Maryam Khan ’10
May 23, 2010
Play video below or download MP3.
Men are naturally funnier than women. I couldn’t be happier therefore that President Marx’s speech follows mine – I don’t feel like I’m competing for the laughs this way. Men are naturally funnier than women. Many people congratulating me told me this, and some added, jokingly, that I might be responsible for a drop in the Alumni donation rate. I don’t blame them, I mean, this right here is pretty radical stuff. In any case, I’d decided to skip the humor and appeal to everyone’s emotional side instead, like any good woman should. I thought I’d quote Asian mystics with a faraway look in my eyes, make you all cry. To prepare, I read all 100 of the 100 greatest speeches of all time. On Wikipedia. Thanks Jimmy. I researched grim economic statistics so I could sound foreboding about our difficult future, graduates. As I added footnotes and attempted to use the words ‘hegemony’, and ‘bucolic’, I figured this was ridiculous. Needless to say, like most of my papers, my speech was very long, very dense, and very, very late. If it were a paper, the Office of Public Affairs would have given it a solid C minus.
I wrote my final speech last night after all you families had retired, and the classy children you left behind were dancing - no jumping around - in what were once tents that you paid for, their shirts open, scraping brownie crumbs off napkins. It’s not poignant and uplifting. I didn’t stumble upon my one true purpose in life, went to the bird sanctuary only when there was food involved and have had trouble finding a tennis partner here, let alone, true love. I’m also disqualified from offering advice because I’m not older than you, I’m not an overachiever and I’m still gainfully unemployed. Speaking of jobs, I promised my father I wouldn’t talk about my “situation” as he calls it, in my speech so I wont. Taped under each seat however, you will find a copy of my resume. Please take one with you on your way out.
Today I am speaking here as all 431 of us, even though Amherst has meant so many different things for different people. I cannot claim to know your story, and so I can only tell you the one I know best: my own. I find I’m lucky however because by virtue of being Amherst student here we’ve shared so much – much more than socials’ bathrooms although this is hard to fathom. There is a plot that runs through all our stories, no matter what our GPA, major, race, team or where we chose to sit in Valentine.
I grew up in Lahore Pakistan, which is a different place from Amherst MA in well, a few ways. I was sure I’d make a smooth transition however-- I’d watched Nickelodeon growing up and listened to Guster and Dave Matthews Band. I was never told anything that suggested otherwise either. When my father dropped me off for the first time, he left me with only two pieces of advice. He said: “Maryam, don’t talk to senior boys after dark.” Then he handed me a big purple book “It’s a planner, an agenda book to write your appointments in, an American thing,” he explained, “Use it. It’ll make you look normal in class.”
Both would actually have saved me some trouble, but I suspect what my father did not realize was just how much everybody here loved planners. Sitting in class, in the library, in Val, people would furiously scribble lists with bullet points and little checks: weekly lists, bi-weekly lists, yearly lists. My best friend Claire was the worst: she color-coded her massive planner entries based on degrees of priority. Rarely having a pen on me in class, let alone a set of markers, I struggled to keep up.
At first, I felt the odds were not entirely in my favor. My first year seminar for starters was about tracing “our collective American heritage.” Not too apt. Also since I was the good Pakistani girl, I was automatically relegated to the all girls floor in Appleton, known as the nunnery, the mere mention of which was a surefire way to lose friends. “HEYYY WHERE DO YOU LIVE?” “Appleton first floor.” “Oh, whoa, sorry for disrespectfully dancing in your general direction.”
Needless to say, I struggled a bit those few couple of months. All those College Prowler articles about college had said one thing: “Never mention high school achievements.” It was hard seeing as I obviously wasn’t achieving much my freshman year. Everyone else on the other hand seemed as though they were doing okay – people had plans, people had friends, real friends who they had pictures on facebook with, and everything! Out of my initial 80 Amherst friends, I spoke to 6 in real life, intensely disliked two and only one ever poked me back.
With time however, I got better. I adjusted to this system or at least what I understood it to be. I learnt to make sure everyone would think I was just as fantastic as they were. “There’s SO MUCH grade inflation at Amherst,” someone would say, and I would nod. SERIOUSLY man, can’t keep track of all those A’s. Then finally, second semester freshman year, while paying attention in Bio 19, I decided to make the first entry in my planner.
1) Wake up
2) Attend Bio 19
3) Eat dinner
Scratching two of the three things right there gave me a great sense of achievement. I could get used to this, I thought, this is fun. When Professors handed out paper topics, I would scrawl things in my planner, when someone made a dinner plan I would pull out my planner and look conflicted. But after that first ambitious entry, my plans and lists ended up failing, because I always forgot to pencil real life in.
‘Amherst is nothing like the real world’ we’ve heard that so many times. But I have found in my four years that this is far from the truth. I like to think that my lessons at Amherst, some of the hardest and greatest, are the lessons of this so-called real world.
Here’s a cliché if you’ve ever heard one – although you probably have since its graduation and everything about graduation is a cliché: I found myself at Amherst. It was a lesson slow in coming, and not always the easiest one because oftentimes, I had to fall, really hit rock bottom before I discovered something about myself I didn’t know before. I found for one, that I was stronger than I gave myself credit for, and that loneliness is a spirited teacher. I discovered I was a new breed of vegetarian – Valgetarian – caught in a tossup between the raspberry tofu and the grill-mark, not grilled, chicken. I struggled with these abstract things they call values; what were mine? Not my parents or my friends– but mine? Was I interested in the Politics of Silence because of the subject matter, or because it was the only Fayerweather class that fit my schedule? Do I really hate Williams or is it just a hatred constructed in the throes of ignorance? Yeah, I do really hate Williams.
At Amherst, like in the real world, I learnt that nothing is a given, and that truth has to be fought for. Some of my smartest friends – the ones in the library not playing text twist on A level like me or Rhea are tennis number 1’s, ice hockey winners, basketball aces, soccer champs, football ring-bearers, lacrosse bros, Many of them have felt the pressure to prove their place at Amherst the minute they stepped into a classroom.
Amherst is not immediately a community for everybody – and sometimes it ceases to be for some of us. No matter how hard we may try to keep the outside world out, issues of race, identity, sexual orientation have reared their ugly head, threatening the security we aspire to live in. All of us have, in some way or another, had to fight for our place, our opinions here. I continue to hold for instance that an ‘elevator,’ is a lift, and it has taken me four years to agree her name is not really pronounced Oprah Winfrey.
In life, like at Amherst, we quickly learn that the best things are the small ones. We live from Pierogie day to pierogie day, and for the hope that once, just once, we will get that snow day. We live for spontaneous four person dance parties in Stone basement and sunbathe on hilltops every time its not subzero in April. We learn that saving the world is no fun, unless there’s free party pizza involved.
Not all lessons have happy endings: there will be little red schoolhouses in beer-strewn real world neighborhoods too where little children will frolic merely hours after older kids have misused the slides. My father, who will in an hour now, hold my diploma for the first time, expecting to read Maryam S. Khan graduate in Economics only to see L-J-S-T printed there instead, won’t be very happy. I request that all LJST/Political Science majors with paying jobs raise their hands so he knows there is hope for me.
At Amherst, like in the real world, we learn that life is difficult and hard work, and that sometimes we must depend only on ourselves to pull through.
Yet here, we learn too that all of us need a little help to get by. There are men and women here who remain un-thanked, working tirelessly in various offices, the career center, CCE, dining halls and dorms who care enough about us – even though they don’t have to - to make sure we are not completely alone. I think of Dean Rockwell who emptied an entire box of tissues for me as I sat bawling in his office, or Dean Lieber who listened to my excessive requests with a straight face no matter how ludicrous they got over time.
No matter how hard we try, we cannot thank our Professors enough for what they have done for us. From honoring our pompous “Well, I think…”’s, for hearing these opinions even when it was evident we had done little of the reading, to often being our friends. I think of Professor Basu who is an academic I admire but also a woman I aspire to be. I think of Professor Sitze and Professor Tiersky, who let me believe, somewhat delusionally, that I was a scholar, not a student. I have rarely laughed as hard as I did in my special topics with Professor Redding, where I tried to pass off Youtube links as papers. I also think of Professor Bumiller, who never made me feel unwelcome in her advanced Political Science seminar that I’d somehow wandered into. I evidently had no right to be there, seeing as I spelt Foucault, F-U-K-O.
There’s 5000 people in the crowd this morning but to be honest, there’s only three faces that are clear to me from where I’m standing. My family is here and they’ve traveled thousands of miles to see me graduate, for what they tell me is my special day. I wish I could tell them how having them here is what is special about this day. I know I speak about my parents a lot but it’s impossible for me to disengage who I’ve been for the past four years, without mentioning the two people who’ve been a presence in all 22. They made so many sacrifices for me to have had this wonderful opportunity and accepted my crazy liberal arts education because it made me happy, even though they still don’t understand it.
This is not just for our ‘real’ parents, whatever this means. For all those here who‘ve loved us, supported us, fixed our overdraft fees, paid our parking tickets who’ve let us go in the world to make our mistakes and major in subjects we shouldn’t have, don’t think we don’t need you now that we have graduated.
And then there are our friends. Speaking of lists never completed, my friends and I – like many of you – wrote the proverbial bucket list, an elaborate five-page jumble of things to do before we graduated. Rope swing, Motown serenades with the bucket man, all-day Val sit—more than half those things were never completed. Even though in a few hours we will be using our canes as door stoppers because our ID cards don’t work anymore, I look forward to completing one more thing, a new one, number 97: cane sword fight.
Class of 2010, we’ve come a long way and now its time to go. At rehearsal, we were lovingly told we were graduating so there could be space for the class of 2014. In some ways, we’re just numbers: 431 spots in dorms, classes, stairwells, room draw. Its unlikely anyone from the class of 2014, or 2016 will know we came and went. But I like to think this school is better because we were here, even if it’s to make myself feel better because I resent those irrelevant pre-teens. Even if you don’t buy that this school seems bigger somehow, that people are more willing to reach out, that it’s more diverse – have you seen the number of hipsters in 2013?- just remember that 10 is a good number, a perfect one actually. I would say it sounds about right for us.
So, the next time someone tells you this place is nothing like the real world, tell them they’re wrong. Real life began that rainy day in August when we picked up our lanyards and those of us in Waldorf and Plaza realized that Amherst had a sense of humor. Think back at the lessons you learned here: those lessons in loneliness, in heartache, in love, lessons in your abilities and your limitations. These lessons don’t get MAStoraged away and they can’t be sold to Amherst Stuffz or underclassmen. They are yours to keep.
Pencil this into your planner today: I made it, 23 May 2010. Never scratch it out.