Thomas Powers '13
Thank you very much, President Chopp. I want to confess that I almost didn't think I was going to speak today. As we were lining up to enter the amphitheater, I was shocked and embarrassed to see that not only did everybody else wear the same black dress as me, but they also decided to go for the same "burlap sack" style cut. Vanity aside, I want to say good morning and extend my sincerest congratulations to everyone here. Congratulations to the Class of 2013. Congratulations and thanks to the deans, staff, faculty and families here that nurtured and cared for our minds and bodies as we developed and grew to this point in our lives. We are all here to celebrate a moment that will take place in front of you, right here on this stage. With a shake of a hand and the shift of a tassel, we will conclude our careers as Swarthmore students and start on the next stage of our lives, whatever that might be.
Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines graduation as "a mark on an instrument or vessel indicating degrees or quantity." There were other definitions, but Swatnet went out before I got a chance to write them down so I want to use my time with you today to explain what this day means to me. To help do so, I'd like to take a moment and tell a joke with you. Don't worry. It's educational. It's a knock-knock joke, which I can tell by everyone's groans of enthusiasm you're excited to hear. But this set up is a little different than the traditional structure. I'm going to request a favor of you all and ask you to start the knock-knock portion of the joke. Ready? 1, 2, 3 (audience: knock, knock)...Who's there? Okay, remember this moment. We'll return to this later, but for now just remember what that felt like to be on the spot and expected to come up with a response that you didn't immediately have.
I think we can all agree it can be a rather uncomfortable to feel like you're on the spot and expected to come up with a response you didn't immediately have. This was an artificial and controlled scenario of discomfort so I felt certain that no one would get injured or be unduly harmed in the process. I just want us all to have that sensation fresh in our minds, because I think it's one that many of us graduates are experiencing maybe today, or maybe tomorrow, but certainly one day soon and for the rest of our lives. As the culminating event of roughly seventeen years of formal education, graduating college and doing whatever comes next can seem like a make or break moment for the trajectory of the rest of our lives. After today some of us will get to move to new cities in pursuit of jobs, fellowships, or for the truly masochistic amongst us, graduate school. We'll sign our first leases, learn what a security deposit is, and that the term "don't let the bed bugs bite" is easier said than done. Others of us will return to the embrace of home and the complimentary contours of the full body indentation imprinted on our parent's couch as we watch reruns of Dawson's Creek and tell ourselves, "I don't wanna wait for my life to be over, either." But no matter where we find ourselves, there are going to be plenty of times when we feel uneasy or like we don't know what we're going to do next.
Where we go and what we do after today might feel like defining choices that will have profound consequences on our lives. This, simply put, is a terrifying thought and one that I, fortunately, don't think is true. The biggest risk that we face today isn't making a wrong choice. It's making no choice. When faced by the expansive abyss of the unknown, otherwise known as the future, without a carefully laid out plan, the only thing to do is to act. Move forward. Move backwards. Move to the side. Why not shimmy a little? The good news is that this isn't anything new for us. We have dealt with issues of profound unpreparedness before and come out unscathed. We have been exercising remarkable prowess, resiliency, and ingenuity by staring down moments of ambiguity for years. Today should be no different and we should know that we can act confidently, no matter what we do.
But when were those difficult decisions made? What were those moments of not knowing? To prove my point, I'd like to take you on an oral odyssey through time to these very instances of the unknown. This is a journey that starts long before Swarthmore, long before we took our first steps off of the then R3 SEPTA train at the foot of Magill Walk and stared up at Parrish with twinkling eyes of anticipation and anxiety thinking..."Do I really have to walk this entire thing every time I come back to campus?" I want to take us all the way back to...the womb. Admittedly, a different kind of bubble than Swarthmore, but stick with me. A-splash!
You're awash in amniotic fluid, you twist and turn, not knowing which way is up and which way is down. You try to make out various foreign, disparate sights and sounds from beyond the darkness. For those of you whose experiential memories don't stretch quite that far into the past, we can also refer to this stage as "high school," which I think parallels the feeling of confusion and disorientation. At some point during your intellectual gestation you encounter an idea, a teacher, or a peer that sparks your curiosity. From out of the darkness you start to see something resembling a way out until your interest and desire provides the momentum to propel you onward and out!
Now there are some very notable similarities between us when we came out of the womb and when we came out of high school and started our freshman year at Swarthmore: we looked more like aliens than actual human beings, our heads were, if not physically then egotistically, much too big for our bodies, and we still had a lot of growing-up to do. Instead of learning to count our numbers, we learned to count the number of days between when Sharples would bring back s'mores pockets for dessert. Instead of learning to walk, we learned the exact number of minutes it would take to run from our beds and make it on time for our 8:30 a.m. class on the third floor of Kohlberg. Instead of learning how to talk, we learned the rhetoric of Swarthmore: the swat swivel, the swat 15, swoggles, and that Thursday is the night of pub nite and will forever be pub nite night.
But this process of maturation was far from smooth. For most of us it was a rocky road with plenty of confusion and self doubt that made those days of yore in the womb sound appealing. Going through both freshman year and puberty are strange times in our lives that no one really knows how to handle or what to do. We had a long way to go, but didn't have a set plan or path before us. So, through feigning confidence in abilities that we were still figuring out, we forged ahead. We encountered new challenges like hair growing in strange and awkward places or trying to figure out how to properly format MLA footnotes. We also did things we aren't proud of. We wore axe deodorant body spray to junior high school dances or we bragged about our pre-Swarthmore accolades and proudly displayed the medal we won for coming in fifth in the state topiary competition back home. We had misguided ideas about what we were doing and who we were going to be. Come on. We dressed up for Paces parties.
Fortunately for us, the story of our growth and development does not end there. And the only reason why it doesn't is because we didn't. We fought through the most bitterly awkward moments of unfamiliarity and ended up doing alright for ourselves. We've had to deal with these instances of the unknown and many others throughout our lives, and only have more to look forward to after today. That's the hard truth of the matter and a conclusion I hope doesn't scare you and leave you shaking in your dresses. As we stare into the ambiguity of what will come next, all we have to remember is to act. As long as we keep knock-knocking and someone keeps asking, "Who's there?" we must strive to do something. Anything. When someone asks, "Who's there?" Let them know. Shout or whisper or sing or vogue or spit, just not right now.
From under the weight of this perceived pressure, it can feel easier to do nothing and just wait...and wait...and wait a little longer because you would hate to be rash and make the wrong move or the wrong decision and miss the chance to make the right decision.
Graduation isn't a day for us to start doubting ourselves and our ability to make choices. Today is a day that should stand as testament to the fact that we handle the unknown well. We've grown and changed and after today we will continue to grow and change. The future isn't a distant place that we have to prepare for. It's here and it's now and then it's gone. The only thing left to do is to act.