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Baccalaureate Address: Jennie Keith

Jennie Keith

Good morning!

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here with you and to speak with all of you today. And what a glorious day — to be here, to be together, to be done! I hope we can recognize and celebrate all these blessings and more this morning. Traditionally the baccalaureate address at American colleges has been a farewell to the graduating class in the form of a sermon. I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends — Quakers — the group that founded Swarthmore College. The Quaker way of worship we practice in the Friends Meeting here does not have sermons. We don't even have ministers. So I won't be giving you a sermon today.

I would like to invoke one aspect of Quaker worship. That is the participatory nature of our ritual. This morning I will ask you at times to share some thoughts in silence and also at times to speak some things aloud. I hope you will be willing to do that.

I am also an anthropologist, and the Quakers' participatory approach to worship resonates with the appreciation my discipline has given me for ritual. Rituals allow a group of people to step for a moment out of ordinary life, in a way pause for a collective deep breath, and create for each other a kind of sacred snapshot in which shared values are captured and displayed, the present is connected to the past and the past to the future. We can carry our memory snapshot with us, take it out to reflect on whenever we want, whenever we need.

Rituals very often occur when we are what one anthropologist called "betwixt and between" — in the midst of making a transition from one well-defined human role to another. From child to adult, newcomer to group member, student to graduate. Senior Week. Now. In these in-between times a ritual can be both securing and freeing. It reminds us of continuities and shared values at the same time that it provides a moment in which usual boundaries are crossed and extraordinary closeness can be felt. One of my favorite images for a mini-"betwixt and between" state is the time we spend with others in a moving car. Sometimes I think more truth is told and more unstructured closeness felt between generations in a moving car than almost anywhere else — when we are looking forward, with no eye contact, temporarily not clearly on one generation's turf or the other's — telling truths, hearing truths, sometimes, temporarily, feeling inexpressibly close.

What I propose to you is that we use our time together this morning, in our transition between the roles we had at Swarthmore yesterday[students, professor] and our graduation from Swarthmore tomorrow, use our time together to create this kind of out of the ordinary moment to make our snapshot of what it means, has meant, will mean to be part of Swarthmore, to be connected to this community.

And to keep a small part of the traditional notion of the baccalaureate address as a farewell sermon, I hope what we share this morning will evoke the notion of blessing, to create a memorable commemoration of what we have been given and what we have done together here at Swarthmore, of the ways we have been blessed and shared blessings. And also create a fervent benediction, the forward-looking blessing that says go well, fare well, God speed. Let's see what we can do.

Rituals are full of stories. Shared stories spin out word webs of connection — especially across generations. I'm going to tell some stories about some of what I want to commemorate about being at Swarthmore. I hope these will evoke what you each most want to recognize and celebrate. So that together we can create a new shared memory to carry away with us.

First, I think of the people who are not here today but who helped me be here at Swarthmore and helped to make my experience here what it has been. I studied Spanish literature at Swarthmore. One thing I learned from the teachers with whom I read Latin American novels and stories and poems was to listen for the missing voices — often very important ones without which the story isn't complete. For me today some missing voices are of former Swarthmore colleagues who are no longer alive, voices that were a very prominent part of the soundtrack for my years here: Bernie Saffran's, Frank Pierson's, and a very special Irish voice — Michael Durkan's.

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, wrote a poem in memory of our Irish scholar and librarian Michael Durkan, and of his voice — which Heaney described like this:

"What stays with me is the rich braid of his voice As deeply laid as the North Atlantic cable... "

I'm speaking these names to thank them, to recognize them and to celebrate them. And I want to speak those of my parents Romayne and Paul Hill and my extraordinary aunt Ruth Cooke. And my grandfather. William Henry Pawley Hill. They called him William "Horse Power" Hill. He was an old man when I knew him. He had a long crinkly breard that came down to the top of his overalls. He always had a carpenter's pencil in the pocket of the overalls — just in case he had an idea about something — then he would reach for the nearest object he could write on, usually a piece of lumber, and sketch it out. He built the house I grew up in, although he'd never been taught to build a house, never done it before. He just started in and built it. When I was four years old he taught me to read and to make tea. With all the special ritual steps of warming the pot, straining the leaves. Reading and making tea. Of course I became an academic. So this man who didn't go past the eighth grade started me on my way to Swarthmore. I wish he could be here today.

I wonder who you are thinking of who is not here today, but who made your experience at Swarthmore possible, richer, deeper? I'd like to invite you to another moment of silence to do this. To think about them, thank them, celebrate them. Now, to bring them closer, could we speak their names out loud? Would you turn to the person on your right and say the name of a person you wish could be here.

Thank you. We have brought them here--into this moment. And we will be able to carry them with us as we remember being here today.

Next, I'd like us to recognize and celebrate some people who are here. First, of course the families and friends who are here with you today — and without whom you wouldn't be here today. When I count three, please stand up, turn around and shout out a thank you to them. THANK YOU FITZ!

I'd also like to recognize and celebrate some other people who are here everyday-- providing the meals, the snow-less sidewalks, the warm buildings, the lights, the trees, the flowers, the books, the software servers, the course lists, the cappuccinos, the time slips, the flu shots, the tuna melts. I want to invoke these individuals and all the blessings they provide through their work everyday to make our lives at Swarthmore so comfortable and workable and beauty-filled. One of my favorite poems, by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, I think wonderfully expresses this appreciation for gifts that grace our daily lives. It's called Oda a dos calcetines, Ode to Two Socks. Here's part of it:

Maru Mori brought me
A pair of socks
Knitted with her own
Shepherd's hands,
Two socks soft
As rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
As if
Jewel cases
With threads of
And sheep's wool.
Audacious socks,
My feet became
Two woolen
Two long sharks
Of lapis blue
Shot with a golden thread,
Two mammoth blackbirds,
Two cannons,
Thus honored were my feet
By these celestial socks.
So this is the moral of my odes:


Twice beautiful Is beauty
And what is good is doubly Good
When it is a case of two
Woolen socks
In wintertime

One of my colleagues has a sign on her wall that says: "Leap and the net will appear." I think because, like you, I'm about to take a large leap into the next not wholly defined stage of my life, that sign has caught my attention a lot recently.

The leaping I can envision all too easily. But that net?? I'd like to know a lot more about that net. What's it made of? Exactly how fast does it appear? From where? Who's holding it??? I think we are. As members of this community of learning at Swarthmore, I think we hold the net for each other. If we include the members of the Swarthmore community from the past, and those who will be part of this community in the future, then in a way all of us are the net.

A net is made of connections. A net can catch us when we fall. If it's held good and tight it can give us a great, joyous, breath-catching bounce higher than we've been before. I always loved that part of the circus when the high-wire performers finish their acts and jump into the net, and bounce. You've all finished some pretty high-wired, amazing performances recently — papers, orals, exams, exhibits, tournaments, projects. I certainly think you're entitled to a magnificent, celebratory bounce. I hope that with praise and thanks and celebration we can offer you that, at least metaphorically, this morning.

I've been reflecting on what I've learned about nets during my years at Swarthmore. One thing I've learned is that a net is not always comfortable...even when it's saving us. Those connections in a net may be made of knots. Knotty conflicts can be part of a net that in the end holds us together. I remember one of my classes — about community in fact, which made the difficulties particularly painful. There was one student in that class who was hostile, it seemed to me, to everything I was trying to do. He was belligerent, interrupting, sarcastic, sour. He seemed to me incandescent with anger. And I confess that made me mad. He was spoiling my class, muzzling my students, and me. To tell the truth I really didn't care what was his problem. I really just wanted him to be quiet. I was beyond listening for what might be clues to how to connect with him. One day another student looked at him and said this: "I can feel your anger, but I don't hear your question." It was a moment of deep learning for me, as she acknowledged his anger, told him it was an obstacle to communication with him, but also invited him back into the conversation. She wanted to hear his question. She was holding the net that I had almost let go.

Another thing I've learned about nets is that very strong ones can be woven of frail strands and that they can provide powerful support--if we trust them. One of my teachers and colleagues studies the poetry from Chiapas, Mexico. From her I've learned that these poems are written originally in a language called Tzotzil, in some ways a fragile medium in today's globalizing world. Then the poems are printed on hand-made paper made of plants. Tzotzil poems printed on flower petals, what could be more fragile? But they have become strands in a net that stretches from Chiapas to seekers of truth, freedom and justice around the world. Words, music, dance, paint, wood, clay--I' ve learned here that these can be powerful strands in a net that links and supports the most pressing human causes.

This also reminded me how much strength and re-bound we are given by very small strands of support — by a word, a hug, a note, by someone's being there, noticing, caring about us. All the times those supports have been given through our years here are part of the net, connecting us to Swarthmore and giving us strength to move on. Let's take another moment of silence to gather up some of those little strands in our minds, be grateful for those blessings, recognize and celebrate them. THANK YOU.

We have all worked very hard here. Very hard. It is an almost unbelievable blessing to feel finished — at least for a moment. All that Swarthmore work — we can tell stories about that at many reunions to come. Finishing the job is something to recognize and to celebrate. But I think we should also recognize and celebrate the blessing of being given the opportunity to work at this level, to push ourselves very far because we have had talented partners and skilled, dedicated guides.

I've tried hard to think of how to describe the special quality of people who are extraordinary teachers. There are so many of them here. Many on the faculty, and many in other roles. The shorthand terms I've come up with for extraordinary teachers are "benign fanatic" and "intellectual empathy". There are many benign fanatics roaming this campus. They are fanatic because they are passionate about what they study, what they are learning, joyous, a little nuts about it. And like the ancient mariner, they have to stop us on the path, they have to share their knowledge, their discovery, their passion with the rest of us. I've been the lucky recipient of this kind of benign fanaticism about Bach, Beowulf, border culture, biolums, bird urine, blogs, and bond curves--just to name a few that start with B. Well, b for baccalaureate. I'm sure you have your own list to recognize and celebrate.

So let's say blessed are the benign fanatics of Swarthmore! And let's celebrate not only the motivation these teachers have to share what they know, but also their ability to share with such a diverse group of us learners. They have the ability to meet us where we are — to understand what we already know, more important to understand what kinds of knowing and learning work for us, then they do a kind of Swarthmore mind meld to connect with us just at that point where we can join them in a shared intellectual journey. I feel blessed to have been part of this community of always challenging, but also endlessly generous, teachers.

There are also gifts we have been given here that did not take a lot of work. Memories of those are also part of the net that connects us to Swarthmore. The gift of being stopped still by a laser beam of insight or beauty or closeness. I remember the first time I walked under the lilacs when the scent was so heavy I felt like I was swimming in beauty.

For me the concept of "grace" that appears in Christian theology captures the somewhat un-Swarthmorean ackowledgement that some great gifts are truly given to us — not earned, not even really deserved. I think it's important always to remember to recognize and celebrate those blessings as well. Here's the way one of our college chaplains did this.

Like many Swarthmoreans, she runs with her dog in the Crum Woods. Here's part of what she wrote about seeing a heron there one day:

It was Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. A strange day for clergy--so much to get done and yet so much to feel; a dry, difficult day of waiting between grief and hope and exhaustion. There are periods of life that are like that--days, but sometimes months or even years of dry waiting with an almost-empty heart.

Suddenly the bird was there, right beside me, barely a yard away. It seemed to arise out of nowhere, its huge wings scooping out pockets of air. Droplets of water flew from its gleaming feathers onto my face. The dog and I both stopped in our tracks, forgetting to breathe. The bird seemed suspended there for a moment between wing strokes, and then it rose high and glided around the bend of the creek. Out of sight, yet the air continued to throb with its cleaving wings.... Of course it was possible that the bird was there many times before, even every day--and I had simply not seen it. It was possible its stunning flight before my eyes on that particular day was coincidence. Or it could have been grace. It might have appeared there just for me.
— Joyce Tompkins, Spiritual Reflections, April 2007.

For many of us the most familiar rituals are in fact family ones. The family events, when we come together to celebrate, usually eat, tell stories and — by who says what, drops what, wears what, argues about what--create the material for more stories. One of the contradictions about families is also true of colleges. That is that members of the "same" family, and graduates of the "same" college of course have experiences that are very different. Our family has children whose ages range over 16 years. Of course they are part of the "same" family....BUT over those 16 years so many things changed that in some ways they each grew up in a different family: what we ate, when we ate, which grandparents were there, what were the rules about bedtime, how much time we had away from our jobs, how much energy we had left when we got home, even the size of the TV, were very different.

And of course the same is true about colleges. As Dean Larimore pointed out at lunch on Thursday, the next class at Swarthmore will have air conditioning in Sharples. Will that really be the same college?

Another way to look at this is that for some very early graduates of Swarthmore the college was a football power. For some the Honors programs had 8 seminars. For some, like me when I arrived, the faculty had 3 women professors. For some, like me when I arrived, the faculty had one Black professor, no Latino professors, no Asian-American professors. For some, like me when I arrived, there were a very small number of students of color. For some, African Studies, Asian Studies, Black Studies, Latin-American Studies, Women's Studies, Foreign Study were all dreams and even demands, but not yet a part of the curriculum. I'm not mentioning these things now to criticize the Swarthmore of the past, but to celebrate what Swarthmore has become. And to thank all of the many people who have worked for these changes. Because of them the net of connections that make us a community is more multi-stranded, more complex, more intricately woven, stronger.

Of course we don't know what of Swarthmore now will be different for classes of students and cohorts of faculty and staff to come. The cause for celebration, but also the great challenge, is that across whatever these changes may be, we maintain a web of connection and trust to keep us part of this community. As we do, in spite of our occasional moments of doubt, across the changing experiences of the generations that are part of the "same" family.

One of the most visible, tangible strands in the net we hold for each other across many cohorts of Swarthmore experience is the generosity of alumni. These individuals who were Swarthmore students, who sat where you're sitting now, have certainly rained an abundance of very tangible blessings on the college, on us: buildings, faculty positions, scholarships. And beyond what they've given financially, they have given their time and energy and talent, their caring about this place, about us. As part of our occasion today I hope we will recognize and celebrate them.

There isn't time to name every one, but because of my own special gratitude I want to name one — and hope that you will hear his name as representative of your many, many generous predecessors. I want to recognize and celebrate Eugene M. Lang, Swarthmore Class of 1938, who has given of his resources, and of himself, to Swarthmore for many years. Always in ways that enable the college to--in fact often give the college a bit of a push to--live up to its own highest mission. Thank you Gene. Thanks to all of our generous alums. Thanks for holding the net.

Another thing about nets is that they make it possible to take risks. Knowing there is that web of belief and trust in us can give us the confidence to reach higher, take a chance. One of our very recent alums, class of 2000, came to visit my seminar this spring. He is the President of the Center for Progressive Leadership, which works to increase the diversity of people who run for election and hold elected office. Looking around at 13 Swarthmore students, he asked "What have you failed at lately??" A very un-Swarthmore question! When no-one jumped in to answer, he said to us, "If you're not failing at least half the time, you're not reaching high enough."

It reminded me that it's possible to be handicapped by achievement, by success — either for individuals or institutions, getting used to those experiences may make it very daunting to risk failure. Which means missing chances to grow greatly, to make great changes, to release exuberant creativity. One of my colleagues, our Lang Visiting Professor, has won a special award: the Giraffe Award. The Giraffe Award is given to persons who "stick their necks out" for the common good. I hope that we can trust the strength of our net and fail at a few things because we risk in the cause of the highest goals and meeting the greatest challenges. I like the idea of our trying to be giraffes when a good giraffe is what the world really needs.

Many of you have already worked strenuously to encourage the college to fulfill its traditional mission of educating for social responsibility — urging us to do that in the context of current challenges. You have researched and proposed new ways for the college to be responsible in the products we buy, the energy we use, the food we don't waste, the stock proxies we vote, for "greening" Swarthmore from windmills to compost piles, from parking lots to printers. As one group of you wrote in the report from your Environmental Capstone "...if it is our culture and our responsibility to combine intellectual achievement with ethical and social concern, then it is no great leap to include a commitment to ecological health in this definition." But it's an important, life-giving leap. And by urging us all to make it you have strengthened the life-giving net of connections between us and our physical environment. Thank you for that!

You have also been energetic promoters of democratic participation through voter registration drives. You have reached across differences of race and ethnicity and sexual orientation and class to create understanding and respect and transcending connections. You have partnered with staff members in many forms of Learning for Life. You've made Swarthmore better. I know I speak for many, many people when I say we recognize and celebrate and thank you for all the ways you've done that.

Recent neurological research has strongly suggested that altruism, placing the interests of others above our own, may be rooted very deeply in the ancient part of our human brain. The researchers hypothesize that the mechanism through which this effect is produced is empathy — the ability to recognize, and even experience vicariously, what another being is going through--and therefore an important foundation of morality. They are quick to point out, however, that they are not claiming this deep-rooted, hard-wired empathic ability is morality. Because it seems to be triggered only by other beings who are present and close. From an evolutionary perspective this would make sense, as we humans and our immediate predecessors lived in very small groups. Finding this ancient part of our brain seems a little like discovering an ancient navigational instrument — old and patina-ed and beautiful, still capable of pointing us in the right direction, aiming toward empathy and altruism, but very limited in range. To fulfill our moral potential in today's world we have to extend that primordial empathy to embrace common humanity over the vast distances we can now reach so quickly, for harm or for good.

This need for stretching out our empathic capacities is a reminder that another thing about a strong net is that it can stretch. And I want to recognize and celebrate the ways that many of you have pulled and tugged and woven in new connections to stretch out beyond Swarthmore:

To Darfur, to Ecuador, to Colombia, to Uganda, to Bolivia, to Philadelphia, to Upper Darby, to Chester, to New Orleans, to China, to Cameroun, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. And those are just the ones I know about. Learning new skills, making new partners, becoming respectful allies, using your ethical intelligence to embrace the complexity of the problems you're addressing, not stopping at the simplistic solution, and most important--simply not stopping. You have inspired so many of us, enriched us, emboldened us, and by stretching beyond the campus you have strengthened our community, brought us all closer to being what we strive to be. Thank you for that.

I have always loved beginnings. I think that's one reason I have loved being a professor for so long. We get another beginning twice a year! New books, blank pages, new students — a whole new adventure unfurling every time. So the benediction we share today I hope will not only express a farewell, but also be full of that high surf excitement about the next beginning. May we celebrate the ways we have been blessed to be here. May we take the gifts we have been given with us, to treasure, to use and to share:

  • Knowing that together we can create meaning and community
  • Honoring people who have helped us become who we are by telling their stories
  • Recognizing the joy and beauty of everyday things — and appreciating the efforts of people who make them possible
  • Having the patience, love and respect to transcend anger and t sustain human connection
  • Valuing the fragile strands that are part of the net of human connections — art, music, dance, literature, being present, noticing another's need, caring
  • Valuing teaching and learning as benign fanatics full of intellectual empathy
  • Appreciating that change and continuity co-exist — knowing that "our" Swarthmore will change and still be "ours" — urging it to chance when it should
  • Appreciating the generosity from which we have benefited, offer the same as we can
  • Knowing that we can work very hard and meet the standards of a very demanding place
  • Also knowing that we receive gifts that are unearned — savor those, and when we can offer them to others
  • Taking all our gifts from this community into a world that needs them so badly
  • Extending the empathy and altruism we have experienced in community to connect with those who are suffering and with those who are working for a world that is more just, more humane, and we pray, more peaceful.

So, how's this for our benediction: