Mahurin Delivers “Senior Voices” Baccalaureate Address

Sarah Mahurin, visiting assistant professor of English, visiting assistant professor of African American studies, delivered the following baccalaureate address during the “Senior Voices” event on May 24:

Thank you all for inviting me to speak today.  I’m honored to spend a little more time with the class of 2014.

When I was asked to do this, I tried to find some literature about graduating college – as a source of inspiration, maybe a point of departure – and as it turns out, there’s not a lot out there.  Plenty about college – plenty about starting college, or about being in college – not so much about finishing it. I concluded, after I’d already agreed to this gig, that this might be because writing meaningfully about college graduation is almost impossible.

Part of the problem is a problem of originality. You’ve all already heard the same things: “This is not an ending, it’s a beginning… that’s why we call it commencement.” You’re opening multiple gift copies of Oh The Places You’ll Go – or maybe Lean In! For Graduates; and you’re getting fragments of that sunscreen speech or that kindness speech lifted from their sources and tossed at you in random bits, or “shared” with you on facebook.  You’re hearing You Did It!  You’re hearing We’re Proud of You.  You’re hearing And Now You Are Independent.

The thing is, all of that’s true – You did do it!  And it is a beginning in addition to an ending; and you will go places; and I hope you do lean in, in whatever way is most meaningful to you; and you should wear sunscreen; and we are very, very proud of you. The things people say in and around graduation ceremonies get said over and over because there is a real truth to them. But also, none of it feels entirely adequate to me right now. Especially the one about independence.

Now, don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to be said for independence. And you’re all about to get a heaping dose of it. I don’t want to sound the same alarm of terror that’s already been going off in a lot of your heads, but the luxury of having hundreds of other folks who are in the same metaphorical boat as you – right across the hall, just down the road, sitting across the seminar table, lounging a few feet away on Foss – that’s an absolute gift, and a luxury. It’s one Wesleyan has provided for the past four years, and one you all know is about to be over. So telling you grandly that Now You Are Independent – might be an attempt to make a silk purse out of what’s pretty much a sow’s ear.

And anyhow, I think independence has its limits.  The Now You Are Independent train is coming for you all whether you want it or not.  So instead, I want to talk to you today about cultivating dependence, which sounds much less glamorous, and much less fit for shoving you off into the post-Wesleyan world, but is also, I think, just about the best advice I can give you.

I’m not talking about groupthink.  I’m not talking about cultural or ideological or geographical dependence, where everyone ends up in the same neighborhoods and votes for the same folks and posts and re-posts the same links on facebook.

Seriously, how many times have we all seen the video of Jay and Solange in the elevator?  Why do we keep taking Buzzfeed quizzes telling us where we’d have finished in the Hunger Games, or what breed of dog we are?  (…I’m a pit bull.)  And why do we believe anyone else is interested?  I’m not the first person to observe the ways in which social media’s promise of connection often falls short.

Because information isn’t connection.  Information isn’t community. Here’s how I know: none of you cares much that I’m a pit bull. If you’re interested at all, it’s largely because you’re wondering what that quiz would tell you about your dog self. So even when we push “share,” or get “shared” with – I’d say that often, there’s still a kind of individualism, and independence, at the heart of it.

(As a side note, one way to cultivate independence that seems actually meaningful to me is this: to read three things every day – on or offline – that were not recommended to you on facebook, and then to resist any urge to tell all your internet friends you’ve read them; to reclaim, three times a day, the privacy and individualism of readership. That is independence I can get behind.)

It’s true that one of the best things about Wesleyan and its culture is how intensively you all protect and celebrate your sense of individualism, and how that sense exists within and alongside the backdrop of community. It can look like Wesrave – which I’ve heard is pretty amazing – where folks are dancing to the same music even as they’re also separated from each other by their own personal headphone sets. Or it can look like students sharing long tables in Olin, breathing in and on each other, while they’re writing different papers about different subjects for different professors.

It can sound like, “Hey, you do you, I do me.”

You do you, I do me.  It’s an old story, and permutations of it getting told at graduation ceremonies all over the country.  Do you.  Make your way.  Blaze your trail.  Follow your dream.  Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.

It sounds really good!; it’s extraordinarily tempting; it’s intensely American.  Our literature loves to tell this story: think of Ahab.  Think of Gatsby.  Think of Thomas Sutpen.  But here’s the thing about those guys.  Spoiler alert: they all die.  And spoiler alert number two: There’s an argument to be made, about all of these characters, that part of what kills them is their intense and single-minded individualism, even as that impulse is brought to bear within seemingly communal spaces.

A lot of you know already that I teach literature; and if you didn’t, the Ahab/Gatsby/Sutpen thing would have given it away.  Because I’m a literature professor, I do tend to approach the world through narrative, and to wonder how stories, and thinking about stories, can inform and enrich our immediate experiences.

But I also told you that there’s not a lot of literature about graduations.  So what I’d like to do now is tell you a story about my graduation.  Not my college graduation – my kindergarten graduation.

Part of my kindergarten graduation program involved all of us putting on little skits, little reenactments from fairy tales and other stories we’d read in class.  I was slated to perform a major role in a major production: The Three Little Pigs.  I was the third pig – you know, the wisest, best pig, the one who builds her house out of unassailable bricks and whose forward-thinking saves the day for her two pig friends.  The “houses” for all three of us were made of single sheets of plywood whose fronts had been painted to look like straw, sticks, and bricks; and the plywood was propped up by wooden frames that could be kicked over by the kid who played the wolf, when he huffed and he puffed and he blew the first two down.

It was a little bit of a punch line just now when I described this thing as a “major production”; but it also feels – true.  It was the biggest thing I’d ever done, and I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified for weeks beforehand. (This combination may sound familiar.) I was thrilled and terrified, and as a result I practiced being the third pig at home all the time.

On the day of the graduation, during my big moment, when the straw- and stick- layers were to run to me for refuge and I was to welcome them grandly onto the other side of my plywood and give my big soliloquy, something went wrong. My house fell over. Of course, this was not in the script. Everyone froze. None of us knew what to do. All three pigs, and the wolf, who suddenly looked not very big or bad – we all just stood there. We stood there and stared at the fallen house and said nothing, for what seemed like an hour but was probably only ten seconds.

And then my father, silently and very efficiently, rushed up out of the audience and onto the stage; he propped the house back up, and just as quickly and undramatically returned to his seat. He propped the house back up; I gave my big speech; the show went on. I remember it to this day as the best graduation I ever had.

Needing help is the worst. But getting help can be the best.  And getting the help you need without even asking is really the best. But for that to happen, you must forgo the bootstraps-pullup model. You must admit, and actively cultivate, a dependence that initially might make you cringe. Cultivating dependence is inconvenient, and difficult. It means cultivating a kind of uncoolness, and a sense of vulnerability – which sometimes, I think, can seem like the ultimate uncoolness – and all the potential for pain that comes along with that. Cultivating dependence means denying, in many moments, the exact kind of critical distance that I and other professors here have been training you to develop over the past four years.

Critical distance has its place.  Critical distance is a huge part of my job.  But another part of my job has to do with kinship networks, and the ways in which people talk to and about and around each other.  Part of my job today is to remind you that distance – like independence – is easier than it sounds.

Cultivate dependence, then, and before you have an immediate need for it.  Because there will be times, there will be times when your house will fall down.  There will be times when the house of the person sitting next to you will fall down.  It never happens when you think it will.  But you have to be paid up for when it does.

In the last couple pages of Toni Morrison’s great novel Song of Solomon, one of its heroines uses her last breaths to bid a magnificent, yearning farewell to the world she’s loved.

“I wish I’d a knowed more people,” she says.  Not bitterly, just reflectively.  “I would of loved ‘em all.  If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Remember earlier, when I talked about the luxury and the gift of having hundreds of other folks, in the same boat as you, just a few doors or a few roads away? You’re not actually losing that. If you’re intentional about it, you have that all the time, just by living in the world, just by opening your eyes to your neighborhoods and the other people in them; just by riding the train or grabbing a coffee or standing in line at the grocery store – without doodling on your cell phone. Just by seeing. Just by speaking. Just by loving. Because the world will provide you almost infinite people and things to love. Wesleyan didn’t actually corner the market on that.

If you thought the takeaway of “I wish I’d a knowed more people” has to do with regret, or nostalgia about leavetaking, you’re only a little right. It has a lot more to do with the suffusion, the overrun, of possible people to love, the fact that you could never, in four years or four hundred, do all the meeting and knowing and loving that a place like Wesleyan – or Brooklyn, or Bowling Green, Kentucky, where I’m from – could actually support. There are people everywhere on whom to depend. There are people everywhere to love. There are people everywhere who will pick up your houses. Try to find them, try to know them, try to be them: and you will be yourself even better.

Congratulations, 2014.  I wish I’d a knowed all of you.