There are some things you only learn with age, like that Santa Clause isn’t real. Or that just because a male model at Abercrombie & Fitch offers to take a picture with you doesn’t mean they want to be your friend. Or that graduation speeches are often filled with lofty quotations and overwrought references to “The Times That Be” and Bookface.
So how to resist possibly stereotypical yet comical references to, say, the different types of students that populate Tisch? How to overcome expectations in a society supersaturated with things and stuff? I’m going to get personal. And if I’ve done it right, you’ll feel like you’re a part of this story by the time I close with the line “To infinity and beyond.”
I’m an unlikely candidate to speak at graduation for two reasons: 1) I didn’t choose to go to NYU after graduating from high school. And 2) I spent the majority of my pre-NYU life as an observer, someone who sat on the metaphorical sideline of things, afraid to speak up and partake and do.
Elementary school. I never laid in the grass as a kid because it made me nervous, but I did play sports because boys played sports in elementary school and I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to fit in because fitting in felt good. I knew I was gay ten years before I told people I’m gay.
Middle school. Holding hands, kissing, S-E-X. I wasn’t doing it, but I was sneaking into the magazine aisle at the grocery store to check out Justin Timberlake’s new outfit in the latest issue of “Tiger Beat,” and I was quitting gymnastics because I was afraid that my classmates would make fun of me for doing “a girl thing.” I quickly zipped myself further into the sleeping bag of myself.
High school. The teachers and other voices in my life made me feel like AP courses and a 4.0 GPA took precedence over cultivating personal interests, but I took AP Language & Composition and learned how to write from one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, asked a girl to prom, and then graduated and spent the summer before college watching Pixar movies and inevitably letting them inform my view of the world because when you’re raised in a small town, books and movies are your world.
Then “College.” I started as a freshman at the University of Michigan. In other words, I started off at “college” before transferring to NYU, which offers…something else. Something more like real life, but not really. I took Sociology 101 and learned that psychologist G. Stanley Hall described adolescence “as a time when boys engage in masculinizing activities that set them apart from girls,” and I agreed with this and started to understand the feelings I’d had when I was younger. I also learned that frats and football can be deemed a lifestyle, and it was one that I quickly grew tired of. I left the closest friends I’d ever had to get closer to my dream of working at Pixar, quickly learning what it felt like to experience profound sadness in conjunction with deep-seated excitement.
In January of 2009, I transferred to Tisch as a Film & TV Production major. In other words, in January of 2009, my Life began here. New York City, abuzz. The greatest city in the world. Truly a fiction of a rare kind, owned by anyone who stomps on its grounds. A surreal place where I can watch my creative idol Woody Allen playing clarinet at The Carlyle Hotel, and then—and often without warning—end up on Ludlow and Delancey amid the smell of pee and cigarettes. The outdoors. Or, as author Fran Lebowitz says, that thing you must past through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab. Or maybe you prefer Woody Allen’s New York, which he says has been plagued since the 1920s by welfare payments and narcotics and crime. But my Life began here. And Fran devoted her life to writing about it. And Woody says it’s the most romantic place in the world and still lives here to this day.
I went to Brooklyn and saw where “Do The Right Thing” was filmed, and then I hopped on the A train and walked into Tisch where I stood in the elevator with Spike Lee and he said “Thank you” when I told him I liked his hat and shoes. I learned that calling things “Felliniesque” was accepted and appreciated by some, and dismissed as pretentious by others. I hustled to get over eight internships on feature films and TV shows because I saw classmates with glittery resumes and industry connections that intimidated me and that made me anxious, and then I learned that Woody from “Toy Story” was right—jealousy is one of our ugliest colors. I returned Katie Holmes’s bra to Victoria’s Secret while interning on my first feature film, I saw my name in the credits on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and then I went to London to train at the BBC. In the end, I learned that getting these internships to impress others wasn’t really what it was all about.
I watched people get addicted to technology, favoring virtual relationships over human ones in which listening became a thing of the past. I grew tired of talking at parties to people who seemed to have stock answers to everything. Yeah. Yeah. I guess so. Yeah. Then I became fascinated by how the need to travel runs deep in the psyche of some people but not in others, so I took time off, visited my brother in China, and told all my friends and family that I’m gay.
I learned that I care very deeply about things, so I started writing and learning how to share it with others. I’d show friends and classmates my scripts and short films with caveats like, Oh but it’s not that good, and then I’d watch them at home by myself and smile because of what it meant that I’d created something, that I’d started to unzipper myself from that aforementioned sleeping bag to breathe and live and share. I learned from MIT researcher Deb Roy that “I” is one of the most used words in the English language, which is ironic considering how connected our world is. I spent the last five weeks of college working on a science TV show and it taught me that the elements of the universe mix and mash in incredibly precise patterns that allow us to exist as we do. I learned that human existence, when it really comes down to the atoms of things, is unlikely. I learned that college taught me what I don’t know, and I was humbled by this.
We. Us. Human existence. What had I learned? Had I learned anything? How do you know what you know?
While thinking about time and space can make you feel insignificant, store it as ammo to be used every morning when you wake up. The thought of being able to do things should make you wake up every morning and, at various speeds and intensities, work toward your dreams in the short life you’ve been given. As Billy Wilder once said, “You have a dream so you can get up in the morning.” Forgive me. That was so Tisch of me. To quote a movie director, you know. And also very hypocritical as I began this speech by poking fun at graduation speeches that call upon stereotypical yet comical references. But this is okay because of another thing college taught me. The frequency with which you may find your beliefs shaken and challenged can be unsettling. Just know that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, unless his or her opinions are wrong. For example, the statement “Toy Story is a bad movie” is factually incorrect and the person who utters it deserves to be corrected. At the risk of continually verbalizing my resume, I should mention here that I’ve spent the last three months interning at Pixar, my dream company, and I can tell you that “Toy Story” cannot be a bad movie because it was produced by magicians.
I’m hopeful for the future. I am. We should be. Adolescent males and females are less imprisoned by gender stereotypes, and interventions are happening; the Trevor Project and It Gets Better campaigns are saving young gay lives every day. Organizations like TED are spreading important and progressive knowledge, and actions are being taken to get us to communicate on more meaningful levels. If you feel that politics are failing you, then I encourage you to look somewhere else like independent cinema or pop culture for inspiration. We’re thriving. We’re saturated. We’re busy. Be a part of it. While we’re all the center of our own universes, we’re really interdependent creatures functioning through the relationships we have with others. I challenge you to unplug yourself from technology, look up every now and again, and connect. Know your history, like yourself, and then figure out what you want out of the world. Go do something, but whatever it is you do, do it with confidence and passion and heart. Go forth in the world with the peacefulness of a snow day. Or don’t. You don’t need me to tell you what to do. Be selfish, but stay considerate and kind.
I like the moment just before I walk out my door in the morning, when I turn the lights off and everything goes black, and in that moment, if only for a second or three, I’m invisible and can do whatever I want without anybody watching. I usually stand still and take a deep breath, probably the last calm one I’ll have before the lights of the day hit me and things start happening. I say to myself, “Yo world. Yeah you. Here I come, you beautiful, beautiful, unlikely thing.” I hope we can all find peace in our lives.
I sincerely thank you all for listening, and I look forward to talking to some of you today and tomorrow and into the future, either virtually or in this beautifully absurd little thing called the Real World. K. I gotta go. I haven’t checked my phone once in the last five minutes and I’m getting antsy.
To infinity and beyond.