One thing that you absolutely must do

Last weekend, I went to my fourth commencement at Bates (I missed it last year while I was on my pre-tenure sabbatical). I said farewell to many of my former students, some of whom did not remember me (I guess that happens when you teach many intro-level courses); I heard a great, deep, and though-provoking commencement speech by Isabel Wilkerson; and I got to be a creepy fan around Glenn Close. In this post, I share some of my commencement-related thoughts.

The week of graduation, also affectionately dubbed “senior week” at Bates, is full of exciting celebrations for our outgoing Seniors (some of them a little heavy on the alcohol for my taste, but I guess that’s college for you). The students have many events of their own (like a garden soiree, a dance, a pub crawl, etc), and a few also involving faculty. Of those, our departmental reception and then the college wide Student-Faculty reception are the only real chances we faculty get to see and say goodbye to our students. After that, you see them in flashes, wave, smile, and get the eventual hug. On Saturday, the students hold their Baccalaureate celebration, where they sing, dance, read poetry, etc. I meant to go, but was unable to find the rain location (even though it should have been obvious that it was the gym… some days I am not too bright).

The Saturday night before graduation I attended the dinner for the honorary degree recipients, which not all faculty are invited to (no one really knows how one does get invited). I went with a friend because I’m lucky her boyfriend has no interest in these things. The honorary degrees this year went to writer/journalist Isabel Wilkerson,  information technology guru John Seely Brown, actress Glenn Close, and philanthropist/entrepreneur/spouse of Glenn Close David Shaw. The honorands were all introduced by their respective faculty hosts, we ate dinner, toasted with champagne, and mingled. I was lucky to share the table with JSB (as he is affectionately called), with whom I wish I’d had a chance to talk more. In the end, though, I decided to go the creepy fan route, sneaked up on Glenn Close, said some nervous rambling sentence like “I love you and I love Damages and you are awesome and I will not be ignored!”and then got a pretty great selfie. She was very gracious, considering how weird I was probably being, and she very swiftly escaped me after that. I feel a combination of pride and shame about that moment, but that selfie was great.

But now that I think of it, for all my geeky admiration of JSB and creepy celebrity stalking of Glenn Close, after hearing the commencement speech, I realized that I should also have been starstruck by Isabel Wilkerson. The first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African-American person to win it for individual reporting, Wilkerson also won the National Book Critics Circle Award (among others) for her book The Warmth of Other Suns. In her speech, Wilkerson told us a bit about her book, which chronicles the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West of the country. She talked about all the advances made since the 60’s (when not everyone was allowed to vote), and also some of the steps backwards the country has been taking recently. It was not your traditional commencement speech, in my opinion. Many that I have seen are either humorous and clever, or maybe uplifting and positive. This was highlighting some problems that the country still desperately needs to deal with, and in a way it was a call for action of the best kind: the students graduating are not just entering adulthood with a good education, but they have a social and moral responsibility to the world. It also had humorous, clever, uplifting and positive moments. Some of it was a bit heartbreaking, for example her story about a colleague who came from a long line of abuse, and decided consciously to say: “It ends here, it ends with me.” This story, she said, is an example of someone who is not responsible for any of the abuse that happened in the past, but who has the power to end it and change things for everyone who comes after him. But the piece de resistance was this: “No matter what course your life takes, there is but one thing that you absolutely must do before you leave this planet. You must leave this world a better place than it would have been if you had not existed.”  You can watch the full address by going here, and I highly recommend that you do.

I liked this speech very much, for many reasons. First, it got people talking. There were parents, faculty, and students, discussing the speech afterwards and what it meant to them. But mostly, I liked it because it was not just for the students. Everyone there still has a chance to do something that makes this world a better place, and it is good to be reminded of that responsibility. Anyway, I start off my summer trying to think about what I can do, and I suggest you all do the same. I also now really want to read Wilkerson’s book.

So, dear readers, any commencement related stories you would like to share? Other inspiring commencement speeches? Please share in the comments section below.

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