Helena High School, Helena, MT.
I’m honored to be here, at the commencement of your post-high school lives.
Consider those words: post-high school lives.
Keeping that phrase in mind, I’d like to quickly dispel a pretty pervasive myth: there’s a weird bit of misinformation floating around that, somehow, high school is the best time of your life and that you’ll never quite relive it, that it’s all downhill from here. I heard that when I was your age; Always sounded super ominous to me, like it was an inevitable thing. If I wasn’t enjoying myself 100% at every moment, I was somehow doing my future self an enormous disservice.
It may come as a consolation to some of you that that is the on par with one of the biggest lines of garbage the adult world will ever try to feed you.
Though to be honest, for some of you, that may be true. If you’re one of those people, that in twenty, thirty years time you look back and say that those four years in a public institution where you weathered the worst of your post-puberty days, the insecurities, the cruelties – those were the best times of your life – I congratulate you. Nice work. You’ve got a leg up on most of the people here; it’s not easy to wring that level of good times out of so much molten transformation.
But for most of you, the rest of your lives will tower, by magnitudes of greatness, over this minute stretch of your time on Earth.
You know, when I first got the invitation to be here, to speak to you, I guess I surprised myself by saying yes. I think I said ‘yes’ mostly because I was shocked to be asked. My qualifications? I once sat where you sit. Part of a graduating class of Helena High School. With my parents in the bleachers and my friends around me. I was the kid with the round glasses and “fight homophobia” written in white ink on my mortar board. But I’ll get back to that bit in a minute.
I didn’t do particularly well in classes – my friend Mark and I convinced our Algebra Two subs to let us go play frisbee on the lawn rather than take quizzes near the end of the term – our grades were really that hopeless; I wasn’t involved in student government. I hate to admit it to the sports fans, but I don’t think I went to a single Bengal game, football basketball whatever. My biggest claim to fame among my Bengal peers might’ve been when I was elected “best hair” in the 1993 yearbook. I had grown out the top long, shaved to the skin on the sides. It was awful. It was my impression that it was big in the UK.
However, despite my lack of school spirit and anything to really anchor me to this High School (have yet to make it to a reunion), when I got the invitation I suddenly felt it important for me to come here, stand here and spout stuffy, inspirational platitudes if for no other reason than it feels like a nice comeuppance for someone who wouldn’t have made it on to the long list of “most likely to succeed.” And maybe I could stand as an example to my fellow under achievers.
But also: I do have an important thing to impart to you. Something that only I can tell you. As a Montanan who has left.
My grandfather, Pete Meloy, was a judge here in town. He was born on a homestead out near Townsend. He brought up my family to follow a religion of his own creation: the Great Western Religion. The sanctity of the American West, of Montana in particular. He also pronounced that all Meloys, should they leave Montana, will make their way back here. Eventually.
That kind of hung over me like a curse. When I left Helena, I barely looked back. I was falling over myself to get out of here. I made all kind of pronouncements about this place, about this town, this little town where I’d been born. I was bound for the west coast, to the only college that would accept me and the weirdness of my AP English classes and almost-failing math and science grades.
But in the safety of my west coast university, I began to understand something. An understanding that grew and grew as I traveled more and more, stayed away from Montana for longer and longer stretches of time. A thing called Montanan exceptionalism.
And what is that? Exceptionalism is this idea that a nation or a people are somehow set off from the rest of the world, that they possess some weird, innate quality that sets them apart – in a good way.
Now: I don’t go in for exceptionalism generally. Most of the time, you hear it in the context of American Exceptionalism, which typically, blowing out of the mouths of right wing ideologues, tends to come freighted with a lot of baggage: this idea that America is the greatest nation that ever was and will be. I don’t believe nations don’t have a right to be exceptional or to promote themselves as such – a little humility goes a long way; I don’t think American Exceptionalism really has a place in our enlightened, internet-tethered 21st century global community. We should all be embracing our failings, our missteps, and looking for the greatness in others.
But Montanan exceptionalism; that’s something that has begun to make sense to me.
After college, I moved to Portland, Oregon and started a band called the Decemberists and we started touring. First, regionally – just quick two week jaunts up and down the west coast – then nationally. Before too long, we’d signed with a major label and began touring around the world.
And once you start doing that, moving farther and farther into the pale of your comfort, beyond the boundaries of your home, you engage with people of all stripes. You work with them; you interact with them. You befriend them, you fight with them. And you get a real sense of how everyone’s worldviews are necessarily shaped by the place where they are from.
And I’m here, standing in front of you, to tell you that, having traveled the world, having met jerks and sweethearts, famous people, invisible people, stupidly wealthy people and destitutely poor people: There is absolutely no-one in the world like Montanans. You guys are the cream of the crop. And I say that with a great deal of pride. I think Norman McLean was getting at the heart of that idea when he said, that “the world is full of bastards, the number increasing the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.” I realize that puts Helena about an hour and forty five minutes into bastard territory, but we all know he really meant Montana in general.
When I was growing up, I had this impression that the party was always happening somewhere else; that I had had the profound misfortune in being born in a place somehow removed from the world. As a kid, television created a window into a world from which I was totally separated: the brick walls and the brownstones, the urban playgrounds of Sesame Street – this was totally alien to me. As I grew older, that feeling of disconnection grew: The bands I loved all came from big cities; movies showed a more dramatic, fashionable world than my own. I got the feeling that I was living somehow outside; that everyone else was getting a richer experience than I was, here surrounded by the Big Belts and a population that boasted a fraction of a single suburb of some of those big cities I so admired.
I suspect there are some of you out there who feel the same way.
I have since been to those places, I’ve since met the people who live in those places; and I always come away with an increased appreciation and respect for the state of Montana and those who were born here or choose to live here and assimilate.
There is a deep streak of respect and intelligence in the Montanan mindset; there is an empathy for one’s neighbors that goes beyond a simple respect of privacy. It’s brusque, it is a little rough-hewn, but it follows logic over ideology. It grows from a community that at least tries to understand the mentality of its fellows. Conservatism might abound in the Montanan mindset, but so does a kind of feckless as-long-as-you-keep-it-to-yourself belief, which, in certain light, could almost be mistaken for true-blue liberalism.
In the spring of 1993, I sat where you sat with my mortar-board reading “Fight Homophobia” without even giving a second thought to what kind of controversy that might stir up – it was something I truly believed, a statement I wanted to wear that day like a tattoo. To my surprise, it didn’t cause a stir, not even the slightest. At least not that I was aware of. My wife, who grew up in New York, has since told me that if I had done the same in her high school – on the enlightened, urban East Coast – I might not have survived my senior party.
And that was a kind of revelation to me. The fact that I could express those sentiments, without fear of reprisal. In a place which I think most of the world tends to view as being behind the times, as a consequence of its remove from the progressive hubs of the world. I sat there thinking that maybe I was making people angry, that I was offending some people’s sensibilities. But, in fact, I was surrounded by Montanans, by my community. I wonder if anyone really gave it a second look.
You are trail-blazer stock, you are the stuff of mavericks and pioneers. You know, Montana was the first state to guarantee to its citizens, in its constitution, the right for a clean and healthy environment. The constitution of 1972. It’s an example that other states only later began to embrace and adopt; Montana was at it first.
And where does this exceptionalism come from? Since it seems innate – it is, in fact, in each and every one of you – I would say that it comes from the landscape itself; that a extraordinary landscape requires an extraordinary people to live in it. I suppose it could be traced to what my grandpa talked about, this Great Western Religion.
Each one of you has a kernel of that one-of-a-kind Montana-ness inside you. And I’m telling you now, it needs to be taken out into the world and thrown around.
Which isn’t to say: GET OUT OF HERE, NOW. And that’s tempting to say. I’m sure it would’ve been the message I would’ve most connected with when I was your age, sitting where you sit now. And maybe that message (GET OUT OF HERE, NOW, AS QUICKLY AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN) is right for some of you.
But not for all. You see, while I’d press many of you to go out into the world and have the same epiphanies I did, recognize the inherent greatness of your home state and its native people. Understand the incredible rarity and preciousness of this Montanan exceptionalism. This is your path, your mandate.
For others of you, those of you who would prefer to stay or just end up staying: that’s cool too. Because you need to create the furrows, plant the seed, on its home soil. You need to protect and cultivate the next generations of Montanans, and make sure that this spirit survives. What’s more, you need to devote yourselves to conservationism and protection in order that the spirit of the 1972 constitution and its promises survive. So that when the ones who left return, as my grandfather promised us Meloys would necessarily do, they can fall right back in line and join you in your cultivation.
So: all of you. It doesn’t matter if you barely made it to this spot, that you, like me, eeked your way to graduation. If you didn’t go to a single Bengal game. If you’re champing at the bit to get all this over with and move on to the next chapter. Valedictorian, quarterback, lead of the spring play, second chair trumpet player – whatever. You are all conjoined in this Montanan exceptionalism.
The world beyond these mountains is a lesser world; it rests on you to make it better.
And that’s it. That’s the important message. And now, get on with your lives.