Elected by his classmates, Michael Thomas Langley ’13, of Short Hills, N.J.,
gave the class speaker’s address at Colby’s 192nd Commencement, May 26, 2013.
Thank you Erika. Thank you, Nick.
I would like to begin by extending a warm welcome to all of you. To the families of the graduates, to the faculty, to the administrators and to the staff: welcome. Thank you for being here. Thank you also to my fellow members of the Class of 2013 for granting me the great honor of speaking today. I must confess I’m a little surprised you elected to have two Van Gogh experts speak at the same commencement, but here I am, and I suppose we will all just have to try and make the best of it.
It’s very hard to contain my excitement today. But, before we get too far into this business, I’m going to preface my remarks. I understand that these ceremonies can often run quite long, so, trying to do my part to have you out as quickly as possible, I’ve kept my speech to a tight 75 minutes, and if necessary, I will cut out my 23-minute aside on the rise and fall of Robert Everett Pattison, as you know, Colby’s third president—though I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.
You may not have realized it, but 2013 is, in fact, the year of Colby’s bicentennial. This is a big deal, and I want to congratulate my classmates for having the thought, the foresight, and the tenacity to be born in the years 1990 and 1991. My apologies to the hockey team if that last remark made you feel left out.
But really, this is a very exciting occasion, and I hardly know what to say. Since discovering that I would be speaking today, I’ve researched perhaps thousands of commencement speeches from speakers of all types and analyzed them on a variety of metrics that I’m not going to get into right now because they do not exist.
But, through my reading, I discovered the characteristics that make an excellent commencement speech. It would have to be funny. Optimistic, but not too optimistic. From the heart, but not hackneyed. The excellent commencement speech would have to, in some small way, show an old bit of wisdom in a new light, give something that the listeners could carry with them for the rest of their days.
Shortly after, I decided I wouldn’t be giving an excellent commencement speech. Instead, I’m going to try to try to give a pretty good one.
One thing I noticed in my studies was that—and forgive me if this seems a little too intellectual or ivory-tower for you— but all of these speeches seemed to have a theme, some central message or takeaway. For a while, I considered different themes that I could use for this speech, running through the ones that seem so popular, so common at commencements. But each time I was close to settling on one, that damned collection, that veritable suite of critical thinking skills that Colby’s imbued us all with, got in the way. I thought about getting up here and encouraging you all to pursue your passions, but it occurred to me that some of you may have very foolish passions. For example, it doesn’t matter how much you love arson or insider trading; these pursuits won’t bring you lasting happiness. So the hell with it. This speech doesn’t have a central theme.
I realize this is slightly unorthodox, and some of you may now be wondering how best to react to such news. Let me reassure you that you are being a terrific audience thus far, and my only other advice would be that you should feel free to applaud, weep openly, clap your seatmate on the back and say, “By God, this Langley boy’s really got something here,” or even stand up and say, “He speaks for all of us!”
But really, it seems a little ridiculous for me to be up here, speaking to you all as if I could possibly possess any authority on this occasion, as if I could possibly give you any advice. I’ve got two problems with that idea. First, we’re in the same graduating class; I can’t see any further than you can. I’m not even a particularly good member of this graduating class. I was once fifty minutes late for a class. I took four semesters to complete my required three semesters of foreign language instruction. And second, I’ve worked reasonably hard—not very, mind you, but reasonably hard—to determine the few guiding principles that I believe in and by which I live my life. It seems a little silly to expect me to get up here and just give those away for free.
Reflecting on the meaning of graduation as it is happening is like driving the wrong way down an empty highway. You’re in your car, and you can see a sign coming up, but it’s facing the other way. All you see is its bare metal backside. You know it must signify something important because, well, why else would there be a sign there? Today, for an instant, the car is next to the sign, and you’re excited you’ve reached it, but all you can see out the passenger window is the thin side of it as you zoom inexorably forward. Today’s significance is written on the front of the sign. But you’ll never get a good glimpse at it. You won’t get it perfect, because you’ve got to keep the car going straight, you’ve got to focus on the future even as you try to figure out what the hell just happened. Today we’re graduating, but tomorrow we will be moving home, or moving to someplace new, perhaps starting jobs, perhaps starting job hunts. But we will be moving on.
So I can only really rely on my own experiences here and hope that you find some common ground. I’ll admit something personal to you all: I’ve grown quite fond of this place and of all of you. I used to be more cynical. Coming to Colby, I was the first to acknowledge the seedy underbelly or downside of things. And where no seedy underbelly or downside existed, I was happy to invent one. If a person seemed too nice, I was the first to point out that he may, in fact, cheat on his taxes or act rudely to waiters. But four years at Colby have worn me down.
Colby’s got its flaws, certainly. We’ve all woken up to an unsightly bit of dorm damage or heard our peers say something disappointing. We’ve all had our omelets taken in the omelet line. But you can’t spend four years eating, studying, running, responsibly consuming adult beverages, and generally living with a group of people without running into their good side. While I’ve had bad days here, the balance leans far more toward the days where I walk around, as if in a dream, pinching myself on the forearm, disbelieving the privilege I’ve had to be able to come here and live here and work here. And other days, I run around pinching other people on the forearm, because I want them to appreciate their privilege, too. They may act offended and scream, but I can tell they’re thanking me on the inside.
And how could we not feel privilege to come here? Certainly the grounds look great now, if we were outside, when they’ve been manicured and tended to and sculpted for the past few weeks, but I’m sure you can all pick any time of the year and you’ve probably had that one day that just stops you in your tracks. I always chose to walk out the main entrance of Miller. Whether you were looking down to the fall colors in the arboretum, or out across the snows of winter, or the first early spring mornings, you knew that this was somehow special, that this wasn’t something you could get really anywhere else. I’m going to miss that view.
Class of 2013, we have had some times together. We’ve had moments where all we wanted was for our classmates to stop talking, and we’ve had those conversations that we wanted to keep for just another few minutes, pressing late on into the night. We’ve spent gray, subzero days in front of our computers, researching on Travelocity just how much a flight to the Virgin Islands would cost, and we’ve spent hours outside in the snow, sledding, skiing, and skating. We’ve had papers that have sucked away our time, that we’ve hated, that we’ve wanted to light on fire, and we’ve had those ones, that even after hours and days spent, we still wish we had a little more time. We’ve “won” dining halls by staying later than anyone else, and we’ve inhaled Take Four meals in the ten minutes between classes. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve all had those professors that have worked us harder than we ever thought possible, who set high expectations, who led us through difficult papers, problem sets, projects, and tests, and showed us that, without exception, we could always reach higher than we thought.
We may not know what this is all about until we get a little further down the highway, but today, rest. There will be time to determine what the sign says about commencement. In the final analysis, it will probably say something a little different for each of us.
To all my friends, classmates, and professors, to the tireless staff who keep this place running, thank you. It has been an incredible privilege to live and work with you over the past four years.