It’s graduation season where I live, both at the university in my town and for my kindergartner, who keeps trying on the blue cap they sent him ahead of the last day of school. I skipped almost all of my own graduations, except for one, and that was for self-aggrandizing reasons.

A thing you will find in a lot of radio people is that we love having an audience that is not in the room with us. It is great to have who knows how many people tuning in, recognizing your voice, and focusing in on what you have to say. My oldest kid once described my job saying something along the lines of “you talk to yourself in a small room,” and that’s exactly the feeling we radio introverts are after. Almost like talking to “the cloud,” as tech people might say.

Having a real, live, right there, in the room, watching you kind of audience is not my first choice – notice how I write a newsletter instead of bringing you all to a theater and telling you stories – but there have been times when it was worth doing and I was ok with it. In sixth grade I ran for student council president, because my brother had been student council president and, as always, I wanted to do what he did. So I gave a speech that my mom and I wrote, ending with a big dramatic flourish of managing expectations: “I can’t promise you soda in the drinking fountains, I can’t promise you Beastie Boys concerts in the gym, but I can promise if you elect me we’ll have the best student government we can have.” I won the election, even if a kid in my class admonished me on the way out of the speech: “Beastie Boys?” he asked. “You should’ve said Iron Maiden!”

For some reason in high school I decided I wanted to give the speech at graduation; I feel like this was because I’d not really wanted to go to graduation and tried to get out of it by saying something like “I’m not going unless I can give the speech.” And then the school, which up to that point had always had the valedictorian speak, announced they would have students compete for the chance to be one of three speakers. Be careful what you wish for. I ended up getting chosen, along with a guy who would also later go into radio (I wonder if he preferred the invisible audience too?) and our valedictorian, who – remember, this was 1994 – said maybe our generation could bring about peace, “and I don’t just mean peace between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.”

My speech started with the principal introducing me and telling everyone I would speak about “the future,” which was news to me. I wasn’t speaking about the future, or about anything at all, really. While my dad was touched enough by what I’d said that he saved my typewritten notes and mailed them to me some 15 years later, I felt like my speech threw together some platitudes about hard work and service with some flowery language that didn’t amount to a whole lot. The closest I came to making a point was in a line I’d swiped from my senior year English teacher, something like “all we know for sure is that we’re here now, and someday we won’t be. We shouldn’t waste the opportunity.” I got polite applause when I finished, and then returned to my seat to agonize over whether I should throw my cap in the air or not at the end. I went for the middle ground and sort of dropped it onto the grass.

It wasn’t as bad as the time I’d offered my first-year English class three reasons why the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers were alike and three reasons why they were different, but it wasn’t my finest hour, and that was because it wasn’t really me speaking to anyone. Instead of me sharing something of myself with my classmates, I tried to say what I thought a generic graduation speaker should say to a graduating class. So I ended up not saying much of anything. And again I’d forgotten to mention Iron Maiden.

Fortunately a few days earlier I’d actually gotten it right. My crowd in high school was the broadcasting crowd; our school had its own FM radio station and a cable access TV station, and I made a lot of great friends and not-always-so-great shows there. Our radio teacher had done a nice job helping us build the group into a community. She even had us do a holiday potluck that December. (The hottest item was my best friend Steve’s taco salad, which he admitted later was “six hard shell tacos from Taco Bell that I mashed up”) And at the end of the year she took us all out for a pizza party, and had the younger students produce tribute videos to us graduating seniors. (These were intended to be a surprise, although I ended up helping edit mine when the producers ran into a technical problem.) She had the seniors each say a few words at the party, and Steve and I decided to hand-write our speeches out, but on alternating lines of the same paper. So as I gave my speech I’d end up reading back part of the one he’d just given.

This speech was not me trying to channel wisdom or deft turns of phrase from great speakers of the past. It was me saying how much fun I’d had with all of them, that we’d made some really great memories along with our shows, that every one of them was special and that I hoped the ones who were down on themselves and felt like they didn’t matter actually mattered a lot to me and to everyone else there. It was a much better speech than the graduation one – though once again, I left out Iron Maiden.

Even so, when I speak now, in front of other people or just talking to myself in a small room, I try to remember that it’s me speaking, that if I’m going to say something I want it to speak from the heart. My heart. Nothing generic, no more boilerplate, no more trying to live up to my imagined expectations, just… talking, person to person.

Or, as Mr. T said so well on his reality show in the 2000s: “Say what you got to say, then shut your dang piehole!”