Good morning St. Lawrence graduates, friends, and family. My name is Mike Petroni and this is a first for me. Usually I speak into the computer screen for my Hill News column, Hammer Time, where, each week, I wrote about the tricky process of growing into an adult and becoming part of a community. I wrote about the benefits of saying yes, about finding fervor, about breaking out of routines. I encouraged Adirondack adventures, local eating and service. I recognized organizations like the Java Barn for their positive impact, for their groovy gift of stress relieving music. I challenged us Saints to get out and explore the North Country, to explore Canton, to explore the many talents, projects, and passions right here on campus.
Hammer Time was my vent, my platform and my attempt to give back, to share the lessons I had learned over three pivotal years in my life. This last Hammer Time, titled Through the Doorway, is for all the families out there including mine, Mom, Dad, I love you.
All around us, life has awakened. Atop this Laurentian hill, pointed maple leaves unfold, wings flutter through the branches, and searching souls young and old gather to celebrate a momentous occasion. Graduates, here we are at last. We have done it, we have done it, WE HAVE DONE IT!
A few weeks ago I heard about an art project by my friend, Alex Duane. He erected a series of free standing doors at the entrance to the long trail which winds through the woods to campus. There they will stand representing the decision we all faced when coming to SLU as teenagers. What door, what major, what profession, and what life will you choose?
When I heard about this project two memories came to mind. First I remembered one night sophomore year when my buddy and I raced down the hallway to greet the Sergis delivery man. When I came to the swinging door, I pushed it open in full stride and clocked my head hard against the frame gashing my forehead wide open. Blood spurted all over me and the poor girl from upstairs who came to my rescue. That night I was the pizza-less giant getting his head glued back together in the emergency room. The scar reminds me of the part of my identity I did not choose.
The other memory was of another day sophomore year, a week before major declaration forms were due to the dean’s office. I nervously eyed the little yellow form and saw in it, a long set of doors. They loomed in a row labeled doctor, economist, teacher, politician, physiologist, lab technician, and so on. Many never get this type of privilege and I am deeply thankful to St. Lawrence for letting me choose my door. But I sat their shaking, crushed beneath the burden of choice. On that day I was standing in the threshold, on the fulcrum point of my college career. To one side laid my past, a jumbled stack of memories, lessons, friends and mentors, to the other, the dark gray cloud of the future, swirling with expectations, dreams and hopes.
To choose which door to walk through, I had to sort through the stacks. I had to pick out the places, people and stories which encouraged my love for breathing, which pumped fire through my veins. I had to figure out what made me, me. In the following sticky sleepless nights, I remembered sitting in a canoe watching a Bull Moose climb out of clear drinkable lake, I remembered reading my stories in high school and watching my classmates burst into laughter, or bring their hands to their hearts. I remembered coughing up Los Angeles’ smog as I pedaled my Cannondale to the Pacific. I declared Environmental Studies and English. The written word and the whispering winds were going to lead me into the dark gray cloud of the future.
Graduates, here we are at last. We have overcome the burden of choice, the all-nighters, the break ups, the bitter cold marches, and the impossible assignments. We have done it and now years of study trail behind us like train cars. These cars are packed to the brim with teachings, with friends, with mentors. They rattle on the tracks heavy with hours of sniffing large volumes in the libraries, of typing, telling, and sketching, of performing tricky lab experiments, of listening to long lectures echo off classroom walls. These cars rumble with Adirondack adventures, with Dana brunches, with relationships lost and won, with nights of dancing, of singing, of floating down the Grasse River naked, whistling to the moon. These years of unforgettable moments and lessons fuel our young engines. These years have brought us here. But now on this day of commencement, we stand on a fulcrum again with more doors arranged before us.
We must again ask; what have I learned? Who have I become? Take a moment and try to pull your entire St. Lawrence experience to the forefront of your mind. Stack the years like novels, with semesters as chapters, with characters and storylines. Pick out what people, events and lessons have influenced you the most. Let them hang there. Gaze at them like they are candles burning in the dark. These are the things which have changed you, which have developed you, become a part of you. These are the lights that will guide us into the future as we pursue our new Pediatrician dreams, Environmental lawyer dreams, Spanish teacher dreams, geologist dreams, veggie farmer dreams, or otherwise undiscovered dreams.
In the time between my sophomoric days of ravenously sprinting for Sergis pizza and now, I have become so much more and I have learned to duck. We have all become so much more. We are teammates, leaders, critical thinkers, poets, activists, and therapists. We are programmers, linguists, EMTs, guides, and artists. St. Lawrence has cultivated our potential by showing us through many doors. Bob Thacker, Mary Hussmann, and Bob Cowser have granted us their enthusiasm for the written word and the tension of stories. Amanda Lavigne opened the door to systems thinking, to lifecycle analysis, to becoming more efficient and effective with our products from extraction to landfill. Dan McDonnell led us through the Adirondack door just south of here by showing us how to be wilderness leaders, how to hold calm in the calamity of rushing river water. Cindy Atkins and Amy Brady, through our work with volunteer services, Habitat for Humanity, and the Campus Kitchens Project taught us the insurmountable value of community and giving. Bob and Flip at Little Grasse Foodworks taught us how to make sauerkraut.
These are just a few examples on the infinite list which wraps around us all.
Along the way I realized where St. Lawrence draws its magic from. It comes from our openness with each other, from our desire to discover new places, people, ideas and meaning, to understand the complexities, the unknowns, to answer the burning questions about the living world, society, and the spirit. By pursuing our goals, we meet others. Relationships rise out of our open and endless quest and these relationships enchant our experience. The magic buzzes in the bonds between us, in the transfer of ideas and enthusiasm. We all learn from and teach each other. These bonds, these teaching and learning channels unite us.
Saints, here we are at last. (pause) This day, this Laurentian hill, our St. Lawrence experience and our vitality hinge on two essential processes, teaching and learning. These teaching and learning relationships we give and share with each other define us. We are not just individuals jostling for position in a crowded world, but a combination of the people, places and stories which ignite our passions and love for life. Look around at all the things right here that you hold close. Look to your family, your lovers, your friends, your professors, your school, to the birds awakening in spring. This is all a part of you, and you are a part of it. Take it with you as you pass over this stage, as you pass through the doorway. We may be leaving, but the bonds we have built remain. Challenge: Keep them open and strong. Use them well. Become the person you want to be. Then teach your passions to others. Hammer Time.