Academic Ceremonies - December Commencement
Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor of English
President Sullivan, Provost and Senior Vice President David Rosowsky, Board of Trustees, Deans and Vice-Presidents, distinguished faculty, illustrious staff, proud parents and friends, and most especially, all two hundred and seventy five graduates of this fine institution: it is an honor to share this special day with you.
Next to teaching students for the past eleven years at the University of Vermont, without a doubt, addressing today’s graduates and their supportive cast of friends and family is one of the great highlights of my career to date.
President Sullivan, I thank you for the invitation to serve as commencement speaker and cheerfully join you and our esteemed colleagues in saluting this well-adorned, well-read, well-prepared, values-driven, erudite, cultivated group of UVM graduates. We did good.
I am made even more proud to speak today, because like so many here, I am a parent, and my two sons Romie and Langston accompany me on this special occasion. Langston is a senior at UVM and will graduate in the spring from the Business School, or so I think. So, although it is a blustery cold winter day, in my mind, I am pretending it is May 2014, a warm 80 degrees under sunny skies as we sit on the university green, and that I am addressing him, too.
When I received the letter of request from President Sullivan, I checked my bucket list of goals I must achieve before I die, and surprisingly to me, giving a commencement address was not on my list. However, giving a corporate-packaged TedTalk, widely viewed on Youtube by millions, is on my list. So, this is the closest I will come. Feel free over the next 15 minutes to social media the heck out of my talk: Tweet and Facebook your friends and those who could not be here. I welcome the buzz.
I have to confess: initially I thought I had hastily said yes in reply. After I sent my email in the affirmative, I really thought about it, the profound task before me of sending you off with last words that will resonate and serve as a reminder of the profound significance of your academic accomplishment, then I thought about it some more, and the longer I thought, the more I felt like I had just jumped out of an F-35, in the middle of winter, and was about to land in Lake Champlain, much like Breughel’s Icarus, without a sound.
My assignment is to say something meaningful and authentic to you as you depart these grounds and undertake the next chapter of your life. As a poet, my business is metaphor. So you will have to excuse the proliferation of allusions, similes, and heavy quotations of poets, philosophers, and singers, that fly in your direction. In short, we are testing your learning one last time. Seriously, there will be a final test at the end the commencement. When you march out of this room, someone will hand you a Scantron sheet along with one of those yellow, little half pencils.
Seriously, there is no day like this one. Graduation is one of the eminent non-sectarian rituals that announce one of the most important transitions in your life, from being an adolescent to a young adult. Here you are: you did it. In your march towards graduation, you gave your senior music recital. You wrote a 25 page senior seminar paper on Beat Poetry. You carried out a complete statistical analysis for a research project guided by one of your professors. You logged many hours at the computer. You drank many cups of lattes.
In times past, and still in our 21st century, along with more formal coming of age rites, ceremonies such as today define our realities and give structure to the seemingly chaotic flux of time. Religious and cultural customs such as christenings, baptism, bar mitzvahs, connect us all the more to metaphysical and spiritual realities beyond this world. In short, rituals mark the passing and turning of the years, and the meaning of life.
We remember the glorious day you were born: your first day at pre-school; your first middle-school jazz recital in which you sounded like a seal squealing on the saxophone, yet it was the best squeaky seal sound ever, and we were so proud to see you struggle to hit the notes. We remember last minute shopping on Saturday mornings for a gift for your best friends’ birthday party at noon; all the lacrosse and soccer games, or when we first learned of your first crush, your first romantic yearning. We remember your getting dressed for a homecoming dance or prom, then in this rapid pace, the anxiety of standardized tests, then the admission letters to college, and now today, where you stand before us, regal and stately in your graduation robes, only a short while away from becoming a graduate of this first-rate university, -- a reputable and beautiful school, we would add, but when we visited and toured in the winter months, one, we weren’t sure we would visit you after we moved you into your dorm room.
Such symbolic moments score your short journey on earth and afford meaning, purpose, and beauty when sometimes there seems to be little in our day to day lives. We need celebratory moments like today, to not only rejoice at your completing your studies at University of Vermont, but to also reflect upon the journey, to look back and ruminate on the meaning of your most recent achievement and growth as a human being.
Poet C.K. Williams believes formal rituals instill within us a capacity to read the larger symbolic order of existence. And thus, in my mind, your graduation ceremony extends this symbolic order and points to a unique opportunity for renewal,-- a chance for you, graduates, and all of us as a community, to begin again.
What do I mean by this? Have you ever imagined what would happen if teachers and professors the world over, assigned the duty of passing on our most treasured stories and poems, responsible for teaching us the intricacies of our legal system, or how to solve mathematical equations, for demonstrating historical examples of the abuses of power– what if teachers suddenly abdicated their responsibility and decided to no longer stand before us in classrooms and dispense the accumulated knowledge that was passed to them?
What if teachers suddenly dropped off the face of the earth? How would we commence as a society? Could we go on?
Imagine a world where nothing worked, where bridges collapsed and the cellphones in your hands never gained a signal. Imagine a world without productions of Shakespeare’s plays or where Whitman’s great American poem Leaves of Grass was never read. Imagine a world where Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were never interpreted and played live in concert again because no one instructed the violinists on how to read sheet music, not just as a virtuoso, but emotively.
It is indeed a miracle, isn’t it? This moment, right now.
Simply put, and said this way, I can call to mind only a few other tasks that are as sacred and important, that animate our collective cause, than when a generation of scholars, teachers, and instructors passes on the keys of its civilization, which keeps it running, that insures continuity of progress and stability.
And let me say this, by way of acknowledging and praising my colleagues at the University of Vermont, both part-time and full-time faculty members: parents and friends, you should know this if not already by now -- my colleagues and I perform our jobs with extraordinary competence, with passion, elegance, and a sense of purpose and belief that your sons and daughters will carry forth with what they have learned here to become high-achieving, caring, successful and learned members in their communities at home. Such work is pious upon closer inspection, and we consider it one of the most honorable vocations.
But how does today’s graduation point toward an opportunity for our renewal and growth? Well, not only do students have an obligation to succeed here, at the University of Vermont, which they have so done, but to also innovate and take us to heretofore areas of advancement after graduation.
Each generation is obliged to look on and assess the works of previous generations, to interrogate and challenge, to ask “how can we improve and build upon the successes of the past?” Without this spirit of willful innovation, we are doomed to calcify into a nation whose infrastructure, both physical and psychic, will degenerate, where we become a monument unto ourselves, like Narcissus perpetually looking on himself, as the season’s change around him, or like Ozymandias’s broken stone monument lying scattered in the desert, ironically bearing the words “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
I know telling you that our renewal as a civilization is in your hands is a tall order. Many of you just got a good night’s sleep after weeks of studying and month’s and month’s of sitting in classes, and now I am asking you to save the world? Not exactly.
We realize, today, that you are, more than anyone else here, especially endowed with the spirit and responsibility to continue the betterment of our society and to sustain the practices and beliefs that make us great.As you know, our world is far from perfect, and our flaws are revealed everyday in online newspapers across the world. In this expanding technological world we live, we face new problems and dilemmas. Some of them new, others as old as the rotation of the sun around -- from the National Security Agency’s encroachment on civilian privacy to homelessness and hunger problems right here in the United States to serious, adverse climate changes. We are in need of gathering, our brightest, young minds, i.e. you, to address the shortcomings and challenges we face this very moment.
And dear faculty: if we have done our jobs, if our pedagogy is far-reaching and radical, then we have instilled in our students an irrepressible commitment to independent thinking, a moral and intellectual inclination towards improving the world around us, and a grand optimism for the future and their role in creating that future. Their education is more than a canon of great literature and chemical experiments, but one that profoundly augurs the prospects of our tomorrows.
I want to publicly commend both the Honors College and the UVM Student Research Conference, two undertakings since I arrived at the University of Vermont that have dramatically altered how students see themselves as more than receptors of our cherished syllabi, but as emergent and questioning scholars, artists, and entrepreneurs.
Not that we have not been doing this before, it’s just that we have intensified our purpose in undergraduate and graduate research, in encouraging students to gain more from their education and to take advantage of the opportunities that their scholarly and scientific research as well as creative work here at UVM naturally pushes them toward.
Graduates, today’s ceremony also continues your acute and grand search to discover who you are and where you will take your place in the world.
The search for self has been the subject of our most ancient myths, our most beloved novels and poems -- from Stephen Daedulus in Joyce’s Dublin to the young girl in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem In a Waiting Room realizing that she shares the same human traits of the African natives she sees in a National Geographic magazine to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa awakening to a frightening and incomprehensible universe. The search for identity has been the most gripping and compelling of human struggles in the stories we tell. Think of Harry Potter struggling to accept himself as a wizard.
That search is not an easy one, and has always been ridden with shock and dread. However, what these stories reveal is that you are not alone.
You face the big questions, as all of us on the platform once faced and to some extent continue to countenance: now what do I do? where do I go from here? who am I?
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once wrote: “It can be plausible argued that the conditions of modern life make the quest for identity more difficult than it has ever been before."How do you find yourselves in the onslaught of media images that preempt any true desire and ambition, that project where you must live, what you must eat, what clothes you should wear, and which dating website is best for you. The illusion is one of choice
Additionally, the news tells us job opportunities for post-undergraduate education are limited and dwindling. Let me tell you a secret: they’ve been saying that for a long time.
But let’s say that’s true: You probably thought that when you declared your academic major at the start of your education here at University of Vermont, you were taking care of the bulk of that search.
You probably thought I will major in Romance Languages with hopes of becoming a high-school Spanish teacher. You probably thought like most of us, that you were on your way to a line of work that would, after graduation today, or after law school or graduate school or medical school in the future, pretty much secure the direction of your life and establish your identity in some profession.
Well, in many instances, yes, this will happen. However, life is peculiar and unscripted. In the future, it is quite possible that you will have multiple careers, multiple interests, and opportunities to grow beyond here and now where you first conceptualized a life as doing X or Y. I want to say: this is your first stop along a much longer journey of self-discovery and fulfillment through your quest to discover who you are and what will be your life’s work and mission, your ultimate contribution while here on this short journey.
The good news is that you are brutally young, and have an abundance of time to pursue your true calling in life, whatever that is.
Some of you might have noticed from my biography. I went through this very struggle.
I majored in business at Temple University, particularly my undergraduate degree is an accounting. However, my real passion was literature and creative writing. I took so many English courses as electives that my counselor suggested in my last semester, which was my 6th year in college, that I continue on another semester and double major in English and Accounting. I couldn’t stand the idea of spending another year in college, and thus, I declined, but effectively I turned my back on that which gave me immense pleasure in the hours when I was not studying: Writing.
But did I have any other choice? I came from a working class background; education in my family was seen as a means of social and economic uplift, an ascendancy towards a life as a professional; however, for as long as I can remember I loved words; writing and poetry were my passions. It never occurred to me that I could have a life as a writer; there was no one in my family that wrote for a living, and especially not poetry. I primarily grew up with my grandparents whose three floor tenement home in North Philadelphia contained books and books; I’m not talking a formal library but stacks of books wherever they’d fit and kind of be out of the way. Their idea of keeping one’s eyes on the prize, like many African American families, was through literacy and education. I thank them just about nearly everyday for this gift and one that I would urge you when you become parents, to start now building a library for your children to peruse and get lost in. But, ultimately, I was expected to graduate and take my place among the professional classes.
It did not take long after graduation from Temple University to find myself among a community of artists who helped me to refocus and realize that I was most myself as an artist. You know you were meant to do something when whatever that is makes you feel free.
My path towards becoming a writer of poetry is pretty astonishing, full of acts of generosity, mentorship, encouragement, community, luck, hard work, and persistence, for which I am eternally grateful. But, I was lucky.
I have gloriously found myself in a life where art, poetry, education, ideas and the life of the mind are central to my existence, and I am surrounded by friends who also value as much. Moreover, here at UVM, I am blessed with a semester-revolving door of students who I aid and help to find their voice in a democracy that professes to value their opinions, thoughts, and stories as equal citizens.
I would not have it any other way. My aim in life as a poet is to breach the silence, to avoid anonymity; so much of life encourages us to be silent and anonymous. Whatever your calling, be loud, bold, present and engaged.
This week, yet again, I was reminded of my own undergraduate years at Temple University, where as a student leader, I joined with a coalition of fellow students, staff, faculty and a forward thinking administrators to protest the appearance of a South African ambassador on campus, a representative of the apartheid regime that long suppressed black South Africans.
For me and my generation, the struggle against apartheid allowed us to not merely study history but to play a small part in shaping history; it was the largest and most defining struggle we aligned ourselves; the music we made, the clothes we wore, the art we patronized all stemmed from a belief that such a system that subordinated whole groups of peoples into hierarchical, racialized catergories needed to be abolished.
The passing of Nelson Mandela affords another lesson we should take with us today, that is, to defy expectations. The system of apartheid, much like its American counterpart, Jim Crow segregation was built on supremacy. It is very easy to not see the humanity of others and to believe that we are better than others. But quite the opposite, it is more demanding to acknowledge that we are all gifted with a purpose and reason for being on this earth. This is what our most sacred books and scriptures tell us. Mr. Nelson Mandela defied the world by not seeking revenge or retribution for his years of incarceration as a political prisoner in the long, protracted war against apartheid, but instead he saw his oppressor’s humanity and turned that into a power, both political and personal, that shines as an example for ages to come. He was truly a giant among men and women.
In closing: I want to say graduates we got it wrong when we admitted you. Do you remember writing your college admission essay? Do you recall the anxiety and all the hours and weeks in preparation? The many people you asked to look over its argument, structure, and style. Remember the books you read, the online tips, the conversations with high school counselors. Should you write about the trip to Haiti to aid hurricane victims? or recall winning the state championship in some memorable sporting event?
Well, of course, those were winning examples of your capacity to self-analyze which landed you admission into UVM, but I say we got it wrong because we should not have had you write an admission essay, but instead had you write an exit essay, in order to graduate, in order to receive your diplomas.
It would not be addressed to us, but to your parents, friends, and extended family, where in it, you thanked them for their long, loving support. It would be handwritten and it would detail your top ten most special moments in the classroom and outside the classroom.
You would tell them about looking at a blazing sunset over the Adirondack mountains looming above Lake Champlain from the top of the fire escape or your dorm room.
You would close your eyes and with your hand moving along lined-paper with a pencil in it, evoke the scrunch of snow under your feet early mornings as you make your way to classes in Kalkin or Living Learning.
You would tell them the feeling of being a member of the Catamount family, sporting some piece of green and gold clothing as you cheer on the women’s hockey team or the men’s basketball team in Patrick Gymnasium.
You would highlight an epiphany that occurred to you as you sat in class learning of the Spanish Inquisition or analyzing Toni Morrison’s character Sugg in Beloved.
Yes, tell them too about the difficulty nights, of tragically losing a friend or arguing with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The letter would evidence all of your learning to date but maybe even more importantly how you have grown as a sensitive and aware human being -- frankly because we adults need your example to remind us how to continue to be human ourselves.
Graduates we marvel from whence you come and where you are today and where you are going tomorrow. For some of you, your baccalaureate and graduate education was a stream of endless assignments, laboratory reports, essays, group projects, and deadlines. But then for some of you, your education was an opportunity to explore further the mysteries that animate our existence and your place in it. Your life will be defined by your search for who you are.
This is the high holy season, -- a season ripe with symbols. The lights and songs remind us, in the end, we are gentle and that goodness abounds. You are a manifestation of all that is beautiful and right in the world. I pray that you are your own festival of lights in the years to come and that you acknowledge the light in others, that you remember fondly your professors and friends while you were a student at the University of Vermont, and that you stay in touch.I will leave you with the words of one of our most treasured poets, the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died this fall. This comes from his verse play, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctete, The Cure at Troy. A Greek chorus speaks these words towards the end of the play, that I find useful in celebrating you, in thinking about your futures, as well as remembering the long struggle for human dignity and equality on the earth as occasioned by Mr. Nelson Mandela’s transition.
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.”
The Cure at Troy
Congratulations graduates. I wish for you the brightest future filled with words as powerful as these, and a life full of poetry, books, good friends, and a life beautifully rendered beyond this day.
Last modified January 15 2014 03:58 PM