First Collection 2009: Sarah Willie-LeBreton
Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton entreated the Class of 2013 to "submit to the tutelage of of your professors, the contrary ideas of your peers, the wisdom of the men and women who cook and clean and hand out aspirin and advise and shepherd you." In turn, she promised them that "we must submit to your tutelage, your ideas, your experiences, your creativity, your stories."
Rebecca S. Chopp: I and many others have told you that the hallmark of your Swarthmore experience will be the opportunity to work with our distinguished and remarkable faculty. I can't think of anyone better to introduce to you, who could exemplify this fact than Sarah Willie-LeBreton, a distinguished sociologist, a gifted teacher, a creative thinker, a very engaged citizen of this community and of the larger community, a major contributor to what makes our life so remarkable in this place. Sarah.
Sarah Willie-LeBreton: Thank you, President Chopp. On behalf of my colleagues on the faculty, welcome to Swarthmore College. I'm going to share with you a story that begins with me and ends with you. I hope that it foreshadows your Swarthmore experience, which begins with you and will end as something much larger than yourselves. It's a story about learning.
I don't remember if I was seven or eight, I do remember the intensity of my desire to buy my parents a present. I believe I was in search of a Christmas present. My parents had probably begun giving me an allowance, perhaps five or 10 cents a week. I must have begun to have a sense of money, of its purpose, of the generosity of my parents, of wanting to show my love for them. I kept my money in a handwoven straw purse, the size of an adult's hand. It had been a gift from a favorite babysitter. A hand-me-down, well used by her, but no longer desired.
In my treasured purse, I kept my treasure, pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, plus two John F. Kennedy half dollars and one silver dollar, the last three of which were very special and never to be spent. I must have counted my money before getting into the car with my mother. I knew exactly how much I had, minus the three special coins. Like many moments in our lives, the emotion of that evening comes back to me with such clarity.
We drove to an import/export store, that has since become a large chain, on a business boulevard in a medium-sized city in Upstate New York. My mother turned off the car and asked if I wanted her to come in with me. I said, ''No.'' That I needed to buy something in private. A giant plate glass window allowed her to keep an eye on me. I wandered the aisles of the near-empty store. It was about to close. The clerk, a white man with gray hair and a belly, stood behind the checkout counter. I turned over items to see prices affixed to the bottom.
I finally found an item that was beautiful and that I could afford: a votive candle holder that was a transparent Lucite cube in deep red within pennies of my savings. I imagine, examining this memory, that I must have been relieved. I found a gift, I can afford the gift, the gift is beautiful, the store is still open. And terribly excited I carried it to the counter. He rang it up. He told me the price. My face became flushed. My ears burned. I did not have enough. I had not included the sales tax in my calculations. I did not even understand what sales tax was.
Paralyzed with shame and confusion, I could not even speak when he asked me how much I had. I lifted my straw purse and emptied it onto the still conveyor belt. My throat became a lump as I saw him touch the silver dollar and the two Kennedy half dollars. I was afraid, unable to tell him that I was not allowed to spend these. They were precious. My treasure. He counted the money, put it in his hand, made a note on a pad and figured that I still needed 23 cents. He reached into his pocket, counted out the dimes and pennies, put them into the cash register, scooped up the Kennedy half dollars and the silver dollar and put them back in my purse, saying, ''You should hang onto those. They're special.''
He put my plastic votive candle holder in a paper bag and said, ''Merry Christmas.'' I don't know if I thanked him. I don't remember if I had in that moment, the ability to talk. I ran to the car, got in and began crying. My mother wanted to know what was the matter. I told her, and she volunteered to make up the difference. I pleaded with her to just go. She agreed. I thought I knew enough. I still had more to learn. Dependent on the kindness of a stranger, I was grateful, I was embarrassed and I learned it takes a village to raise a child.
I am hesitant to call Swarthmore College a village because it is also an employer, an educational institution, but it is a kind of a village. A team of teachers, deans, coaches, and cooks, house cleaners, painters, secretaries, and librarians, snow shovelers, and administrators, horticulturalists, volunteers, security guards, office cleaners, and money raisers, alumni supporters, journalists, postal clerks, and dish washers, devoted to raising scholars who will care, artists who will give back, strategists who will yield, seekers who will pursue truth and thinkers who will love.
But it not only takes all of us to raise you, even more central to the project of renewal and regeneration that we enter again each school year, it takes each of you to raise us. There is a giving and receiving that happens here that constantly transforms the place as we transform each other. Submit to the tutelage of your professors, the contrary ideas of your peers, the wisdom of the men and women who cook and clean and hand out aspirin and advise and shepherd you. And we too must submit to your tutelage, your ideas, your experiences, your creativity, your stories. Challenge us with your best work, your alternative visions of the world and your insights, because I promise, we will challenge you. This is an organization continually involved in the project of mutual transformation.
There is little that will be exactly as you expect. The college experience is only a cliche in the movies. The only thing predictable about Swarthmore is that everyone here is profoundly passionate about learning something, mastering something, pulling up that rock and not just finding but understanding the worms underneath, putting on tap shoes and percussing debate, wedding the analysis of cognition to the brushstrokes of guasch, molding the clay of the studio and understanding the studio of the mind, the frame of the argument, the pursuit of the stars, the alignment of structuralism with the semantics of sentence structure. It is not a myth to say that this is a serious community of learners. Like my moment in the store, the process of learning is sometimes painful. We enter situations for which we feel totally prepared and we discovered there was something unwritten, not on the label, that we did not expect, could not have known.
We think we understand the solar system before us and discover there's a universe. We can retreat in tears or pause with awe. Ah, something new. An angle we haven't discovered, a word we have yet to learn, a concept with which we are completely unfamiliar, a muscle we haven't yet stretched, a form, a question, an answer hidden deep within our unconscious that emerges with each week, each month, each year of study or practice, accumulation or synthesis as we do our art, our scholarship as we choose a major, a career, and make our contributions to the whole. For you, the Sinka patient of poetry might be most eloquently demonstrated in biology. The answers to your deepest religious questions might be found in the mathematics of an astrophysics lab. The calculus of political strategy might be understood in the percussion of an unexpected choreography.
Swarthmore college is itself a village, not raising children, but a community privileged enough to relax into the joy and pain that is learning, the seriousness and the humor that scholarship demands and it's reinvented every year by the chemistry of us, by who we are here. And this year, unlike any other, most especially by you. Open yourselves to each other's stories, do not be afraid of the pain of learning, for like childbirth. I am told one heals quickly from it. Launch yourself into unfamiliar territory and tickle yourself with intellectual adventure. For on leaving this place, you will be called upon to pay the 23 cents, to parent a child that is not yours, to tell the story of an anonymous and generous store clerk, to welcome the stories of others, to cure cancer, to distribute wealth, to stop war, to be a good neighbor, and far, far into the future, to begin again. Welcome. And let's begin.