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Over the Rainbow with Brian Burns: A Commencement Address


Photo: Juliette Luchini

Too late now to start worrying about self-indulgence, I won’t try to feign embarrassment when sharing that I’ve often imagined speaking to Emmanuel College’s graduating Class of, like, 2040. I’d be middle-aged by then—my hair more salt than pepper but my checking account more commas than overdrafts—with stories to share of mistakes I’d made and screenplays I’d gotten green lighted and dinner parties where I’d sat in between Usher and Shirley MacLaine’s Past Life. From where I’d stand, I’d see a tented parking lot filled with iPhone-brain-implanted youths just as scared, sweaty, aimless, and hungover as I was on May 14, 2016. The day when I graduated from college and entered a world without a syllabus telling me what to do, how to do it, when to get it done, and which days Kelly McGuire’s office hours were so I could plan my outfit accordingly.

But alas, without an affiliation to the Boston archdiocese or Merck pharmaceuticals, I know full well that my chances of delivering a commencement address at my soon-to-be alma mater are slim to nun. Inevitable developments in cryogenic freezing will surely allow Sister Janet to forever serve as president so commencement speakers will likely remain as trustee-pleasing and parent-appeasing as always. Which really sucks cause I’ve had Nora Ephron’s 1996 speech at Wellesley committed to memory since the 7th grade and I feel like that has to count for something.

At my own high school graduation, the class valedictorian picked out excerpts from her middle school diary to share during her speech. Innocent little references to acne and the Jonas Brothers that made me think of all my own adolescent journal entries about discovering Evita and what my right hand was capable of making me feel. Even if my high school transcript didn’t have a D- from senior year gym, I can’t imagine qualifying as the kind of student they’d want to represent the school. Gay, Madonna-obsessed, self-centered, gay. But these were the exact bits and pieces of myself that I wanted so badly to share with the audience that I wanted even more.

The morning I left for Emmanuel, I was sitting on the toilet, crying, as The Carpenters’ greatest hits played through the speakers of my iTouch. It was more fear than sadness that prompted this melodrama—anxiety over cultivating a whole new presence for myself far outweighing any sorrow about leaving New Hampshire. I was scared that I wouldn’t mean anything to anyone, that I’d have no plans on Friday nights, that I’d eat sad meals alone in the cafeteria while everyone around me found their people.

Communal bathrooms also terrified the shit out of me.

But, slowly, it happened. It’s like that thing when you go into a room or a train platform or a podiatrist’s office for the very first time and have this skewed sense of the place. A disorientation that you don’t really experience in the same way ever again. You start going there over and over and everything begins to look like the place that it is, the place that you’ve made it into. The elusive exercise-addict that you, as a freshman, christened “Elliptical Boy” becomes a friend you hold as close as any by junior year. The house parties that once felt so Shakespearean lose that semblance of tragedy when your friends become the ones owning the apartment. And the meals you eat alone in the cafeteria end up not feeling as sad as they always seemed.

“Why are you crying?” I remember asking my mom, as she dabbed her eyes with the sleeve of her sequined tunic while helping me move out of my freshman year dorm.

“I feel like you just got here.”

Scoffing, I resumed packing up my t-shirts, posters, and unused boxes of condoms—so confident in my belief that college would slowly continue on as this big, expensive incubation period. That I’d twiddle my thumbs through three more years of crash courses in the Male Gaze, Jack Kerouac, and HPV before my networked-, diploma-ed-, eager-, and ready-self was greeted at graduation by life and all it was supposed to offer. A salary. A 39-year-old boyfriend. A pilot optioned at HBO. Triceps.

But denied by a sperm bank and food running at a sports bar with a few weeks left before I, arguably, become an adult, I find myself crying on that toilet all over again. Not afraid of the things I might not find but, rather, the things that seem so easy to lose. Which, I guess, is the point. It’s like My-So-Called Life or Aaliyah or the resurgence of the choker. Good things pass.

If I never speak to the Class of 2040, it’ll be all right. Not because I’ll have learned to cope with the notion of never joining Nora Ephron’s ranks. That I’ll never get over. But because, even now, I can say I’ve already gotten what I would want from delivering that speech. With no intention of abandoning a career in biotech for the priesthood, praise from the deans or the sisters or whoever decided our campus living room should be the Jean Yawkey Center wasn’t what I’ve been after during my time here. It’s been getting to leave behind these bits and pieces of myself. Meaning something to someone. Listening to The Carpenters less. Dressing like Kelly McGuire more. Journaling about Evita as much as always. And finding a place, over the rainbow, that welcomed me in.

Brian Burns is a Columnist and the Executive Managing Editor of The Hub. He can be reached at Follow him @brianTburns_.

Posted by on May 2, 2016. Filed under Around Campus,Over the Rainbow with Brian Burns. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to Over the Rainbow with Brian Burns: A Commencement Address

  1. Adebukola Ajao

    May 2, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Brian, you are just a force to be reckoned with! Totally love this piece and as always im crying tears of laughter! You’re da bomb!!

  2. Maisie

    May 2, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Kelly McGuire holds office hours?

  3. Robin Gulick

    May 2, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    Brian, I will look forward to reading more pieces about you life. I have enjoyed “Over the Rainbow”. Good luck in the big wide world. Lots of life to live!

  4. Yas

    May 4, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    “Inevitable developments in cryogenic freezing will surely allow Sister Janet to forever serve as president so commencement speakers will likely remain as trustee-pleasing and parent-appeasing as always.”