Togetherness Is Not Enough
President Morris, I am grateful to be with you at your first St. Lawrence commencement. More than that, I am happy for you to meet personally the Class of 2020 whose endurance and creativity will inspire subsequent classes welcomed by you at future commencements.
Friends in the Class of 2020, we’ve been waiting for you, just as I once said when you arrived in August of 2016. Finally, we gather again.
“At last,” as the R&B artist Etta James once sang. At last, we’re together, even those watching now by livestream—classmates, roommates, and friends—after being away from each other for nearly 18 months. So much has happened during that disruptive stretch of days—4 million human beings dead of a single disease, Black lives insulted and lost for no reason resembling justice for all, and mob violence done to the world’s greatest landmark of democracy. In that time, we strangely felt alone, uncertain, and tense.
At last, we return to a place of defining dreams and familiar patterns. We begin to sense that over time the St. Lawrence campus will mean even more than we imagined as an intellectual, social, and moral reference point. Many Laurentians in my generation have called this place, “in the middle of nowhere, the center of everywhere” and their “forever home.”
At last, we can acknowledge and thank the people who got you to St. Lawrence in the first place and who walked with you through the college years: mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, surrogate parents, and family friends. They encouraged you, sacrificed for you, and believed in you. And they are an important presence in being with you in this great hour of your lives.
At last, as president emeritus, I am able to fulfill my final and most compelling obligation in my St. Lawrence career—the promise that we would see it through together, that your St. Lawrence diploma would be signed by the same hand that you shook in the MacAllaster House garden as you began your first-year classes.
At last, we can take a moment to comprehend, in part, what a poignant moment in life ought to mean. The pandemic year marks a formative interlude in each of you; it determines your class pride and identity going forward. A year ago, I said to our trustees that this experience will either uproot the class of 2020 from the St. Lawrence saga or it will ensure that the class bonds are stronger than any year before it. I have placed my bet on the long option of belonging with increased intensity.
I wish to consider two ways of interpreting this moment in life for reasons of both celebration and reflection: what we achieved and what we learned.
When given the worst public health crisis in a century and the resulting economic shock waves of unemployment, the St. Lawrence Class of 2020 achieved the astonishing. A placement rate of 92% is barely off the pace of recent prior classes at St. Lawrence. We can be confident, once again, that the alumni network, the abundance of internship opportunities, mentoring advice, excellent career programs, and a positive peer effect converged like forces of nature to push our graduates into the top ranks of those starting out in business, professional fields, and graduate studies. Let me offer a sample of the organizations, firms, businesses, schools, and universities where Laurentians of 2020 are represented.
In the business world, class members have gone to work at EMI Strategic Marketing, State Street, United Healthcare, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs. Five of you are at Northwestern Mutual, three are at Fidelity Investments, two at Equitable Advisors, and one at Marsh. By my quick count about ten in the class are involved in the ski industry. When I see a graduate’s first job in “lift operations,” I know the employer is not Otis Elevator. A number of you are in the food and hospitality area with one of you carrying the enviable job title of “beer ambassador.” St. Lawrence has placed one of its own in the Culinary Institute of America, undoubtedly inspired by Dana fine dining.
Some of you in the class will continue to hear the school bell ring as teachers at the Camden Central School District, Fort Edward School District, Greenwich Country Day, Old Mill, Deerfield Academy, and the Woodhall School. I will add a quick word of encouragement to those of you entering areas of teaching or working with children: “if you can positively influence a child, we won’t have to mend an adult.”
An impressive number in the class are working in science and health, particularly in research fields at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, University of Rochester, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brown University, and Wayne State. Some of you in the world of allied health start in administrative jobs. One of you is a government scientist at USGS. Speaking of government work, several you are involved in policy and politics in Albany and Washington.
St. Lawrence is a presence in the technology sector with your friends at Workday, eBay, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Dell, and BetterCloud. About twenty class members are in STEM graduate programs at Johns Hopkins, Duke, BU, Hong Kong University, University of Michigan, Montana State, Iowa State, Oregon State, University of Washington, Texas A&M, University of Oregon, and Georgetown. Two of you are in graduate study at Emory and Boston Universities as future epidemiologists.
One of you is committed to rural medicine as a future physician at Upstate Medical and another is at Mass General in an allied health program. A few of you are going to art school in London, New York, and Washington. To summarize, in a year that saw the world lockdown numerous times, St. Lawrence was openly on the move.
And allow me a word to parents about the unreported 8% of class members whose work life remains vague: I spent my first year out of St. Lawrence in hourly work that prepared me well for later responsibilities. Much that I needed to know for the job I recently left for retirement, I first learned on the night shift of a government printing plant and by selling shoes in a retail store. I often told Lynn that if being a college president did not work out, I could always operate a paper cutter or work again as a shoe dog.
What we learned in the past year ought to serve us well, but like hewing stone from a North Country quarry, hard-won lessons need to go deep before they can cut long. We learned early that social distancing is not a natural state of human life. It is certainly alien to the St. Lawrence community, where the genius of the place includes our social education. The circumstances seemed to condemn us all to periods of acute loneliness, which we now understand more generally as the pre-existing condition for a lot of bodily diseases and a danger to stable mental health.
The current U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes that “we’re biologically primed not just to feel better together, but to feel normal together.” He believes, even before we had the word COVID, that the emerging field of social neuroscience is essential for us to understand and mitigate one of the most dangerous threats to public health—loneliness. The general fraying along the seams of our social fabric in times of stressful isolation taught us how important the St. Lawrence culture of connection is and must remain in our lives.
I noticed in this past year a revival of a popular Broadway song from the 1945 musical Carousel, a showstopper in the story sung in the scene of a graduation ceremony. Andre Bocelli and YoYo Ma each recorded this year “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” For some unknown reason, the fans at English football stadiums, particularly in Liverpool, have made this song their communal anthem.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” was sung for Nelson Mandela when he first visited London after years of imprisoned isolation: “When you walk through a storm/ Hold your head up high/ And don’t be afraid of the dark/ At the end of a storm/ There’s a golden sky/ And the sweet silver song of a lark.” Rogers and Hammerstein wrote that in 1945, a watershed year in human history, perhaps one of the worst years ever in feeling alone, until 2020.
The theme of that song extends to words that screenwriter Carter Crocker gave Christopher Robin in the Disney film, Pooh’s Grand Adventure: “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.”
Powerful words and memorable tunes are useful antidotes to personal loneliness, the anxious gap between periods of togetherness. We all acquired habits of mind to restore ourselves to better feelings when cut off, by listening to music, reading adventure stories, or watching classic movies. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, a person can also feel unattached and lonely in a crowd, the invisible stranger in the big city. One of the other important lessons of this year, otherwise marked by the three words “six feet apart,” was to learn togetherness is not enough.
In the last year, a group of Laurentian women, contemporaries of mine from our college days in the 1970s, whose friendship has remained intact through all the decades, learned that one of their number living with a chronic disease was worsening and would soon reach the point of no-return in medical options. She needed a kidney transplant, and nothing was available as a match after months of searching.
About ten St. Lawrence women, all in their 60s, friends for life, agreed to be tested. They committed themselves in advance to enter an organ donor protocol if there were a match. It was an extremely rare possibility, a long shot in medical odds-making. As expected, there was no immediate tissue compatibility among them, save for one that was close enough. So, together, two St. Lawrence friends, with the support of all the others, went into surgery at the same time, the one saving the life of the other.
If it were only about togetherness, they could have all gathered by zoom for stories and cocktails. But if we are ever able to conquer the despair of loneliness, it will be by means of kindness. That is what we learned.
I bring you finally a poem. The most important ideas in life often live on the narrow, scanty plots of ground in the structure of a poem. Here are words from Naomi Shihab Nye’s work, “Kindness”—
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
The St. Lawrence Class of 2020 has felt, with good reason, varieties of sorrow—unlike other classes—and with similar good reason about staying together your class has discovered the mission of doing kindness as a life ambition. Trust the lesson, it is all that matters in the end.
You’ve achieved much together. You’ve learned even more. And let me add my reassurance, I’ll always be with you… always with St. Lawrence 2020.
President Emeritus William L. Fox '75
August 1, 2021