Is there Anything Left to Say? | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Is there Anything Left to Say?

Remarks to Graduates, May 20, 2018

By now, you have walked all the paths, lanes, and trails on and around the St. Lawrence campus. You have crossed the plaza between the Sullivan Student Center and Dana Dining Hall times past counting. You have taken in the view from the Avenue of the Elms and have absorbed the glowing moonrise while cutting across the Quad. You are still in search of a shortcut to Appleton Arena on the nights we were ten below. And many of you know precisely where the cracks in the sidewalks are along Park Street for all the late, dark night returns to campus.

The only path you have not yet walked is before you today, the walk thousands of Laurentians have also taken since the 1860s on Commencement Day; it is the walk across the stage to receive something that is yours for life, something that cannot be garnished or erased.

Nevertheless, I ask myself, Is there anything left to say? I know there are a few things the commencement audience expects me to say, but there are also a few things that St. Lawrence may have forgotten to tell you and this is my last chance to do so.

You in the graduating class have benefitted from quiet, often distant, but ever-present sources of strength for the journey in all the steps you have taken to arrive at the foot of this crossing. The support of your parents, families, and guardian angels, who believed in you from the first instant, has made all the difference, making this hour significant beyond its individual terms. It is an hour that shines like silver light in a hemlock forest.

On behalf of your students joined together as the St. Lawrence class of 2018, I offer a word of deep gratitude to you who are the mothers, fathers, grandparents, and all kindred who have shared in the dream this day fulfills. Your constant faith, hard work, willing sacrifice, and wise gifts have created a beautiful picture of human achievement and joy.

All of us who have shared these college years with your sons and daughters thank you for your part in the magic and the triumph. You have known their worries, listened to their imaginations, even at times wild and unfathomable, while you encouraged them to push ahead in the trial and error of an educated life. Yours is the necessary and subtle hand joining mine in presenting these degrees today.

***

To the graduating class, I greet you with the secure hopes of a president who already knows, perhaps before you can possibly realize it, how well prepared you are to use the optimism of your deep learning and to face the hard facts of your lives ahead. Your classmate Monica Manning is the 26th member of her family to earn a St. Lawrence degree. She wrote me the other day about walking across campus this spring, taking note of its beauty, personal history, and lasting friendships.

She says, “I have moments of bliss where a wave of energy comes over me. Sometimes I think about how my great-grandparents walked the same paths. Or when my foot hits North Country Field for lacrosse practice, I think about the competitions my brother played on the same field…When I receive my diploma, I will be thinking about Platt Wheeler ‘44 …and nothing makes me more content than my grandfather knowing his last grandchild is about to be a graduate from St. Lawrence University. There is a heartbeat at this school that will last forever in our lives.”

Monica, I know just how you and your classmates must feel. I also walked this campus when I was your age. But I have some advantage through my longer years of history to measure and understand the pulse of this place. When I consider your year 2018 and the future stretching out its vanishing horizon, I also realize how swift time will pass for all of you. And this accounts for my hurried final thought, is there anything left to say?

In a few weeks the class of 1968 will reunite here, marking a commencement from 50 years ago. The spring of 1968 was a watershed moment in American history, and I was only few classes away from entering St. Lawrence myself. That was the year the Beatles released their best-loved “White Album.” My favorite song on that album remains “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney, which musically is traceable to J. S. Bach, but was inspired by the American Civil Rights movement and the black women who were essential to its cause.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

As much as it was true 50 years ago in 1968, it can be sung again for you that “All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” You will take flight as the black bird, which ornithologists will tell you is the smartest of the earth’s winged creatures. You will soon fly “into the light of the dark black night,” as if guided by your own special star in the North Country sky.

Many of you will head to great cities of great continents; a large number will begin graduate studies at famous research universities and professional schools. The class of 2018 will be represented at Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Dartmouth, NYU, Syracuse, Ottawa, Northeastern, Delaware, Maine, Missouri, Albany, Connecticut, Oregon, St. John’s, University College Cork (Ireland), and North Carolina State. You were admitted into excellent law schools, medical schools, and PhD programs.

Some of you will become teachers at the Fessenden School, St. Paul’s, Greenwich Country Day, New England Center for Children, and the corps of Teach for America. Positions have been offered and accepted at Cantor Fitzgerald, Colonial Williamsburg, eBay, FDIC, Fidelity Investments, Goldman Sachs, NASA, Morgan Stanley, Memorial Sloan Kettering, UBS, Americorps, Wayfair, Walker and Dunlop. One of you will be joining the United States Air Force and another will be entering the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. Many of you will be working outdoors, even in wilderness and backcountry conditions. A few have signed up for congressional campaigns this summer and fall. Following a nationally known St. Lawrence tradition, at least four of you will serve in the Peace Corps. One of you replied to the Career Services question, “what’s next?” with the open line “now in research stage, to be determined.” This is a class that is very determined and you will not wait long for the right moment to arise.

***

While this day has bright reflections bumping against the protective shadows of hope, a hasty confidence that you will take flight to sing and soar, I have something left to say, which if dismissed or unsaid puts me at risk of academic negligence. We are extremely proud of your opportunities expressed in this brief sampler of jobs and degree programs organizing your next couple of years. Clearly, St. Lawrence has helped get you ready for your professional careers. And yet, this may be my last chance to mention three short reminders of what this experience is ultimately supposed to mean in your lives.

The first leftover word is that mistakes are essential and almost never fatal. Your education, even if it comes today with honors, will not make you exempt from errors, misjudgments, and mistakes. Education is not meant to achieve perfection, but rather, to realize how incomplete and imperfect we will always be. There is a clamor in today’s world for moral certainty, spotless lives, and permanent truth. A friend of mine who was on the college speakers circuit for many years used to fantasize the title of a book he hoped to write, called Moral Clarity and Its Ambiguities. One of the last things you should hear on this campus is that arrogance about being right or righteous is a moral condition you should avoid.

The second word to give you is that kindness counts more than you know and more than the world tells you. Good manners reveal good people. Those of us over the age of 50 will remember the grammar school report cards we carried home that featured below the column of grades two additional spaces for a few added words about handwriting and conduct. You never wanted both to say “improvement needed,” but on today’s university transcripts neither area is left room for assessment. And yet, I am quite confident, the world and even your friends will be calculating your grade on decency and kindness, especially the kind expressed for no good reason. My father once told me that he believed the worst cardinal sin was what he called “gratitude without words.” If you feel appreciative or blessed, then say it, tell it, and write it.

In the end, we have taught you the importance of setting goals, but we have probably not said enough about the order of those goals. I was reminded of this possible gap the other day at our last faculty meeting of the year, when a few retiring professors usually offer some valedictory reflections from their academic careers. As you may expect, the occasion recalls course highlights, significant personal moments, and heartfelt words of appreciation. Professor Ning Gao of our chemistry department concluded her talk in terms that caught me by surprise. She said, “At St. Lawrence, I have found peace in my life.” This is not only a fine tribute to St. Lawrence, but it’s exactly what we might forget to tell you as an essential point and goal of your life.

Peace of mind, the state being at peace with yourself, serenity, orderliness, and calmness are usually not expressed as goals or the best destiny of our plans. Rather, these terms are more often used as techniques, poses, or moments deferred for the weekend. In no lasting sense can serenity be indifferent to trouble, but without making it a priority in life, in good times and bad, other goals and the memorable days of achieved milestones will subside in possibility and pleasantness.

Making allowance for your mistakes, making a habit of spontaneous kindness, and making the point of life the quality of serenity, are words I had left to say before you go. Each of these attitudes will somehow take the shape of the broken wings that learn to fly. “All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to be free.” Welcome to the 160th annual Commencement Day of St. Lawrence University.