Colby’s 189th Commencement, May 23, 2010.
Good morning everyone and welcome. I want to begin today by thanking the many individuals who collectively made this day possible for myself and for my classmates. Thank you to my family (both official and unofficial), to my professors, and to my classmates for the incalculable honor of standing here behind this podium. On behalf of the entire Class of 2011, I would like to thank all of our mentors in and out of the classroom and perhaps, most importantly, the men and women who were up with the sun today to arrange all of this technology and all of these chairs. I thank you for your time, your wisdom, and your patience.
I would like to share with you a comment I have overheard numerous times as the year has wound down towards graduation. Underclassmen, professors, and administrators alike have made passing remarks regarding the footprints the Class of 2011 has left on this campus. I have no doubts, based on these many conversations, that we will be deeply missed come fall.
Given the chance to think about our collective reputation, I came to the conclusion that it is playfulness that has earned our class its notoriety.
When you hear the word play, I can only imagine what you are thinking. Seventeen cumulative years of schooling has taught me that the word play—and that which it signifies—is colloquial and immature, hardly the subject of conversation at a college graduation. College graduates, we have been told, are serious people, poised on the verge of careers or other journeys marked by important decisions.
Recently, I came to the realization that there was a point in my own life when I was told to stop playing. As I spoke to my classmates about this speech, we brainstormed landmarks in our own histories of playfulness. Someone shared with me a memory of entering sixth grade only to realize that his day would no longer include recess, another an experience in high school when she stopped enjoying her homework because it was no longer fun.
And because I am an English major, I studied the words we once associated with playfulness. At what point, I ask you, did “juggle” start signifying an overbooked schedule rather than the circus? When did the words “chase” and “tag” adopt such serious connotations? As these words took on new meanings, we were essentially expected to do the same: stop playing, stop wasting time, settle down.
What I have come to love most about Colby and my classmates, however, is that even as we were led to believe that play was no longer appropriate for our age-group, we threw ourselves into this environment with a spirit reminiscent of recess. And by spirit, I mean the energy we have channeled into that which truly inspires us, whether it be lacrosse or sculpture, volunteering or solving a proof.
According to Nobel Prize-winning author and activist Elie Wiesel, there is “divine beauty in learning,” a beauty that I have found to be so visceral here at Colby because learning is playful. And when I say playful, I not only mean spontaneous and creative, but also intrepid and sometimes even rebellious.
We play each time we seek an elusive idea or a new trail in the arboretum. We play broomball in ridiculous costumes and campus golf in more conservative ones. We examine an unknown with the kind of curiosity one would call child-like, except that here at Colby, we have come to consider this behavior entirely age-appropriate. It’s why we climb to the top of Runnals to watch a meteor shower at three a.m. even when we know we should be sleeping. It’s why we start businesses or take a class in a new department or eat an entire Big G’s sandwich.
Perhaps most memorably, however, my classmates and I have played with convention. We routinely challenged the assertion that our generation—the technologically savvy millennials—is the most apathetic. We protested the stereotypes, which decree both that those with privilege cannot commit to fighting for social justice and also that those without it cannot possibly speak and act on their own behalf. Even as we reclaimed the definitions of “juggle” and “chase” and “tag,” we played with those assigned to the “student athlete,” the “actor,” and the “activist.” We have most certainly played with history and its wild trajectory, because today some among us will be the first in their families to graduate from college.
I commend all of you for the courage it takes to play against the fiercest of contenders and the harshest of critics.
Ultimately, I believe that it is curiosity and courage, in the company of our playmates, that produce the passion necessary to create change. If you really think about it, passion is merely playfulness in grown-up form, because at the end of the day, what separates the energy we have invested in this campus, from that which our Colby Cares About Kids mentees invest in climbing backwards up the slide on the playground? Is the passion that compels us to row at dawn or rehearse at midnight or write a petition really that different from what motivates a child to keep chasing a seagull? Do we not share her dedication and fascination with flight?
What I mean to say to say is that, at Colby, playfulness has enormous value despite the fact that we have been told that we should have moved beyond the juvenile at this point in our lives. I thank this campus for giving me the opportunity to play with all of my heart—whether it be at defining and redefining what it means to be a student with privilege, dancing on the quad, or finishing my thesis under the guidance of my most respected professors. I thank you, my peers, for being my playmates at fascinating lectures and on Miller steps both today and on many early March mornings these past few years.
I promised the members of my senior seminar in English that I would include a poem in this speech, and will do so because what we’ve learned to value here, at Colby, is the true power and pleasure of intellectual play.
Thus, it is in the spirit of the type of playfulness we have come to associate with reading, painting, and calculating, that I would like to share with you the words of Michael Ondaatje in one of my favorite poems.
and your real prize will be the frantic search.”
May we step passionately, rather than delicately, into the wild world this afternoon, and may the frantic search that awaits us become the best scavenger hunt we’ve ever had.
Thank you, and I wish you all the best of luck.