Sebastián Bravo Montenegro '13 - Last Collection
President Chopp, faculty, staff, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, evil squirrels that scare you at night, bunnies that refuse to be pet, arboretum trees that were brought here against their will for our viewing pleasure and finally, my dearest, most problematic Class of 2013. XIII.
Today, I would like to share with you my first memory. I was five. Little Sebastián Bravo sitting on a red plastic chair awaiting his very, very busy day full of snacks and naps to begin, which now that I think about it, seems to pretty much sum up my college experience. You see, eating and napping are the basic tools of procrastination us college students use, saying things like, "After dinner, I will take a quick nap and start that paper" but I digress... The teacher calls on me to come to the front of the class. This is it, I say to myself. This is the moment I have been waiting for. I fixed my adorably sized uniform, fixed my bowl haircut that my mom forced me to get, and I secretly love and walk up to the front of the classroom. You see, every day, a student gets picked to drop off the attendance with the school secretary. You are allowed to, by yourself, leave the classroom and embark on the epic journey. It was huge. I mean, I cannot remember ever having so much responsibility in my hands. I received the instructions and nodded when she asked me to return promptly. I started to make my way outside of the classroom and pushed the door open. You had to pull. Second try, it's OK, I told myself. I walked outside and it was a beautiful day to be a free kindergartener. I started to walk, and I noticed myself going faster and faster. "Get a grip, Sebastián," I told myself. "Pace yourself. You don't want to get tired out." But you couldn't contain me, I was high on power, I was soaring down the brightly decorated cement hallways, when suddenly, I felt it. My stomach sunk and the floor started moving closer and closer. I stuck out my arms to protect my face but I could not protect my pride. It was badly bruised. I ate cement. And then and there, I knew as a young soul, that this was what failure felt like.
I love this memory because it reminds me mistakes are the most common events in our lives. Most of us can't make it through the day without making one. We wake up late to class. We forget what day of the week it is. We receive applause after we dropped our tray in Sharples. We defy death every time we don't listen to a deadline. It literally has the word in it. We forget to submit our hours at 10am on Monday morning, and we have all been to Paces... But these smaller mistakes occupy a different space. We take them to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr to brag about them. To which, our peers respond through likes, clever comments, replies, and pokes and through whatever bastardization of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg has approved in the past few years, they encourage us to share.
But no one ever posts, "Dear Facebook friends, today, I have failed Physics 003." No one would. I know I didn't my freshman year when after several attempts to enter my at least 17-character long password, MySwat finally notified me of my NO CREDIT. We don't share these mistakes because these are the truths that matter and that have weight. When I failed, I didn't tell anybody, because there was so much shame and I despised it. I longed for the days of kindergarten when I could eat a worm and get a gold star, but we have been taught to fall, quietly, making sure that no one knows. When we grow up in a school system that tells us there is one right answer and that all of us compete towards it. Punishing us for bad grades and telling us that mistakes will define us but get us nowhere. But I grew tired of feeling alone and so my sophomore year, a little bit wiser, I opened up to my friend about my secret. And her response was, "You failed. ME, TOO." I was surprised. So I made an experiment. I went around randomly dropping the fact that I had failed a class, wearing it as some sort of badge, and to my surprise, I found fellow Swatties who had been or were on the same trajectory.
I have learned that you can have no shame when it comes to failing, because you already are on your down. But if you open yourself up you realize that there are others lying on the cement next to you, planking right next to you, if you will. We are in solidarity with each other in what the Huffington Post declared the most grueling college. There is something inherent about sharing your mistakes that brings two people closer. It is a small way we demonstrate trust and by extension, empathy. And after that I figured that I cannot and should not shy away from my mistakes. Of course, I try not to make them. People who tell, "Go out, your young, make some mistakes" are irresponsible adults. I, by no means, endorse you going out there and messing everything in order to have a cool story. That, my friend, is exotifying struggle, and we all know where that leads. What I am saying is that once you are free falling on your way to eat cement, you smile. Because mistakes/failures/struggles/messes are beautiful and meaningful. I have found that it is in these moments where change happens. Mistakes are opportunities when we are the most aware, first, of our surroundings, because we tend to find excuses in them, and second, of ourselves. These moments of intense consciousness and alertness are the moments where you have a go at doing some work on yourself. Once you accept your responsibility and hold yourself accountable, then you allow yourself a chance to unlearn bad behaviors, like arrogance, procrastination (sorry, that was totally ridiculous, I don't think we ever outgrow that one). But take these moments to lie outside of yourself and reflect about what has just happened, what it can tell you about yourself.
From failing Physics 3, I learned that, even though I like to believe I can, taking physics, chemistry, math, and engineering all in the same semester is crazy and I have limitations. I learned that I cannot trust the kid that sleeps during class... because you just can't. I learned that asking questions is not that hard. That professors care a lot more about you than you think. Did I learn anything about physics? No. But I am better because of it.
And I should also tell you, don't let the fear of failing scare you into inaction. It will be the only mistake I don't endorse. Don't try to fight your fear. Just acknowledge it. I know when Sunday rolls around and I am about to walk, I will remember two things, 1) Don't trip and 2) That bladder is lying to me and telling me that I need to pee because I know fear is the way my body tells me that something major is about to happen. Succeed or fail, I am at the precipice of decision-making, and I fear the outcome but I find solace in the face that I will welcome a failure as a necessary truth. Sunday, when we head into the scary "real world" the ghosts of graduating seniors keep whispering about, I urge you to not wait until some tall, dark, handsome 20-something tells you to take the time to reflect. Don't let graduations and last collections be the only time you reflect about your journey and the mistakes that you made. Do so, every day. Keep using mistakes to find reasons to love yourself and others. Take your time while you are down there.
Right now, our campus is down there. We, as a community, have been failing to provide a safe space for all students. Today, I'm asking us to remind ourselves that what has happened in our campus the last few months is nothing but a necessary process. I want to remind us that while we are down, we not be so fast to come right back up and declare ourselves healed. We are living the reality of what we wrote we wanted in our "Why Swarthmore" essays, because diversity means friction and we need to be confronted by the truths that will shake the very core of who we are. And this process is not "nice" and it is not "easy," because change never is. I am asking us to want change, and commit to it so much that we are willing to live in the tension that comes with the territory, because peace is not the absence of conflict but the structural violence that has been worked into us and is fiercely holding on. People have been calling the protests, discussions, and collections a series of mistakes, but all I see are us taking advantage of the opportunities for us to unlearn what hurts us and prevents us from moving forward. I have witnessed professors declare their support and begin actively participating. I have witnessed underclassmen be inspired to speak out. I have witnessed the beginning of the advantages of accountability, personal responsibility, and solidarity. We must listen intently to each other's words and push each other forward towards not describing our obstacles but overcoming them. We must remember that we cannot confuse forgiving with forgetting. And we cannot rely solely on reflection, but instead, on action. Because if our liberal arts education the last four years has given us anything, it is the power to choose. We must choose to see the isms and phobias that plague our lives and we must choose to face them.
And so, I leave on Sunday knowing that although it has been a rough couple of months and most of us are exhausted, physically, emotionally, and mentally, I find comfort in thinking that even from the biggest of our mistakes, something beautiful is emerging and growing, and we will be on our way to healing. Not yet, not now, but soon.