Student Speech

Student Commencement Speech by Emily Courtois Mason '92

"Understanding Begins with C"

Today I hope to add a few C's to everyone's transcript. Don't panic -- they won't lower your summa cum laude to magna cum laude, nor disqualify you from Phi Beta Kappa. Instead, they will transform your images of the women around you. These three C's are an unlikely combination. The first C is for circle, the second for comedy, the third for color.

I would like you to imagine a circle. Make it large enough to be comfortable; we will be pushing it around a bit. Draw a slice in the circle and put yourself inside. Make another section for the woman on your right, and another for the woman on your left. Make room for everyone in the row in front of you squeeze in the row behind you -- with a space for each woman. Suspend the rules of mathematics that insist that there are only 360 degrees in a circle. Create a degree for each of the 534 women marching in the class of 1992. Now each of us has a degree in our circle, a degree of freedom.

Our circle began four years ago, as we all converged to this point, this campus. Some of us raced in at breakneck speeds, others begged to get back in the family station wagon and return home, either way each one of us was an equal part of this fledgling circle. Over the past four years others have joined this circle, some as transfer students and some as Davis Scholars. Our Wellesley experience has stood at the focus of our circle, serving as the nucleus. Wellesley has nourished and fine-tuned our life long skills that are based on two premises. The first concerns each of us responding to our own demands for personal freedom: setting our goals; speaking our minds; making our own choices; and standing firmly behind what we believe- even if each individual's message is different. The second is honoring the demands for personal freedom of the women around us. We have learned to grant one another the freedom to have a dissenting opinion, argue a controversial point, practice an obscure religion. We have embraced one another's differences and celebrated them. We have given each other enough respect so that we are not afraid to be the lone voice shouting in the darkness.

Wellesley will hand each of us a degree today, our own degree of freedom that we have been cultivating within our circle, a Bachelor of Arts. Whether the major is Astronomy or Art History, English or Economics, Greek or Geology, the diplomas are all the same- signed by Nan, with each of our names on the black line. Each degree represents widely varying knowledge. None of them are equal. None of them should be. Each has been hand crafted by an amazing individual, who challenged herself, pursued new passions, came to know intimately the subjects at hand. This is the degree of freedom each one of us has given ourselves.

As we sit together this morning, we all have a different view of what lies outside our circle. The physical landscape is the same, but the impression it leaves on each of us is determined by the individual. We each need a degree of freedom to describe what we see in our own words and in our own languages. Now, as we begin our journey outward, leaving this place, we will expand our circle. Some will leave this afternoon, others at the end of the summer, each in her own way, at her own pace. We need to grant one another an individual degree of freedom to move and bend and change throughout our lives in which ever direction we need to go- left, right, up, down, or upside-down. Our circle will expand in bumps and jerks. It will not always grow smoothly, but it should always remain connected -- no matter if your classmate is getting married in June, or landing on the moon -- support one another --keep the circle strong. This is my first charge to the class of 1992 -- remain connected. Honor one another's degrees of freedom. Sustain the circle.

The second C is for comedy. At Wellesley we strive to succeed at all costs. We set our sights on 100% perfection and nothing less. Yet with this intensity, this incredible drive, some things have gotten lost along the way. Somewhere during these past four years we have misplaced our quick and carefree laughter, our appreciation for the humor in the mundane, and our acknowledgment that comedy needs to be an integral part of who we are.

Comedy does not simply mean crude jokes, slap stick humor, or terrible puns. Comedy can be witty -- no less intelligent than the thoughtful conversations in which we often immerse ourselves. Comedy can help us see the absurdities in life. It lets us take ourselves less seriously. It makes us feel better, both physically and emotionally. And it aids us in tense situations to reduce conflict (1). Comedy is a sign of great creativity- a trait I believe we all already possess.

Comedy is no laughing matter. I realize sounds like a contradiction, but truly it is not. A perfect example of this is MIT where humor is taken very seriously. They even have a chair of humor -- associate provost Samuel J. Keyser (2). MIT students have a long tradition of practical jokes that ultimately were modeled and displayed in the campus museum -- and a historical chronicle has been written to document these adventurous achievements.

Why comedy at Wellesley has fallen by the wayside or simply been devalued, I do not know. My only quotation of this speech today is taken from Roger Rabbit, the title character in the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". For a cartoon mammal, he has incredible insight on human nature. He comments that "...a laugh can be a very powerful thing, why sometimes in life, it is the only weapon we have. Why laughter is the most imp.." (3) and here he is interrupted. Thus, my second charge to the class of 1992 is to urge each of us to complete this sentence for ourselves- Laughter is the most important... And in so doing return comedy to a prominent place in our lives.

Now for the-last C. I would like you to close your eyes and imagine the color blue- everywhere in your mind -- just blue. Fix it there- we will return to it in a moment or two. Open your eyes. Color is C number three. We have spent the last few weeks in intense dialog with one another, exchanging ideas about what color we are, and how that has shaped our lives. In thinking about our conversations, I realized that white, black, brown, red, or yellow are not very descriptive terms for the beauty that exists in skin tones. People are not black or white. If we were, our faces would be made up of black dots and blank spaces just like those on The Wall Street Journal. And I can assure you -- looking across the class of 1992 -- you look nothing like 27 rows of newspaper. We are much more vibrant than that. We all have experiences that remain inside of us that create an inner glow that cannot be categorized by the color of our skin.

Another problem with color is that it has one name -- yet there are endless shades associated with each one. I'd like to give you an example. Last spring, during finals, three women sat on the roof of the observatory at dawn- trying to remain awake after eating Oreos all night while cramming for a physics final. As we sat there, our stomach aching, we marveled in the peaceful dawn at the glorious colors of sunrise. That is, we did until the brawl broke out -- for none of us could agree on the yellowish-reddish-orangish-pinkish tones reflected in the wispy clouds. The colors were not enough- we had to move into shades and hues. One argued peach, another salmon and the third nectarine. All of us were sure we were right, none of us were willing to change [but trust me, it was nectarine]. Now if we cannot agree on the color of sunrise -- how can we ever describe the people of the earth under one or two or five umbrella terms?

Ok- so maybe sunrise is a bit tricky you say -- maybe it truly is a mixture of many colors -- so let's return to something simple. Blue.

Remember that blue you imprinted in your memory earlier? Bring it back to mind now. What color blue did you think of? Was it Turquoise blue? Sapphire blue? The bright blue of Wellesley publications? Ocean storm blue? Baby blue? Navy blue? Crayola's own violet-blue or blue-violet? Each of us is individual enough to imagine our own blue, which is a composite of our life experiences. Chances are- I am different enough from all of you to come up with my own blue. My blue is the blue that you see at the far edge of sunset. Just less than an hour after the sun disappears, the fiery orangish-reddish-purplish colors remain in the west -- a final testimony to the day. But if you follow the sky upward, overhead, and then look east- the blue is breathtaking. It is a deep, magnificent, royal blue, a velvety blue in which twinkling stars are just beginning to shine through. It is not the dark black blue of midnight, but the deep indigo that signifies the beginning of night. This is the blue that I see in my mind. The blue that I believe in.

That is my inner hue- my signature color. It describes the passion I have for my chosen field of study, Astronomy. To know that about me tells you much more than the color of my skin. So do not judge a woman by her skin color. Do not assume her color is the only determining factor of her soul. Probe deeper, investigate further- discover what events have shaded her life, find out if her hue is lime green, burnt orange or shocking pink. As a class, we may be referred to as simply red, but my third charge to the class of 1992 is: dare to ask "what is your hue?"

I am done adding C's to your transcript. Granted they will not be placed on your official Wellesley College record, but I hope they will become a permanent part of who you are. These C's were not meant to challenge you to become a CEO, or inspire you to run in the next presidential election. These C's are meant to be ground rules for the rest of our lives. They are simple practices that we can all employ to help us understand our neighbors, our co-workers, our families and even our adversaries. If everyone did, perhaps two adjacent states would communicate more, which could lead to bordering countries that could understand one another a little better. So that ultimately, we could connect with each other on a global scale.

For what more is this earth than a giant circle made of many beautiful smiling hues?

Related

1992 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

Read the full citations.

 

1992 Speeches

Hillary Rodham Clinton '69 delivered the commencement address.
 

Nan Keohane in academic regalia

President Nan Keohane '61 offered a charge to the senior class.

 

Emily Courtois Mason '92 delivered the senior speech.