The determined bird

A commencement speech lesson story

Jeffrey Denny
5 min readMay 12, 2022

Jeffrey Denny


It’s been daycare, kindergarten, grade school, high school and college commencement season once again, and millions of kids and their families couldn’t wait for it to commence so it could be over.

But once the grad ceremonies started, they still had to wait. Once again, unless their speaker was a famous comedian doing latest killer material, they were tortured as the speeches droned on with invaluable PGOs — penetrating glimpses into the obvious — ignoring Franklin Roosevelt’s famous advice to his son about public speaking: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

I get this.

When I was a speechwriter for a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet, I had to write a high school commencement speech for her.

The process didn’t go well. At the top of draft after draft, she scribbled, “Too long. Not funny.”

She was short and funny herself, so I understood she wanted to personalize her speech.

In the end, her final speech, titled, “Deep Thoughts from the Titanic” — a mashup of the popular film and “Saturday Night Live” Jack Handey’s surrealistic video messages— worked not just with the grads, but best of all, a North Carolina school board chairman who plagiarized it. Word for word.

Like, “Be prepared. If you book a cruise on an unsinkable ship, pack a wet suit.”

A local reporter searching online for the school official’s speech found the original. Asked about it, the official said, “I wrote that.” Confronted with the truth, the official admitted he borrowed the speech from the internet. He said, “I had no idea it belonged to someone else.” He also thought anything on the internet was free game.

Kids plagiarizing from the internet was and remains a big problem. The school official also violated his school system’s code of conduct, which defined plagiarism as, “the copying of wording, language, thought, idea of another and representing it as one’s own work.”

Under pressure, he resigned.

I take no schadenfreude. I’m just shamefully thrilled that what I wrote under flop-sweat duress was worthy of career-killing theft.

But I’m not here to talk about me. Nor to share my gripping, inspiring life stories and lessons about overcoming impossible odds by transforming challenges into opportunities, like a lot of commencement speakers do. I’m not writing even bad commencement speeches these days.

But if forced at gunpoint or fat fees to write a commencement speech, I would talk about this irritating robin on my front porch.

She comes every year to build a nest and birth her latest children on the most ridiculously precarious spot, on a shallow perch on top of a pillar just a few feet from my front door.

If she wants a pillar on my porch, nearby is a bigger, safer, more stable and secure spot atop the corner pillar, where another robin once smartly built her nest.

But no, this robin has to build where no legitimate architect or engineer would dare to dream. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s impossible Falling Water cantilevered atop a rocky mountain stream was sited more sensibly.

Plus, every time I open my front door, my robin is startled and flies away, squawking at me, as if offended by my mere presence like a lot of people I know are. And I retort, “Hey bird — you’re here in MY nest! You’re an uninvited guest! This is not an Air Bird and Bird. Got a problem with that, bird?”

I don’t need the stress of a bird harshing on me. I get enough of that from disappointed clients.

And — calm down — I’m not human mansplaining that my robin’s reproductive nesting choice doesn’t work for me. When it comes to anything involving reproduction, I’m pro-choice. I’m not on the Trump Supreme Court.

Nor am I being one of those NIMBYs — or rather, NOMFPs (Not On My Front Porch).

I’m simply observing from a neutral fact-based perspective that every year, day after day, this robin makes more trips for nesting material than a Home Depot dad escaping the family he made.

And every year, day after day, I avoid saying “I told you so” as the nesting material the robin places on top of that precarious pillar falls off. Whether from wind, gravity, or lack of degree in civil engineering because she couldn’t fly her parents’ nest burdened with crushing student debt.

So day after day, my porch is littered with piles of her hard-gathered nesting material that fell off — dead grass, dried mud, twigs, even grocery store twist ties and once a piece of elastic string from a littered Covid mask.

Yet day after day, she came back with more. “I should be collecting this stuff and building a nest for you,” I once quipped to her. Apparently, unlike most people on dating sites, she doesn’t love to laugh.

This went on longer than a commencement speech in hell.

But then one day, I woke just after dawn, fetched the newspaper from my front lawn — yes, I hate the planet so much I still read the paper on paper — when what to my wondering eyes did appear, a complete nest on the pillar with the robin resting comfortably. Smugly, if you look closely at the photo above.

Long story a bit longer, my determined robin taught me several life lessons that maybe will help today’s graduates:

Don’t be a birdbrain

Determination is great but not when it becomes bullheaded, or rather, bird-headed, in denying obvious reality. You know, like Fox News fans do.

Be a good guest

Have some respect, don’t make a mess. At least clean up after yourself.

‘Splainers aren’t always wrong

They can be irritating, like I was to my robin.

But what irritates us the most is often what we need to learn the most. Our irritation is merely resistance against changes we know we need to make.

Remember: Irritation makes oysters create priceless pearls, even if hardly ever.

Anything worthy is worth working for

Like creating a home to birth three children every year, like my robin does.

Yes, housing costs are outrageous. My robin teaches that owning a home takes a lot of time and hard work, but it’s worth it.

But maybe avoid building your dream home in precarious places, like where NIMBYs fight affordable housing or where climate change will destroy your nest egg before the mortgage is paid off.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Just because birds do it, it’s not the best investment strategy for long-term financial security, especially since Boomers are eating your future like their beloved Pac-Man ate dots.

It’s best to diversify like hedge funds and brown-headed cowbirds that take over nests that others built.

Most of all, as my robin might say, just be you. If you’re stupid, embrace your stupidity. If you’re a failure, be the most successful failure possible. Feather your nest with garbage if pleases you. Ignore doubters. And if necessary, poop on their cars.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.



Jeffrey Denny

A Pullet Surprise-winning writer who always appreciates free chicken.