Morgan Williams '14
Thank you President Chopp. Many thanks also to the Arboretum staff, the LPAC staff, the translators, and anyone else who helped make this venue come alive. Out of sight is not out of mind.
To parents, siblings, grandparents, godparents, and friends, welcome, good morning, and congratulations. Not only for sharing in our achievements, but also for finding a parking space. It is still being debated whether or not it's harder to get accepted to Swarthmore, or to park here.
To the deans, the Board of Managers, staff, faculty, seemingly autonomous miniature vans that zip all over campus that I'm including so that I can stay on their good side and hopefully forge a peace with one day, thank you for getting us here, and for not running us over.
To the Class of 2014, what's up. This is weird, right? A good weird, definitely. Our favorite kind of weird. I feel deeply honored, and humbled, to be given the opportunity to say a few things to you today. Privileged. That's a buzzword, and I want to mention it briefly, because my words, which I hope will provide some respite from ceremonial dialectics, have limits in their reach. I'm a cisgendered, white-passing, straight male. My buzzfeed privilege score is 70... So my experience at Swarthmore was an incredible one, but it was just one band of light in the brilliant spectrum of experiences of my classmates, which together form a rainbow. Today, as we reflect on our illuminative experiences in this hallowed amphitheater, and compare where we once were to where we are now, we effectively form a double rainbow.
In my search to find words befitting of such a talented, intelligent, prestigious, and beautiful class, I thought I'd take a new approach, to stay true to the spirit of Swarthmore. Thus, I looked not through volumes, or journals, or Wikipedia; I looked instead, in the recycling bin in my dorm. Now, there are very few occasions at which it might be acceptable to recite a quote found printed on the side of a box of Franzia. But I think this is one of those occasions. "We are proud of what we are doing, and we plan to do more." When applied to Franzia, the boxed wine of boxed wines, the immediate reaction is, no, you can stop. Applied to the Class of 14 however, absolutely. We can't stop. And we won't stop. I'm incredibly proud to call myself a classmate of every one of these future grads, and I don't think anything, even the prospect of unemployment, will stop us from doing our best, staying up all night, and watching entire seasons of shows on Netflix the day they're released. We're proud of that, and we'll do it more.
For those of you thinking, wow, he opens with the Franzia quote, where is this going, don't worry. I learned in Professor Schwartz's psychology class that last impressions are actually far more memorable than first impressions, so I'm sorry that I'm not sorry that I couldn't come up with a better way to begin.
Like folders about to receive their newest files, we're arranged alphabetically, and in uniform. How did we get here? Let's rewind a bit. All the way. I don't remember much of freshman year orientation, but I'd like to take this opportunity to regale you with my account of part of it as I pieced it together recently. Lights up, the Lang concert hall. Liz Braun is telling us that she is our new dean. I am ok with this, I have never really had a dean before and this one seems very eager. She welcomes us to our new home, tells us that we are all special, then enumerates. "One of you", she says, "has been a congressional page". "One of you has launched a rocket with NASA". "One of you", she continues, "helped to found a homeless shelter". This went on for a while. "One of you has staged a coup d'etat in your hometown." "One of you has been to a party." But, "none of you are admissions mistakes," she reassures us. She goes on. "Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. The matrix is all around you. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." She went on, "you think that's clean air you're breathing?" I'm not sure if that's exactly what she said, but c'mon. That was so many thursdays ago. I went to Worth Health Center that night because my social consciousness hurt. They said it was because I had never used it before.
Movie references aside, this class is seriously awesome. I don't want to belabor the point, but I do. Freshman year was intimidating for me because it seemed like everyone I met had some kind of special secret power. They were either really good at math, or a sports champion, or really artistic. Or they tapdanced. And there was a very tangible feeling of inadequacy that would sometimes visit me after watching an a capella performance or an intense lecture that went completely over my head. Or after I had a conversation with someone who knew exactly who they were, and could use that sense of identity to form opinions that I couldn't touch with counterfactuals. But then, surely enough, people, professors, classmates, staff members, Willets cat, showed me that I could have powers, too, if I worked hard for them and never doubted myself. Identities, as it turned out, didn't have to be crystallized or validated or decided.
Graduating from Swarthmore is very unlike escaping from a maximum security prison. That would be a terrible, horrible comparison to make. I would never make such a comparison. But if I were to make such a comparison, between Swarthmore and, say, Alcatraz, here are the parallels I would draw. First, it's really hard to get in. You have to be the best at what you like doing, and even then you might be admitted somewhere else. To get out, you're going to have to work hard. It's not something you can do in a day, it takes years of scraping through walls that they tell you are too thick to get through. But every day, you scrape, knowing that the walls are just constructs, and that it's in the patriarchy's best interests to lie to you. Secondly, you can't do it alone. You're going to need a team of people. One person to distract the authorities, another to engineer the crap out of something cool, and someone to continually cast doubt upon the entire operation. After all, adversity is what makes it worthwhile for us, because we're like that. Thirdly, in regards to the food... everyone eats together under the same roof. What did you think I was going to say? I love Sharples. Lastly, even if you do everything right, even if you make it through those walls, you're still going to have to pass the swim test. And that is where that comparison ends, for goodness sakes. I would not dare to extend that metaphor further. Or would I?
Once you make it out, you will not be alone. There is a network of people that have gone through the same ordeal, scraped through the same walls, and integrated themselves into society. Are there any alumni here? We'll join you momentarily.
I want to leave you with three brief points, that you can take or leave.
One, never lose your thirst for awe. We've all felt it, an experience of such perceptual vastness you have to literally reprogram your mental models of the world to assimilate to it. It was Darwin who said that attention, if sudden and close, graduates into surprise; and this into astonishment; and this into stupefied amazement, the thing we call awe. Let's not forget our responsibility to pay attention to everything we do, so that we may continue to live in awe.
Two, live on the edge of comfort. Although repetition is a key ingredient of proficiency, it's also a breeding ground for hedonic adaptation, ensuring that the things that bring us pleasure lose their power to do so with every iteration.
Three, never underestimate the applicability of your experience here. You have more talents than you think, and are more capable than you might feel. Here's a metaphor and a fun fact bundled together: There's enough sunlight that falls on the earth in one hour to meet the earth's energy demands for an entire year. In this metaphor, we're the photons. Unlike photons however, we get to choose where we go, and how we spend our energy. But I have no doubts that ours will be a light that knows a purpose.
This is an important year for Swarthmore the institution. Founded in 1864, the College now celebrates its 150th year, also known as a seftiquicennial. sequicelcelinal. Fifteen-times-tennial. This comes in serendipitous coincidence with the Class of 2014's quadrennial year of undergraduacy. 2014 also marks the vigintennial anniversary of the Shawshank redemption, which was released in 1994. In light of this special moment, I'd like to read a Morgan Freeman quote from Shawshank Redemption.
"I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man [or woman] can feel, a free man [or woman] at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain."
Let's go forth then, and continue our journeys, and save our conclusions for later. Let us strive to keep our minds open, our hearts ready, and our arts liberal. We must ask questions! What is the purpose of graduation? We must ask questions about our questions! Why do we need to know what the meaning of graduation is? We must ask questions about our metaquestions! Are we over analyzing this? No. Never. The purpose of graduation is to graduate.
As you come up and walk across this stage, we all bear the weight of every grass-muffled step you take. As you smile, our lips form symmetrically. There is no privilege greater than sharing today with each and every one of you. To you, I owe everything. Thank you, and congratulations, Swarthmore Class of 2014.