Skip to main content

Lorene Cary

Audio Transcript

Thank you so very much. Thank you, President Chopp. Thank you, Board of Managers. Thank you, faculty and the committee for the honor of this invitation. Thank you, Swarthmore students for letting me come. 

The privilege of being invited into a community is extraordinary, certainly. And like every privilege, like we've heard many times this day, it comes with responsibility.  We, Tralance Addy and myself, are invited to add some value, at least, to this moment.  It's a tall order.  Yours is a long history, grounded, as the college says, in "hard work, simple living, and generous giving, as well as personal integrity, social justice, and the peaceful settlement of disputes."

And all of it is taking place right here on what's rightly called the "most beautiful campus in America."

Mostly, writers add value by observing and then capturing in words our experience of the exquisite gift of consciousness. During this particular moment, this one, right now, here however, your experience, not my words, really, sit at the center of our time together - and at the center of the rituals we've assembled over hundreds of years to celebrate your rite of passage. In its meticulous preparation - really, Swarthmore has been meticulous in its preparation and I thank you for that - for this day in its planning, and in rituals that refer back to medieval Europe, Swarthmore is communicating to each of us, each of us in our various roles: Come correct! Get it right! And when you come, bring it!

We humans remember trauma better than pleasure, it's the way we're built, so ritual helps to inject the significance of this moment into us.  We rush, rush, rush, and then we slooooow down time. We make this boring. It's not a mistake, it's meant to be. We assemble. We say certain words. We play the ritual music, right? It's spring, it's hot, but we wear imitations of gowns meant to keep medieval scholars warm in unheated northern European halls.  Despite deep Quaker roots, a Swarthmore official carries a baton, although we know from who you are that way before the baton would be brought into the fray, the peace and conflict majors would reason folks into submission. Likely talk them to death.

Ritual rough ups the smooth surface of memory so that existence can snag. What will you remember from this moment? Someone's family member worked overtime to send her money; a faculty member helped to push an engineer through to clearer thought; someone may have said to you, "God, help me what I said to my daughter sometimes, 'You can still learn while you cry'"; a janitor came upon some student crying behind the dormitory and spoke with empathy.  The tents, the flowers, the music; the careful conferring of degrees, the specific naming of names, the tassels from right to left or left to right; divorced parents making nice for this occassion, cousins taking pictures, grandparents kvelling - graduation ritual tell a story of your accomplishment.

When I attended a graduation with Bill Cosby, he went right to the next step: "You're finished here," he said.  "Listen. Your parents are tired.  They are broke. For God's sake, get a job!"

And in fact, Swarthmore has given you the best shot you can have to do that.  And it's given you more:

In a few minutes, you will become alumni. I was going to say here it's given you more and they will ask you for money  but they've already done it, right? They're going to do it again, too, and you better give it up. In a few minutes you will become alumnae of one of the very few institutions in the world that calls itself "open to all regardless of financial need."  Whatever has happened among you, this revolutionary approach to management and to the building up of intellectual capital has been your home for four years, and its legacy will be and will live in your vocational and intellectual choices. Many, many, many, many other schools are rich. Many of them could make the same vow, but do not. Just as you have inherited cultural templates from your family, right? The way you do your mac and cheese,  the way you grieve, the way you marry - just as you've inherited cultural templates from your family you have inherited from Swarthmore a living large and far-sighted approach to problem solving that in my religious tradition is called living in abundance rather than scarcity.  A year at Swarthmore and a year at a high-security prison cost about the same thing. But which one do we publicly support? And which one do we leave to private support? And in the last ten years, most state legislatures have cut educational funding from K-12 education and at the college level. So the number of students who are getting a shot at getting here and sitting in those seats can go down. Despite the anxiety of competition, and the story we in America tell ourselves about fixed resources and a shrinking economic pie, the fact is that the urgent work of this generation is to continue to bring more people into the charmed circle of privilege and education. Not to exclude them. You have been here to Swarthmore. You are about to be an alumnae:  you know that it starts with open arms rather than a clutched fist.

For now, though, please take a moment to embed something of this in your memory - whether it is dissatisfaction, happiness, needing to go some place, anything - lodge it in your memory so that excitement will not wash away: the smell of the grass, the sound of your own footsteps across - that was wrong, I didn't know it would be grass, actually.  So I wrote the sound of your footsteps across the stage but you won't hear it, ah, it's beautiful. Your grandfather's stubble as he kisses you happily knowing that you've received the diploma he never could. Let us experience the abundance together; and then for God's sake let us share it.

Listen: President Chopp's Charge to Lorene Cary

Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00