President's Address

President Diana Chapman Walsh Charge to the Class of 1994

Well .... (as the ancients might have said) mirable dictu (the miracle be spoken)... we made it!

You made it through four years; I made it through one. I don't know which of us should be more amazed, relieved, and exhausted. We've been tested, challenged, stretched to the limit, you and I, taught and nurtured, celebrated, and run ragged. And now we face the future -- you and I ... in different ways.

There will always be a special place in my heart for you, the Class of 1994. You are my first seniors, my first graduating class, my first experience of signing over 500 diplomas. At my inauguration last month, we donned our academic regalia together and processed in the Big White Tent. I could feel your palpable support. It helped propel me joyfully through that most amazing day.

We share the color purple, too, passed down in four-year rotations through the 28 years that separate your class and mine, and it has been by watching you that I have observed the inventive ways in which generations of Wellesley women have kept our traditions alive, and yet have adapted them to the changing times.

Yours was my first raucous step singing with champagne corks popping, my first hoop rolling race with the new, updated legend. In my era the winner was to be the first in her class to marry. Now she is destined to become the first CEO. I won the hoop rolling race in 1966 and was married two weeks after graduation. It took me a lot longer to become a CEO, but here I am. You never know.

That's the going-away message I want to leave with you -- the reminder that you never do know, that life is long and endlessly fluid, and that the possibilities for your lives extend beyond what any of you, any of us, can possibly imagine, project, or plan as you sit here today.

It says on the program that this is supposed to be my "charge" to you. Get out there and set the world on fire. But you look pretty charged up already, and I know you're going to do great things, as generations of Wellesley women have always done. So instead of adding to your burdens today, I want to reach out in friendship and encourage you to enjoy your lives, even as you are engaging the world, stretch yourselves, and honing your skills.

Social psychologists have invented a construct called "supermarket trauma" -- a paralysis and/or a panic that can arise out of an overabundance of choice. Your generation -- the MTV generation -- has been heavily burdened by sensory overload, and my best advice to you, now, as you contemplate your future is to take a deep breath and relax.

I'll come back to that, but, first, I want to say a brief word of congratulations to your families, and a brief word of tribute to our faculty and staff.

To the families of the Class of 1994 -- parents, siblings, spouses, children in some cases, congratulations and heartfelt thanks for the loan of these extraordinary women. You have much reason for celebration and satisfaction in their accomplishments. I know many of you have sacrificed greatly to enable them to have these precious, formative, four years with us.

These women, in turn, have taken their obligations seriously. They have grown here by leaps and bounds, they have challenged us, themselves, and each other, they have made an indelible mark on this evolving community. We are forever grateful for the gifts they have shared with us. I hope you will savor this moment, enjoy these graduates, be unabashedly proud of them -- they deserve your flagrant pride, and so do you.

To the faculty and staff of Wellesley College (all who have worked to teach, serve and support these seniors in so many ways), hats off to you for a job well done. You have worked hard to foster and witness in each of these 616 women a process of amazing growth: in intellectual mastery, social competence, and spiritual depth. You've created the safe environments in which these graduating seniors have dared to take risks and to experiment. You have lent a sympathetic ear when they were struggling. You have held their feet to the fire when they were slacking off (did they ever do that?).

You have communicated through word and example the high intellectual and moral standards you expect of them, together with your profound belief in their capacities. The seeds of self-confidence and self-knowledge you've sown will continue to germinate throughout their lives.

To the seniors, finally, to the Class of 1994, 1 want to send you off with a poem that was brought to me as a gift by a dear friend, Parker Palmer, at the multi-faith celebration the night before my inauguration. Parker is the kind of lifelong friend I hope many of you have made here, and will never let go. He brings me gifts of deeply probing questions that always work on my unconscious for weeks after he's left. They generally leave me more puzzled and yet (paradoxically) clearer than I was before he came. Some of you were able to attend the multi-faith service, but many missed it. I want you to have Parker's poem working subliminally on you as you leave this place. It's by Mary Oliver and it's called "The Summer Day."

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean --
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

The question with which the poem ends is the one that's been plaguing many of you, worrying you, dogging your heels, driving you crazy through this entire year. I know that because I've seen the look in your eye.

"Ah, you're a senior," I would observe breezily to one or another of you. "So, what's next for you?" And you would get that frozen look in your eye, like a deer on the highway staring into an onrushing headlight. "Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life." How can anyone answer a question like that? The stakes are far too high. But then the poem starts to work Parker's magical paradox.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is," the poet admits. Here we are, immobilized in front of an onrushing light, and we don't even know how to pray. We're in deep trouble. Or are we? "I do know how to pay attention," she offers, having just shown us how through an exquisite description of the grasshopper in her palm. "I do know how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done."

You have not been idle here, but you have done what you should have done. You have learned to pay attention in all sorts of important ways -- and this you will do with your one wild and precious life ... pay attention.

We send you forth now, with the pride of our institution, and with enormous faith in your abilities, your instincts, and your promise. You represent our aspirations, our vocation, our vindication. We send you out with all of that, with our admiration and love, and with the profound hope that you won't forget to save some time, now and then, to be blessedly idle and idly blessed.

Good luck and God speed to you all. The world desperately needs what you have to give.

Related

1994 Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching

 

Read the full citations.