President Diana Chapman Walsh's Charge to the Senior Class
“You shall above all things be glad and young.
For if you’re young, whatever life you wear
it will become you; and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.”
So begins a poem by e.e. cummings, a brief meditation on life and love, knowledge and mystery. It ends in this couplet:
“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”
Every spring, when the birds outside my window commence their singing lessons earlier and earlier -- and louder and louder, so it seems -- I finally abandon all hope of more sleep, and I begin to ruminate on what to say to the graduating senior class in the last remaining moments I will have with them – have with you.
It’s then that I begin to imagine this charged and emotional moment, your final official encounter, as students, with this place where the birds sing so loudly and the stars dance so brightly (not to mention the antics of the squirrels, jumping out of the trash cans, the swans, the hawks and the geese). And I begin to think of all the ways in which each one of you has infused this college with your own special spirit and inscribed on it your own particular story.
In those early morning hours, I wonder what it is that I want to say to you, or what it is that you want (or need) to hear from me, or, in the end, what it is that wants and needs to be said, quite apart from our desires or will – yours or mine. I have felt this year the pull of your desire, of me, to be cheerful and optimistic; against the push of mine, of you, to be realistic and resilient.
As I’ve lived into that question during the month or two leading up to graduation, I find myself holding in my mind and heart this senior class – this Class of 2005 -- this unique amalgam of 553 ambitious and complicated Wellesley women, this four-year loom of time on which we’ve woven our fabric of shared experience together.
You’ve been a remarkable class by all accounts. So I approach this moment with ambivalence: I hate to see you go truly as I exult with you in your accomplishments and anticipate with you the mysteries of that living life that will “become you” as you become you in the living out of your days through the decades ahead. And I ardently hope that each of you will find frequent occasion for gladness in the rhythms and the rewards of your unfolding lives.
The particular arc you have traveled here is yours alone. You arrived full of promise (as entering classes do). But before you had time to put down roots, establish reliable friendships, or really even learn your way around the campus, you were dealt the crushing blow of the events of September 11, world-historic events that swept us all up in a swirl of fear and grief and anger and desolation. And we sat together on this very green on the evening of that day. We’ll never forget that moment.
It was out of that crucible that your college career was forged, a career marked by more than its share of turmoil and change – here on campus and around the world. The lessons you’ve learned are the essence of a liberal education, an education that makes ethical demands that I hope you will never, ever forget.
Those ethical demands define a human interaction – a type of deliberative discourse – in which each of us enters with a genuine desire to learn, assumes full responsibility for the truth claims that we make, and engages in systematic self-critique, “arguing,” in the words of political scientist Thomas Pangle,
“not for the sake of victory or display but with a thirst to know that scorns vanity, pretension, and popularity [because of our] … acutely-felt need to define and defend what we believe to be admirable.”
I’ve watched you work together, seniors, to bridge your differences and find common ground, surely the most important and challenging task your generation will face. You have had your painful conflicts, of course, and you will have them again, but you also had stunning successes when you made deep connections and managed, against powerful odds, to resolve the polarization that was swirling everywhere around you.
You did this by subordinating your passionate commitments to the larger goal of enhancing civil discourse. You listened to one another with sincerity and humility – you opened yourselves to the possibility that you could be wrong. You assumed responsibility for the community that was providing you freedom by sacrificing your individual freedom in pursuit of the common good.“Liberty and duty, freedom and obligation. That’s the deal,” John Gardner wrote. “You are free within a framework of obligations.” That is the deal and it is the lesson of a liberal education – and it is never easy, as you’ve learned. But it is “the music of civilization,” as Bartlett Giamatti wrote, “the sound of human beings shaping and sharing, mooring ideas to reality, making the world, for all its pain, work.”
Nothing could be more important at this time in history – when so many of our fellow citizens are closing ranks to stifle dissent and ward off imagined enemies within and without – nothing could be more healing than this practice of honest critical reflection that we’ve watched you develop and perfect as you’ve been here.
You will go down in history as the senior class that produced the revised honor code and brought it to a vote. You advanced the concept of honor; you argued it; you tested it out; and, in the end, you recognized that it would be hollow if you weren’t willing to make a public commitment to live by it. And you did.
As you go forward from here, you will make choices like that every day. And among them will be how you choose to hear messages about the future, sometimes troubling messages that are hard to hear. This one, for example, from A Short History of Progress by historian Richard Wright, on the subject of the environment:
“ Experts in a range of fields have begun to see the same closing door of opportunity, begun to warn that these years may be the last when civilization still has the wealth and political cohesion to steer itself towards caution, conservation, and social justice. … Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. … Now is our last chance to get the future right.”
Those are sobering words. You will decide where you will stand, with whom you will join, to make the world safer in the future.
I’ve been asking seniors for months now how you’re seeing the future. The answer generally comes back to me in some variant of this: We don’t want to be pessimistic and depressed. Please don’t inflict your generation’s doom and gloom on ours. We’re seeing the world anew, we’re seeing it fresh, through the lens of possibility. We see so many places where we can be of help, places where our efforts – however modest they may seem – will still matter a lot, where they will make a real difference in the quality of life for someone else.
You’ve made those commitments, and you’ve discovered at Wellesley the impact you can have. You’ve changed this college for the better, even as it has changed you. You’re ready to embrace whatever lies ahead, and to mine your truth from whatever lies within. You will find work that challenges and engages you, of that I’m completely certain, work in the service of causes larger than yourselves, work worthy of your best efforts, deserving of your love, work that will “become you” and align you with what is alive. Hold onto that dream, seniors. It’s your generation now that has your turn to hold the world in trust.
And, so, I want to return to the polarities in our poem, because I suspect – no, I know – that you will find a way to resolve them too. Gladness succumbs to sadness in natural cycles of darkness and light. You’ve learned about those. Through the global crises that you’ve endured in your time here, through our own local tempests, and the private burdens many of you have so bravely carried, I’ve watched you enter the darkness, face your demons and your fears, with real courage, and grow to trust that, in due course, you’ll know how to find your own sources of light. I’ve watched you do it.
Youth yields, finally, to the passage of time. It will be 2055 when many of you, I hope, will return to Wellesley for the 50th reunion that the class of 1955 will celebrate next week, amazed at how quickly the time has elapsed, still young in all but years.
As for the closing couplet, here’s my dream of what may lie ahead, as you grow toward the light. When you have learned from one bird how to sing, you’ll teach ten thousand stars the songs you’ve sung.
Go in peace, my sister seniors, the great Class of 2005. Stay together. Take good care of yourselves, and of each other. May your lives be long and healthy. May they be filled with learning and love. Congratulations.