Footprints

Remarks to Graduates - May 18, 2014

In this 159th year of St. Lawrence University, I express the immense honor felt by all the Commencement day participants and I acknowledge the glowing warmth of deep pride in this audience of professors, parents, families, and friends. This much anticipated hour arrives from two directions for our graduates, one of glory and one of sadness. Our purpose is not to risk vanity in today’s good feeling of triumph, but rather, it is to mark a confident and first footprint setting the Class of 2014 on its way. Commencement is the first instance of reckoning a new fact of life; that the familiar wide trail, alive with easy companionship, diverges now into many paths leading away, perhaps even far away, from a common, unforgettable beginning place. Your footprint is here, but your foot will not return.

Four years ago, when I first saw the class of 2014 gathered in our matriculation ceremony, I offered some predictions about your future at St. Lawrence. It was foolish of me to expect your full attention on your first day, perhaps foolish now to expect it on your last day. But even knowing the certainty of your many distractions as new students, I spoke on the theme of getting a glimpse of paradise. It was a brave thing for me to promise. Here is what I said:

No less an authority on the topic of paradise than John Milton once explained in the dialog of two young people what this state of being was like. They say to one another: “With thee conversing I forget all time, / All seasons and their change, all please alike” (PL, IV: 639-40). That will happen here. You will be transported to a kind of paradise-like experience. One moment you’ll start reading an assigned text, writing a lab report, working a math problem or taking a study break with a friend; you think the time is nine o’clock, but the chimes at town hall just struck eleven. What happened and where did the time go? You will have moments of feeling that hours in the day have been magically suspended and somehow lost. It comes with the important privilege of freedom. It’s a moment of discovery about what you enjoy and like to do.

Was I right? And did not these four years also transport each of you in speedy haste, the nearly immortal moment that flashes by and is gone before you know it? And what is true for the class is also a truth for your parents. To them, especially, let me say a word: The great good work of your sons and daughters, also experienced by you in the intense velocity of the past four years, is impossible to conceive without the beautiful dream of their going to college, a dream that came to you, parents and grandparents, when they were first born.

Thank you for sharing your sons and daughters with St. Lawrence. And thank you for the countless ways you have fulfilled the terms of our partnership to help get them ready. Some of you live close by in the North Country and some of you have traveled trans-oceanic distances to be here, several of you for the very first time. The difference in miles collapses, however, into one single measure of pride and joy, the same for all of us. You have inspired their confidence and readiness.

There is also some vital news proving how ready they are because of what they will soon be doing. I am confident in sharing a small sample of news that what is true for one or a few of them is eventually a truth for all of them. Within five years, more than half the class of 2014 will be starting or have done graduate work, but the first wave of future graduate students lands them in astonishing places and programs this fall: Duke, UVa, Wisconsin, Michigan, UNC at Chapel Hill, UConn, Ohio State, Yale, Vanderbilt, Maryland Institute College of Art, Brandeis, Buffalo, McGill, Boston University, NYU, Marquette, Northeastern, George Washington, University of Chicago, and Iowa State. Careers in medicine will be launched at Upstate Medical, UVM, the New York School of Podiatric Medicine, and the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. St. Lawrence graduates are headed to law school in Cincinnati and Washington, DC.

One, perhaps more, in this class has planned a different kind of graduate experience—a 3,000 mile canoe and hiking trip from Maine to Georgia on the blue blaze Appalachian Trail. The renowned CBS correspondent Eric Severeid did the equivalent post-college journey in the 1930s and wrote an acclaimed memoir called Not So Wild a Dream. Members of the class are going to  serve in AmeriCorps, New York City Teaching Fellows, Teach for America,  and Teach for China; others will be teaching English in Spain, teaching Spanish in Pennsylvania, teaching English in Thailand and Korea, teaching English in Connecticut, working on Capitol Hill, and coordinating volunteers in Uganda.

We have a graduating student who has won a Fulbright and will be teaching in Kenya next year. Others are beginning jobs in the business world at Cambridge Associates, Sageworks, Goldman Sachs, Fenway Sports Management, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Eaton Corporation, UBS, GFI, EMD Millipore, Northwestern Mutual, Travelers, and PepsiCo. These placements are merely a sampler of many more career opportunities in store for this amazingly talented class.

During your time at St. Lawrence, our campus newspaper The Hill News has run a popular column written by different students over the years called “Boots and Paddle.” Some of you as participants in the Adirondack Semester will not only leave today with a diploma, but also with the cherry wood paddle you carved for yourselves while living at Massawepie. Yet, all of you will surely depart with a degree and at least one pair of boots, which you may have worn out this long winter and have been tempted to leave behind like a cairn on the trail. I make this one plea: take your boots, please. We have other ways of remembering the class of 2014.

In Willa Cather’s story Shadows on the Rock set in Quebec during its earliest days next to a black pine forest at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, there is a scene that connects this day to a humble moment centuries ago. A child enters a boot-makers shop and is fascinated by the site of all the cobbler’s lasts lined up and stored on shelves. Each one of the wooden models, the lasts from which the shoe is built, has scratched into it the initials of the foot’s owner. The child picks up a last and the cobbler says, “That foot will not come back…It went too far… But I shall always keep his last. That foot went farther than any other” into the wilderness.

After four years, you’ve broken in at least one pair of boots. And you now are about to take a new path. Wear the boots you know and go as far as you can. I promise you, I assure you, we know your foot upon the campus paths. “We’ll ne’er forget.”

We know you like a cobbler knows his last. And we shall always keep your last, each one of you in the Class of 2014.