You’re never famous in your home state

 A few months ago, I was delighted to be invited to be one of the two commencement speakers for the University of Maine graduation ceremony in Orono this May.  While I’ve been asked to speak at colleges out of state, this was the first time I’ve accepted such an invitation.  I’ve been a resident of Maine for 17 years and although I’ll never be considered a real “Mainer” (you have to be born here to carry that title) I do feel like one.

Never so much as today, after reading this editorial in the University of Maine student newspaper:

Choice of speakers perplexing

When the University of Maine announced the commencement speakers, the names Tess Gerritsen and Bob Edwards fell on somewhat disappointed ears.

Students may not be aware that Tess Gerritsen is a local mystery author and Bob Edwards is the former president of Bowdoin College, not the NPR anchor.

The university should look to the future and get someone that the students would be able to relate to.

While we appreciate that the university sought out local connections and speakers known for delivering powerful speeches, there is no doubt an individual with greater name recognition would better inspire the graduating class.

Graduation is for the students; the university should seek out individuals who will motivate the class of 2007, regardless of where they are from. A familiar name would undoubtedly create more excitment from the student body.

My first reaction was — Cool!  They actually consider me a local!

My second reaction was … hey, wait a minute.  They consider me just a local?

It’s disheartening to discover that not only am I a disappointing choice for the students, but also that they have little interest in hearing from a novelist who’s “just a local mystery author.”  Were they to travel outside Maine, they might discover that, oddly enough, this unknown mystery author’s books are bestsellers across the U.S., that they’re translated into 31 foreign languages, and have been #1 bestsellers in Germany and the UK.  That I’ve given speeches around the world, from Malaysia to New Zealand to Amsterdam. Outside of Maine, I’m a publishing somebody.

But in my home state … “um — who are you again?  You say you’re a writer?”

What truly astonishes me is that the students are so dismissive of my fellow commencement speaker, Robert Edwards, the former president of Bowdoin.  We are talking Bowdoin College here, folks, not some rinky dink school no one’s heard of.  We are talking about one of the finest schools in the world.  You don’t just waltz into the presidency of Bowdoin by singing and dancing on American Idol. This is a man whose accomplishments are worth hearing about, a man who deserves the respect of anyone who values knowledge.  I  myself cannot wait to hear what he has to say.  That he’s not someone whom students feel they can “relate to” is a sad comment on how little value is placed on academic accomplishments these days.

Perhaps it’s the fact I’m not a spring chicken anymore, but the older I get, the less impressed I am by the culture of empty celebrity, and the more I value the chance to sit and talk with someone like Robert Edwards.  I want to know his journey.  I want to know what propelled him through life.  Just as I hope others might want to know how I, the daughter of a restaurant cook and an immigrant, managed to get into medical school and then ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.

Clearly, Bob Edwards and I are going about this all wrong.  Maybe we should be warming up our vocal cords to try out for American Idol, or hanging out with the truly accomplished Paris Hilton crowd.  Because we all know that it’s celebrity, not academics, that’s the real measure of success these days.

18 replies
  1. kbritain
    kbritain says:

    Oh dear. Well, we all know there is only ONE famous author in the state, but he might be considered too local as well… I for one would enjoy hearing you and Mr. Edwards speak! The speaker at my commencement in 1987 was Cathleen Black, first female publisher of a major paper (USA Today). Loved it.

  2. lannalee
    lannalee says:

    Why would the students who choose to go to UMaine want to hear from the former President of Bowdoin? Most of UMaine students would not be able to afford Bowdoin, and it is possible that they never heard of it. I grew up in Maine, and when I was college-aged, I didn’t even consider Bowdoin as an option. Do you think that a University of Massachusetts graduate would want to hear from an ex-president of Harvard?

    However, Tess, I would not take personally the comment about your notability. It is possible the college students don’t have time for recreational reading. I am on my second try through school, and only get to read “fun” books during breaks. Maybe you will indoctrinate a new generation of fans!

  3. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Tess,

    People complain. It’s just part of human nature.

    I remember back when I was getting my undergraduate degree at Michigan State there were people who complained about the entertainment group signed for the Residence Hall Association’s annual FREE Concert.

    That’s because we only knew one hit song from the group. I remember the bitching and complaining about having “only” Huey Lewis and the News.

    They had just finished recording their album “Sports” and it hadn’t come out yet, so they literally said they were treating us as guinea pigs to try out their new material. It was a great concert.

    I wonder if those who complained before the concert are now years later crowing, “I saw them back before they were really big!”

    The editor(s) who wrote the U Maine editorial clearly doesn’t understand the breadth of knowledge that you and your fellow speaker will impart to the graduating class.

    Go knock their socks off! And make the editors eat something that tastes like crow.

    Linda

  4. Steve Allan
    Steve Allan says:

    I seem to remember some local horror writing giving the commencement speech a couple of years ago. Can’t remember his name – but I think the University just pissed him off or something.

    Anyway, I think what students want is some huge name to come to their graduation, not someone they can relate to and not someone to inspire them, they just want a big celebrity they can brag about. I deal with UMaine students all day, every day – the majority are still young, inexperienced and uncouth. They won’t realize what the commencement speech will mean to them until after they hear it, maybe even a few weeks or months later.

    Don’t worry, I think you’ll do a great job… just don’t mention anything about UMaine sports broadcasting rights. Touchy subject.

  5. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    You should start your speech with, “sorry, they had to invite a nobody like me, but they couldn’t afford the money Paris Hilton asks for people to admire her insipid grin.” 🙂

    Seriously, don’t let those braindead zombies make you feel low even for a minute here.

  6. Tess
    Tess says:

    Ah, well. I really do feel honored by the invitation, and I hope I’ll be able to inspire students to look beyond their twenties, into the rest of their lives, and see all the opportunities that await them. If only they’ll open their minds.

    I often wish I could go back to college again. Only now do I really appreciate what a joy it is to learn.

  7. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    Heck if Maine wasn’t on the opposite end of the country I would try and sneak in to hear you. Then again they could always wish for K-Fed to share some inspiration.

  8. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    How in the world do they not know you?! Tess, you can come to my school in Arkansas and give a speech any time you want, I sure will be there. And only as “a local mystery writer” not just a local, but one of the BEST mystery writers!

  9. bob k
    bob k says:

    Tess,

    First – you may not be a real Mainer, having been born away, but I’d like to think we have adopted you and made you part of our state! There is no question Maine is a better place when people like you choose to live here. And not everyone can be a real Mainer…heck, even my son will never be a real Mainer – since he was born in Texas.

    As a real Mainer and a UM graduate – I am appalled at the attitude expressed in the school paper. And I don’t buy the excuses that “lannalee” posits – even busy college students should be able to understand that the words NY Times Bestelling Author don’t apply to all that many people and just might indicate the person (whether they have read any of her books or not) might have something to offer.

    And as for having never heard of Bowdoin – 30 years ago it is concievable a Maine high school graduate might not be aware of Bowdoin…but these days, I don’t think so. And I wonder about a person graduating from college who doesn’t think that a former college president has something to offer them.

    So go there and show them Tess!! Give then something to think about and perhaps challenge them to get over themselves and start working to make this a better world.

  10. Sax
    Sax says:

    It might cheer you up a little to know that William Faulkner was considered little more than a local drunk in his own home town of Oxford, Mississippi. When a film crew arrived to make the movie of Intruder in the Dust the town was flabbergasted. Then he won the Nobel Prize. That really freaked them out. Press from all over the world were asking them questions about old Bill. I’m not sure it ever really sunk in, though.
    And he was WILLIAM FAULKNER for god’s sake! Those locals are a tough crowd.

  11. Michael
    Michael says:

    Tess I’m sure you will leave the 07 graduating class with something to think about. I only wish my son was graduating this year instead of next. I have been turning your pages for some time now never with disappointment.

  12. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Odd that the writer of the editorial thinks the only kind of speaker who could possibly motivate the graduates would be someone with whom they’re already familiar. Sounds more like a commencement address contest — “Who gave the speech at YOUR graduation?” — than anything else.

    You and Mr. Edwards will knock ’em dead, Tess. Have fun!

  13. Katie
    Katie says:

    I would start off the speech by reading the article, and watch the grads squirm. Then impress upon them that letting other people’s ignorant opinions influence and define you is the surest way to an unfulfilling life.

    On the other hand, they’re college grads now so they know everything there is to know. 😉

  14. april
    april says:

    We had a senator when I graduated. It was considered a big deal because I went to a very small liberal arts college. So, even though everyone was very excited, the speech was horrendous and actually had the audience changing parties over it. So, maybe it’s better to go in and wow them and their unjustly low expectations out of the water.

    George Washington had Tony Bennett and Herman Wouk years ago. Everyone was excited by Tony Bennet, but I found him uninspiring and downright awkward to sit through. It was almost as if he hadn’t prepared or was completely under some influence.

    Students are students. They just want to get rid of the hangover from the night before and speed through, get the fake diploma and go straight to the dinner with the folks and more partying. 🙂

    Aw, I miss New England.

  15. laykuan
    laykuan says:

    Hey Tess, I didn’t know you have given speech in Malaysia before. When was your last visit?

  16. Tess
    Tess says:

    laykuan,
    I was in KL a few years ago, addressing an international conference of teachers. Wow, what a beautiful city!

  17. petiterouge42
    petiterouge42 says:

    I just wanted to say that I am from Maine, I have been born here, and lived here all my life. When I was a senior in high school about 4 years ago, my English class was assigned to read a book from a Maine author. This is where I discovered you book Harvest.
    It was from that moment on that I was hooked, I had to get every book from then on out, and absorb myself in them. You are beyond an excellent writer, and I think that Maine owes it to you to acknowledge that.
    I am currently graduating from Thomas college in a month or so, and I know I would consider it an honor if you would have spoken at our graduation.

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