I’ve heard that a common gift to graduating students is Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
For, obvious reasons, it’s an appropriate choice. Besides its skilful second person narrative, the book is literally about going out and succeeding (or sometimes failing) in life.
But as one of my friends pointed out, “It’d make a nice gift… except that it’s eighteen dollars for a book that thick——” (No, those em-dashes were not me interrupting. That was the thickness of the book. But eighteen dollars? Not quite sure where she was looking for it.)
But as great as the rhymes, drawings, and the wit and wisdom in the book are, I’ve always felt another book that would make a better grad gift.
Even if it’s rather depressing. (Which explains why no one gets it as a grad gift.)
I’m talking about Stephen King’s The Body (which is found in the collection Different Seasons, which, by the way, also contains Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.)
The book (and its film adaptation, Stand By Me) is about four twelve-year-olds who are looking for a dead body in the forest.
While it’s a great read whether or not you’re graduating, there are three incredibly thoughtful lessons I thought would be mighty appropriate for graduates.
1. Friends come and go faster than you expect.
Let’s begin with the end of the story (err… spoiler alert?).
In the end, after the adventure, the kids return to school. But while Gordie, the narrator, remains close friends with Chris, he quickly drifts away from the other two, leading to this insight:
Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant, did you ever notice that? —The Body
Though The Body is set in 1960, this insight is more applicable than ever. Every year, I watch the graduating class flee and scatter the moment the last school bell rings. And sure, while sometimes high school friends keep in touch, for most people, the friends they’ve spent forty hours a week with for years will drift away like ships in a fog, to be lost and forgotten in the sea of memories.
It’s a harsh reality.
2. You are not defined by your environment.
Chris came from a bad family, all right, and everybody thought he would turn out bad… including Chris.
You’ve probably heard it a million times. “You are a product of your environment.” You were dropped on your head as a child, and that’s why you’re now __________.
In some cases, that could very well be the case. And of course in those cases, life is really awful.
But it doesn’t always have to turn out that way. As The Body progresses, and the character of Chris is revealed, it becomes clear that Chris is upset with his lot in life. Angry, even.
Which leads him to fight against it. To try to get out of it. He picks all the academic courses, which leads to this:
His father… hounded him, accusing Chris of thinking that he was better than his old man, accusing Chris of wanting to “go up there to college so you can turn me into a bankrupt.”
But despite everything—his family, most his friends, and even the teachers—against him, he breaks their expectations—and his—and makes it into law school.
I think the application of iron determination and success here is rather obvious.
3. Congratulations. You have your whole life ahead of you. Until you don’t.
Near the end of the story, Chris gets stabbed to death in a fast food restaurant while trying to break up a fight between two other customers.
For me, that was the most awful moment in the story. The whole book, Chris had worked hard to be free of his environment—of violence, drunkenness and abuse—only to make it out, into graduate school, and get stabbed by a complete stranger.
The world’s full of evil, isn’t it?
While it’s a depressing thought when you’ve got your “whole life” ahead of you, it’s an important thought nonetheless. A reminder of our mortality.
And that’s my short version of why The Body makes a better grad gift that Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Part of it, of course, is personal preference. Dr. Seuss certainly makes a far better gift for some. And they’re both instructive. They’re both deep.
But for me, where Dr. Seuss deals with generalities of life, the specific nature of King’s story hit me more clearly.
And that’s why I recommend it as a grad gift.