I had found my identity. I could be the kid from the town with that really weird name, “what was it…something to do with a Bakery, oh yeah, Yreka!”
So at Caltech I spread the gospel of Yreka. At the dormitory where I lived, after dinner every night they would have a time when you could get up and tell a joke. If your joke was good, people would vote and if they gave you a vote thumbs up, you were fine. If however, enough people didn’t like your joke, they would give you a thumbs down and then…okay this is the strange part, bear with me, they would throw you into one of the dormitory showers. Well I had a reputation to uphold…”Dave Bacon from Yreka”, so I soon realized I needed some memorial form of joke to cement my identity in my fellow students minds. What most people learned about me was that Yreka was somewhere fairly isolated, but I somehow thought that they needed to know more about the flavor of Siskiyou county. Now my father used to run the Yreka Western Railroad, the Blue Goose. In the early tourist days of the Blue Goose my dad had a hard time getting people onto a train from Yreka to Montague. The reason for this was, well, let’s be frank, because the train went basically through cow pastures. But when given lemons make lemonade, so: how to entertain the customers going through a field of cows? My dad’s idea? By telling cow jokes, of course! Bad cow jokes. What do you call a cow with only two legs? Lean beef. Cow with no legs? Ground beef. Yeah, bad, real bad. So what did I decide to tell as after dinner jokes at my dormitory at Caltech to remind people of where I was from? Yep, cow jokes. Two full months worth of cow jokes. Let us just say that I didn’t have to take a shower on my own much those two months.
To this day, I will tell you however, that everybody I knew from my Caltech days, knows where I was from. They will gladly tell you Yreka Bakery backwards is Yreka Bakery. And they might even smile when they hear a cow joke (okay maybe not.) But more important than this I discovered at Caltech a little secret which I’d like to share with you, class of 2007. Behind all of the intimidating credentials of all my fellow students, the perfect test scores, the elite private school pedigrees, the parents as professors, I, coming from Yreka, California, was not at a disadvantage. Indeed what I soon found out what that I was actually at an advantage! Because what really mattered at Caltech, what mattered when you are making your way in the world, is not that you’ve aced everything or been afforded the greatest opportunities. What mattered was that you loved what you were doing, had a strong foundation and confidence in who you were, and put everything you had into CREATING your future. And for as long as I can remember growing up in Yreka, I was surrounded by people who demonstrated those qualities in great abundance. Take for example, loving what you do. I’ve always known what loving what you do means. It was simple. Loving what you do means going fishing on the Klamath river. It means raising a family in, pardon my theological heresy, God’s country. It means going to football games on cold fall nights. It means telling cow jokes on a slow train to Montague. It means living in one of the most beautiful and astounding places on this planet. It means doing many of the things you, class of 2007 have been doing all along, just living in Siskiyou county.
For me personally, for as long as I can remember, I have always loved science. So at Caltech, where I majored in physics, what I quickly learned was there were plenty of people who were smarter than I was, who could think circles around me and make my head spin, but I had a secret advantage that I was in love with science, about learning how the universe works. So as the years went by, I found that the people who were truly excited about what they were doing, who increasingly found success in their chosen field, were not those with the perfect high faluten backgrounds that were empty of a true love of what they were doing, but where instead people who came from backgrounds much closer to my own. And here is the great thing, class of 2007, as you embark from Yreka High School, you are in the perfect position to find and pursue what you love. Some of you may have already found what excites you in life. You’re probably rip roaring ready to go, and I say go for it! But for many of you, you may not have discovered what your inner passion will be. But, and here is the cool thing, you now get to choose, to CREATE your future life. Think about that. You get to create, to build on your prior foundation or start afresh, something totally and uniquely you.
Which brings me to my final topic, one which is extremely dear to me in my own life. Creating. Creating your future.
Another Caltech story. At Caltech they have an event called “Senior Ditch Day.” Now the idea of a Senior Ditch Day is something you probably know: the seniors would ditch classes, and, for example, go to the beach. However at Caltech senior ditch day turned into something quite different. What happened was, many decades ago, the non-Seniors, the underclassmen, at Caltech go particularly mad at the seniors, since they were slaving away over their work while the seniors were off having fun. So they broke into the senor’s dormitory rooms and, performed some malicious acts on tomfoolery on the seniors rooms. For example, they would fill the entire room up with popcorn. Or take the furniture in the room and attach it to the roof. Now of course this made the seniors rather mad, so in order to prevent this, prior to ditch day the seniors would design elaborate contraptions to keep the underclassmen out of their rooms. For example they would design locks on their doors that could only be opened after a particularly difficult math puzzle was solved. Over the years this whole elaborate war between the underclassmen and the seniors evolved into what is known at Caltech as simply “Ditch Day” with a series of traditions and rules. On Ditch Day, the seniors would ditch, leaving behind these astoundingly complex systems for getting into their dorm rooms. If you were a senior and you were found on campus during ditch day, the underclassmen had the right to duct tape you to a tree. Yeah, that’s right duct tape you to a tree. Sometimes upside down! And all day, from 8am to 5pm the underclassmen would also ditch classes and would attempt to get into the senior’s rooms.
To give you an idea about what some of the methods the seniors kept students out of your rooms where, here’s what some of my friends did. The took simply took the key to their dorm room, embedded it in a concrete block about 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet which they had framed out with rebar. They took this gigantic block, and at low tide the night before ditch day, rolled it out as far as they could at Santa Monica Beach. The next day the underclassmen were confronted with a note on the door which told them only that the key was at the Santa Monica Beach. Of course they could have broken down the door, but what fun would that be, so off to the beach they went. There they had to find and recover the concrete block, which had now sunken considerably into the sand and was under several feet of water, and then break the block apart to get the key. And amazingly that’s just what they did, breaking into the seniors room a few minutes before the five o’clock deadline.
As you can imagine, when I first heard about Ditch Day I was very excited. Heck, this was a great reason to go to college! (Where’s my mom. Yes, mom, I also did ALSO learn something while I was at Caltech.) But what could I do that was really exciting for the underclassman? How could I build something that was going to really be remembered. Could I create something that had never been done before? Think about this task: of creating something that no one has previously imagined. Suppose you were alive forty years ago and someone described to you the modern personal computer and the internet. Fifty years ago, practically no one could imagine today’s computers. Everywhere in life you will see this. That big changes come about, and no one saw that they were coming. This is because creating something new, no matter what it is, is a task which no one can predict. New creations are the engine of our dance into the future. So what could I create, in my little world, for ditch day that had never been imagined before? Well here is what we did. Normally on ditch day the seniors ditch, of course. So we decided that we wouldn’t ditch! Instead we “stacked” (that is the name they give to the contraptions the seniors built) ourselves into our room. Outside of our second story dorm room we built a huge gigantic wooden puzzle that folded open as you slowly solved the puzzles associated with it. And because we were stacked inside our own room, we could do things that, to the students trying to solve the puzzles seemed absolutely astonishing! For example, at one point the students were confronted with three large knobs, wheels really, and numbers on the outside of these wheels. The idea was that the students would turn the knobs, push a button, and this would activate the knobs to turn. Depending on what the current settings for the knobs were, the knobs would move in a logical order. And the goal was to get the knobs to line up a specific reading: 0-0-0. Sounds like a pretty cool automatic device and a challenging game. Except that, of course, while the underclassmen thought this was all mechanical what was really happening was that I and my friend Lon were behind the wall where the knobs where connected through and turning the wheels ourselves. And here is the funny part, because we were running out of time as we were finishing our stack, we didn’t have time to design a fake button for the underclassmen to push to get the wheels to turn. So instead we left instructions telling them that to get the wheels to turn they had to hum a perfect middle C. So here were 20 or so underclassmen, just on the other side of a wall made of cardboard, all humming middle C while we were secretly turning the wheels. If they have known we were just on the other side of the wall they would have broken the wall down and duct taped us to a tree! Priceless. Even more priceless, however, was the look on the students faces when, just before 5pm they finally broke into our room and realized that we had been in there all along, controlling the various puzzles and devices remotely all the while.
And all of this joy, all of this because, what we set out to do was to create something entirely new. And to this day, this is what I try to do throughout my entire life. My day job now involves trying to create what are called quantum computers, computers made out of single atoms which when we finally construct them, will offer unparalleled computational power. Everyday I get to work on building something which was inconceivable only a few years ago. And I’m pretty sure the way in which we finally succeed in doing this will be can’t conceive of today.
As you grow older, class of 2007, I have no doubt that there will be things created which we cannot imagine today but which will profoundly affect your life. Not only that, but probably everything you do which you will really remember, which you will look back at in your life, will be about creating out of the void, your own way, your own path.
So, class of 2007, go out and create. Create yourselves a life of your own. Create a family, create it your way with your loved ones. Create a piece of art, a craft no one had previously thought of making. Create a business doing what you love. Create a new tradition by spreading what you love to others. Create your own passion. Your past makes you who your are, your future is what you make of it.
And yes, class of 2007, create cow jokes. Create pride in coming from Yreka High School, class of 2007. For if you love what you do, and build each day afresh, who knows the places you will go and the things you will do. For this, class of 2007, I wish you the best of luck. Congratulations, graduates, and may luck and love shine down on you.