For all of us coming into this matriculation assembly, today concludes the last step of getting ready. We are not going to rush the process, though it will transact an important piece of first business with dispatch and dignity. We recognize that going to college is never a trivial step for anyone and, in years to come, its significance will surely become larger than you can imagine right now. The achievement for parents to put their children through college, to encourage their learning and ambition, will also turn out to be one of life’s greatest joys.
None of these feelings can be fully known just yet, but we who have gone to college ourselves, or who have educated at great expense our own children, or who have witnessed this experience as participants and partners with students and families over many years, share and respect the worry and the mystery of all that is bundled into this next step. College is bigger than any individual and it holds a meaning that exceeds the material success or security you will earn decades from now. And that is because college is the first draft of defining you on your own terms, the first instance of being on your own before you are entirely ready to stand all by yourself.
Those qualities of standing on one’s own feet will come in time; but the adjustment during the meanwhile will prove there is a single, reliable key to a successful college transition.
When England’s poet laureate John Betjeman offered his life’s story in verse, he told of being a lonely adolescent at Marlborough College, one of the Harry Potter-like boarding schools founded in the Victorian era. You may have heard of it because Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, went there. So, when Betjeman wrote about his five tortuous years at Marlborough they were remembered mostly as difficult endurance without much pleasure. “Here, ‘twixt the church and chapel spire/Rang sad and deep the bells of my desire./ Desire for what? I think I can explain.” His explanation for those adverse memories is quick—he had no deep connections with anyone; he was bereft of friendship.
At St. Lawrence, our approach to your time here is different. The mention of friendship is not the last thing we offer as helpful hints. It is the first thing, the most important thing you can achieve in your first semester. Meeting, making, and keeping friends is the topic I wish to address for everyone’s benefit, students and parents together, professors and administrators, also included.
Take comfort, I am not going to present a philosophical discourse on the construct of friendship. You can read Cicero and Aristotle on your own. I won’t attempt a pithy definition of friendship that ensures a firm touchstone of knowing when it is present. You already have enough experience from home to realize the vital presence or absence of friends. We all seek another person, or a few persons, with whom we have things in common, with whom we can be mostly unguarded and natural, and with whom we can share our personal thoughts and doubts without fear of deceit or laughter.
I will make three brief observations about friendship at St. Lawrence. The first point is that some risk is involved; the risk that the extended open hand will be rejected. Although rare, that can happen and, if it does, it may sting a little and make you feel helpless and foolish. That experience is still known to college presidents, too. My best advice, however, is that no matter how reticent you are inclined to be, err on the side of raising your hand—a wave, a handshake, a fist-bump—will get you to the better place of your seeking a positive college experience. It is more likely, however, that another student will take the initiative and invite your response to a friendly gesture.
The first step breaks the ice. But there is more. Genuine friendship is distinguished from other possible connections in life by a particular kind of open mindedness; that is, being open to the surprise of others, what makes them different and admirable. Friends allow each other to grow and grow up; friends do not close off the progress of the other; friends don’t hold each other back or compete against the terms of success the other wants to achieve. More than any high grade I ever earned at St. Lawrence as a student, I remember with the deepest pleasure the exact place and time of day when my college roommate congratulated me for leading a successful campus project. It not only made my day, it created a lasting friendship.
And then, the last observation to make about friendship at St. Lawrence is its quality of persistence; it’s akin to what my father used to tell the family at the dinner table of my childhood, “no matter what, always stick together.” Loyalty in your friendships at St. Lawrence will eventually extend beyond your first weeks on campus. When the class comes together at commencement time in a few years, you will then have people in your life who are indelible marks upon your heart, who will stand by you, through the happiest and hardest times.
I know this personally; for I once gathered on a first day with my new classmates, almost all of them unknown to me the morning we moved in. If I can be totally confident in just one thing, it is that the bonds of loyalty forming in this hour will bring you a sublime feeling of belonging to each other in the years to come.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let me offer a final justification for the attention I am giving the theme of friendship this afternoon. In a recent study by scholars spending ten years of intensive research on the question of how students succeed best in college, the authors arrive at a conclusion that is in complete accord with my reflections. Apparently, what matters most in college is “who meets whom, and when.” Many readers will be surprised that the answer to predicting college success is not necessarily higher scores and harder work. In other words, “friendship is so strong a factor for most people as to be, for practical purposes, virtually a prerequisite for success in college.” Friendship inspires and sustains the good effect of our academic purposes. (Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works, Cambridge: HUP, 2014, 16-17)
One of the best loved English poets of the 19th century is John Keats. I first heard the odes in Richardson Hall when I was a St. Lawrence student and read them for myself in the quiet study area of the Herring-Cole reading room. He stood apart from many poets of his time and from ours because his best work was written when he was around your age. The biography of Keats is useful to know because his path to becoming a major literary figure was so improbable, not to mention he died too soon, too young, at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.
Keats and his three siblings were orphaned when he was 14. His education in a small school with a progressive curriculum had run its course by the time he was 15. He was then apprenticed and later licensed to be a dresser, the near equivalent of a surgical assistant in today’s medical world. Keats never had a university education, never personally knew the great dons of Oxford and Cambridge, never benefitted from tutorial advice or encouragement in a professor’s office. He worried about money, struggled to avoid debt, and suffered to make his way in the world without much family support.
How then do we explain the literary genius of John Keats? Aspiration and ambition do not go far enough to give an answer. There is a poem, seldom noted, that offers our best clue. Keats had spent an evening in the home of another poet and from that conversation he forms the lines of a consequential realization. It has all the feel of a vivid, crisp fall night in the North Country walking across the St. Lawrence campus, a scene you can surely expect.
Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there
Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare.
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
For I am brimfull of the friendliness
That in a little cottage I have found;
Then Keats concludes his lines with a reference to the great Italian Renaissance poet he and his friends had discovered together, “And faithful Petrarch gloriously crown’d.”
The poem contains a meaning that transcends his young, brief life and speaks now to your own formative moment of entering college, where friendship and conversation matter the most. Every turn and inflection of this short poem allows us to see the immense energy stimulated by companionship, openness, conversation, friendship, and trust. Keats did not have your advantages, he did not have a university to attend, but he found and kept friends. His literary achievement does not stand apart from his capacity and genius for friendship. “For I am brimfull of the friendliness/That in a little cottage I have found.”
You will discover and find many things here, but the most important finding is expressed by a pair of first words today, “Welcome, friends.”
William L. Fox
Matriculation of the Class of 2018
August 24, 2014