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May 25, 2008
Let me begin by telling you how incredibly humbled I am to be given the opportunity to speak in front of so many people I admire today. Thank you to the staff and faculty for making this day possible.
Two millennia ago, in the ancient land of Rome, the mighty Cronos cast his plebiscite forth upon the… um… I’m sorry, I think I may have switched speeches with President Marx. That’s embarrassing… ah, here we go; here’s mine.
Family, friends, and fellow graduates,
On August 29, 2004, we showed up at Converse Hall between 9 a.m. and noon to pick up our room keys and orientation packets. That was a long time ago, but I remember the day well. We all picked out our beds, said goodbye to our parents, and then Googled An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks so that we wouldn’t look like complete slackers when he came to talk to us about our summer reading. We didn’t know anything about this place. The last four years have been groundbreaking; they’ve been incredibly fun and incredibly challenging, and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into on that day in August 2004. And here we are again, on day one of something we can’t possibly understand or appreciate yet: this much-hyped real world.
I assume that the real world is not going to be like Amherst, although I have to say that if it was, I would be much less scared of it. Think what the world would be like if Amherst was the real world—everything would be different. For one thing, there’d be universal health care… on weekdays… from 11 to 11:45 a.m.… as long as you’ve made an appointment, and all you need is codeine. Also, there would be no more wars, because of the collaborative art project. We’d just put a massive photo of Ahmadinejad next to a massive photo of George Bush, color them in with crayons, maybe separate them with one of the reference librarians or a green dean, and we’d be all set.
Community. The whole culture would be different if the world were more Amherstian! Great works of literature would include The Old Man and the B+, Of Squirrels and Men, Fahrenheit 12, and, of course, Love in the Time of Popped Cholera. There’d be a chicken in every pot, and fifteen chickens in your garage. So much chicken.
But in reality, the world out there is a very different place from the world we are leaving today. Out there, soy is considered a healthy and versatile food product. Around here, soy is a winter menace. And as we prepare to become alumni, to trade in our symposia, our syllabi, our colloquia, and our thesisisis for the privileges and responsibilities that come next, we take a moment to think back on the good times we’ve shared—starting at the very beginning.
On my first day of college, I learned the Amherst motto: Terras Irradient! Let them give light to the world! I thought this was an ironic motto, because I lived in Pratt, a dorm that sadly had no lights at all. I also learned that day that Amherst was known as ‘the fairest college,’ and as an Irish Jew from Maine, that one actually cut right to the core of me. My first real conversation with a stranger was that afternoon in the common room with my next-door neighbor Chris, whom I found out was a standout student, singer, actor, football player and dancer who spoke fluent Japanese, just like me. I didn’t want to seem lame, so I mentioned to him that I had played a little high school football myself back in the day, but it was a few minutes after he left the room so I don’t think he heard me. I developed an inferiority complex that lasted until I figured out that there was only one Chris Gillyard at the school and everyone else had more-or-less normal human abilities.
So I got into the swing of things, and really started to enjoy myself—so much so that, early on in the spring, I managed to sleep through my Russian Literature course a large number of consecutive times. I’m not going to say how many classes I missed, but it’s the sort of number where if you flipped a coin and it came up tails this many times in a row, you would call CNN. My absences resulted in an e-mail from Professor Rabinowitz asking me to drop by his office for a chat. I was absolutely terrified and assumed he was going to tell me that I was on an inalterable path towards failure in the course. I walked into his office after having slept through the class again that day, sat down and prepared to take my hits. But instead of lashing out at me, Professor Rabinowitz just started asking about my family: where I came from, what my parents did, what subjects I was interested in, why did I choose Amherst. I kept waiting for him to start yelling at me, but it never happened, so I started to relax, and for about 45 minutes we just talked about our lives. And eventually he said, ‘Okay, thanks for coming in,’ and I got up. And then just as I got out the door, he said ‘Daniel, there’s one more thing.’ And I said, ‘Yes?’ And he said, ‘If you miss one more of my classes, I’m going to kill you.’ And so I spent the rest of the semester sharing my pillow with my alarm clock, and I didn’t miss class again, and Rabinowitz gave me an A+. And the point of that story for the underclassmen here is: you should take a class with Professor Rabinowitz if you haven’t yet, because he’s awesome.
So that was the beginning. At the time, I had no idea that there was anything special about this place. I was having a blast and learning a lot, but I didn’t feel about it then the way I feel about it now.
David Foster Wallace used to tell a story that went something like this: There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to come across an older fish who’s swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a little while, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other one and says, ‘What the hell is water?’
We have spent the last four years engulfed in something amazing—something we can only dimly perceive because we spend all day breathing it in and out. We have been surrounded by greatness, by history, by the dedication of professors, by each other’s immense talents, by each other’s immense love. Those of us who lived in the socials also have been surrounded by trains—trains so loud that I used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking that the Rapture had come. Every day we spent here, we were swimming in wonderful opportunities with smart, inspiring people, and, like the young fish, it took us a while to realize what had been all around us the entire time.
Today, we are being removed from our body of water; we are being cast out of our lake, displaced from our ocean… We are being pond-annexed. We are the old fish in this school and in this extended metaphor, and pretty soon our gills will be no good to us. Except, of course, for capital-G Gillz, who I’m counting on to let me be part of his entourage.
To my classmates, and especially to the younger people here, if I could wish for all of us one thing, it would be perspective. Amherst has taught us well, it has broadened and deepened us as people, and it has no doubt made us smarter than we once were. But if you look back on your time here as merely an education, I think you’re missing something crucial. We didn’t just go here, we didn’t just study here—we lived here, we loved here, this has been our home. Amherst is in the academics, the athletics and the traditions, but more than that, to me, it’s in the small moments, the day-to-day pleasure of being here, the people I’ve been allowed to meet and spend my time with. Can you believe they let us hang out together for four years? Please never forget to recognize and appreciate everything that Amherst has surrounded you with; whether you know it or not, it’s what’s been keeping you afloat this whole time.
And so, it is perspective that allows the fish to look around and say, ‘This is water.’ It is perspective that allows us to look at the scrod in Valentine and say, ‘This is fish.’ But it is also perspective that allows me to look out on this sea of faces, and see the faces of my brothers and sisters, even though we were strangers not so long ago. It is perspective that allows us to endure the tragic loss of two of our classmates, to remember them by their lives and the goodness that will always remain from having known them. And it is perspective that allows us to look upon this day not as an ending, but as a beginning. That’s why these are ‘Commencement exercises’ rather than ‘Termination ceremonies’—we have to commence, now. At this very moment, Stan Adams is setting fire to everything you left in your room—it’s time to go. It’s day one again, and we all have to go pick out new beds, except this time, instead of frantically trying to impress Oliver Sacks, we’re frantically trying to impress Goldman Sachs, or our grad school professors, or a classroom of fifth-graders, or the stuffed animals in our parents’ basement.
So we’re off to new water. It’s going to be different water, or at the very least it will smell less like soy sauce and lite beer. I hope that when you’re out there, you think back on these years often; while your perspective will change, the memories will be blessedly fixed in time. Class of 2008, I love you all. Thanks very much.