S is for Speech


Welcome families, friends, teachers and staff and most importantly students.

Congratulations on making it to your graduation.

I am honored to deliver your commencement address today even though next to my algebra regents, this is one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had.

I know I am supposed to impart wisdom, inspire you and give you sage advice.

My first recommendation is that you never agree to do a commencement speech. This has not been easy, but you are high school graduates now so you know all about hard assignments.

I should probably say life is going to be full of chirping birds and warm chocolate chip cookies, and life can have certainly have those moments, but at other times it feels like a lot of homework. There are always things we have to do that, well, suck: paying axes, dental work, sitting in traffic.

But what if I suggested to you that instead of approaching life as a long endless list of things to accomplish and take care of, that we look at life like a ride on Coney Island; fun, thrilling, possibly broken, but best of all, unexpected.

When I was young, I didn’t like surprises. I had my life all planned out. I was going to be a musician.  I got my first guitar when at seven years old. I attended the High School of Performing Arts (now called LaGuardia) for the bassoon and since I played such a weird instrument, my teachers said I could get into any college on a full scholarship.   I was ready. I could see myself in the Philharmonic traveling the world.

Then a week before my college auditions were to start, I was running to catch the subway and I slipped. My leg slid out from under me, bounced against the subwaycar and then got caught in the small space between the platform and the subway.

I was dragged the length of the platform.

Someone pulled me out, some guardian angel that I didn’t get to thank, and amazingly I survived. The firefighters, the EMS workers, the nurses, the doctors, all told me how lucky I was.

I didn’t feel very lucky at all.

Not only did I miss my auditions, my Senior trip, my Senior dance, well a lot of things. It is in these moments when we are angry, disappointed and sad that we feel like life is ruined and there is nothing else… but the reality is, there is always something else.

You might not be able to see it in those moments. In fact, it is most probably, you won’t. What we can’t see is what my Jewish grandmother called beshert. It’s Yiddish for a serendipitous event like “at first I was upset that I missed the bus, but then that bus broke down for two hours.”

Before the accident, I had applied to one state college on Long Island and so I had no choice but to go there.

I was miserable.

I couldn’t play music. My life was not going the way I planned. I felt sorry for myself and found it difficult to enjoy school.

Slowly, I settled in. I studied photography, English literature and jewelry making. I met and fell in love with a sculpture major who lived upstairs in my dorm. The following year, I transferred to the college I originally wanted to go to. I took writing classes and became a photographer for the school paper. I had no idea what I was doing or even what my life was going to be.

One of my assignments was to shoot an audition for an improv comedy group. The people auditioning were given the names of two careers then had to create a short improvisation from it.

I was intrigued.

Something clicked inside of me.   The Buddhists call it destiny, Catholics call it God’s will, yogis call it inner wisdom, my mother called it your gut. I call it my inner Yoda. It is the voice inside of me that knows what I am supposed to be doing, who knows what my beshert or my fate should be.

I asked the people auditioning if I could audition too. I got on stage and they yelled out “Bell hop” and a “farmer.” I picked up two imaginary bags and said “Where do you want these pigs?”

I never picked up my camera again.

I studied improvisation, theater and writing.   I learned how to say yes and, how to listen well how to trust people and most of all, I learned that I could make people laugh. It was amazing to finally discover my gift.

You all have one.

Whether you go to college or not, whatever your path is, all of you have a gift to share with the world. So take out your ear buds and listen to your inner Yoda. Hear what your destiny is. Look up from your cell phones and be the students of life even if you don’t know what it all means yet. In fact, take your time to figure it out. Try everything.  I have written plays and sketches, run a not for profit, taught nursery school, driven a cab, done stand up comedy, waitressed, cleaned houses, taught gymnastics, worked in politics, guest starred in a band, dressed up as a cockroach for a children’s theater, been a receptionist at a law firm, a tour guide, performed in one woman shows, taught theater and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

For some of you, the choice will be easy. You will decide what you want and go for it.   You will know your goals and achieve them. For most of us it will be winding path. Trust that your Inner Yoda will lead you where you are supposed to be.

Remember that sculpture major I met in Freshman year? Well, he became a firefighter and my husband and then the father to our son Aidan who is a year older than you are now. I spent seventeen amazing years with my husband before he was killed on September 11, saving people in the twin towers.

Talk about a difficult assignment.

Not only was my path diverted, but it completely changed course. There were numerous times I wanted to get off the ride for good. Yet, out of the darkness, people demonstrated amazing acts of kindness to my son and I. People sent us cards, flags, quilts and letters. Children taped their allowances to the bottom of their drawings. My neighbors left lasagnas and dinners on our stoop for over a year.  My deep grief was met with such profound love I had no choice but to listen to my inner Yoda who said, “Keep going. Keep going. I did.

My friends, my son and my humor became the life preserver that floated me to the other side. All of you here today have life preservers of your own in your family, your friends, your talent. Surround yourself with people who let you be who you are, who are proud of who you are and what you do.   Get rid of the ones who don’t. Yoda will tell you who.

Even though I was a comedienne and actress when my husband died, I ended up writing a memoir about our lives and what happened. It was well reviewed and was a best seller for a minute. Who knew? The truth is we don’t know even when we most want to. It is good to have goals and ambitions, but it’s equally good to trust that your path might not be a straight line to what you planned. It makes the world fill with endless possibilities. Who knew my path would lead me here, in front of you all today.

Before my husband died, I was making my living as a free-lance writer for Martha Stewart magazine.

I remember one particularly difficult assignment. I was pulling my hair out trying to find the right words, to write well. I always joke that being a writer is like having a paper due for the rest of your life. I was so stressed out about it that during the night, Dave, my late husband taped a quote onto the wall next to my desk. It read, “Don’t take the trip, if you can’t enjoy the ride.”

So graduates, enjoy the ride of your lives.  I hope it is long, happy and successful and that when I am older than I am now, that you will give me your seat.

Thank you.







16 thoughts on “S is for Speech

  1. Bohdan bushell

    Thanks, I laughed, I cried (a little not too mich) and then I smiled. Well done- that’s rare.

  2. Michelle

    Love!!! I have goose bumps all over! Lucky graduating class for having you – and lucky us! Love you! Xo

  3. Brenda Martinez

    So enjoyed reading the commencement speech Marian. Wishing the best for you & Aiden , Brenda Martinez

  4. sarahyuster

    I hear you natural voice, your nuance and tone. There’s a wonderful weave of flippancy and gravitas done with understatement…so much more pewerful than hyperbole. Glad I decided to read it.

  5. BrigidMary McGinn

    Marian love! Big smile & bitty tear reading this awesome speech. You delivered a message those kids heard, related to & undoubtedly planted seeds of inspiration and encouragement.

  6. Tina

    You never disappoint!! Loved the take out your ear buds and listen ! My inner toda wants to write so bad… The conflict is in not wanting to look away from my life to put the words down. I’m thinking these kids of mine are growing pretty rapidly, so I’m sure the chance is coming!

    1. Marian Fontana Post author

      Thank you so much. They grow up fast so enjoy. The words are always there when you are ready to put them down.

  7. sdw818

    On a crappy day, with a difficult decision, you just gave me a gift. All of this was just what I needed to hear (and I’m 51!) but I really, really, deep down, felt: ‘Don’t take the trip if you can’t enjoy the ride.’
    thank you.


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