My Pal, Denzel

Denzel Washington gave the commencement address at my brother’s college graduation. I remember sitting up in the bleachers above about a zillion capped-and-gowned students, wondering why on earth my brother and his friends had opted not to wear their standard-issue graduation caps, but instead attached tassels to ugly white bucket hats. As the ceremony dragged on, I half-heartedly showed my little cousin how to draw mustaches on the photos in the program, and when even that got too boring, I let him play a game on my phone that consisted of making a tiny cow jump to the top of the night sky, collecting presents and avoiding grenades. I contemplated how inferior my own college graduation would be, on the other side of Pennsylvania with only about 200 students.

So when Denzel came up to make his speech, I decided to absorb every word. There would be no Oscar-winning actor at my commencement, so I needed to make this one count.

Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania Commencement 2011

Denzel talked about not knowing what he wanted to do in college, starting here and there and coming up short and backing out again. When he talked about arriving at Fordham, I loathed myself for not applying. I remember my own visit to Fordham in April the year before. My mom and I had gone to New York City to look at colleges over spring break. I’d fallen in love with Columbia and NYU and Fordham, and hated Barnard on the principle that my mother had dragged me there against my will. I remember being shocked at how classically collegiate Fordham looked–churches and ivy and an impressive library and loads of green space. And then the following autumn, I hadn’t applied to any New York City colleges. I’m still not quite sure how that happened, but it did.

A month after my eighteenth birthday I sat watching all these Ivy Leaguers process and listening to impressive people speechify, brimming with regret for the opportunities I’d already missed.

Then, Denzel started talking directly to me.

Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania Commencement 2011

He told me how he’d made the wrong choices and failed, but that what mattered was how he failed. “Fall forward.” 

Mistakes are inevitable, he said. “Fall forward.” 

You’re not going to know what you’re doing all the time, he said. “Fall forward.” 

Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania Commencement 2011

If you can’t make the progress you want, or you’re not sure what you want, “Fall forward.”

Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania 2011

“Fall forward.”

“Fall forward.”

“Fall forward.”

Denzel Washington University of Pennsylvania 2011

University of Pennsylvania Commencement 2011
My brother and me after my heart-to-heart with Mr. Washington, Philadelphia 2011.

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