Dorothy Wickenden Commencement Remarks
May 16, 2015
Iona Commencement Address
“How to Be a Lifter”
Thank you, President Nyre and members of the Board of Trustees, for the privilege of speaking today to the class of 2015. I am honored and so pleased to be here.
My heartfelt congratulations to all of you graduates, and to the family and faculty and friends who have helped over the years to calm your moments of flailing and panic, who have supplied you with a lot more than Red Bull and late-night pizza to help you over the finish line. There are many kinds of learning, and none of them takes place in isolation.
I work at the New Yorker magazine, which is known for its literary fiction and its long, deeply reported, nonfiction. But we all know that most readers start with the cartoons. There are best-selling books of the magazine’s cartoons on everything from lawyers to dogs. There are even cartoons about college commencements--and so, to see what wisdom I might glean for this speech, I visited the online Cartoon Bank.
A student speaker stands at a podium, looking out at rows of identical gowns and mortarboards. “My fellow graduates,” he says, “today we leave behind the trappings of youth, step boldly onto the road of life----and move back in with our parents.”
Graduation, like all joyfully momentous occasions, is both exciting and terrifying.
You are ready for freedom from research papers and final exams and dreary cafeteria food and, perhaps, from helicopter parents--but are you ready for whatever that entails? You are children of the baby boomers, and you’ve heard ad nauseam about the vast numbers of college graduates competing for jobs at a time when the job market does not seem to be expanding.
Iona has a great tradition as a liberal arts college. It is celebrating its own milestone this year, as it turns 75. Some of you have majored in marketing or mass communications or business. You have an answer for people who ask: What have you been trained for? But for those who studied philosophy or anthropology or fine arts—or journalism, for that matter--you might be wondering, just what are the jobs? Who will want to hire me?
I found another cartoon for you: A student walks across the state-then refuses his diploma: “Uh, no thank you, I’ll stay another four years.”
There were no distribution requirements at my college, and I managed to avoid all of the courses with a potentially practical application: economics, math, physics—Instead, I was an English major. Your teachers have always told you to write what you know. Here’s what I know: liberal arts colleges usually don’t prepare you for a specific job in a designated field. But you are ready to apply yourself to just about anything that excites you. All kinds of employers are looking for graduates with drive and passion and a fierce work ethic — an ability to synthesize complex information, make a cogent argument, write coherently and think imaginatively.
And here’s something else. You don’t need to know right now what you want to do with the rest of your life. Even if you think you do, your path won’t be straight and clear. You could find yourself in a field twenty years from now that doesn’t exist yet, or you might achieve your life’s dream to make movies in Hollywood, then decide in your forties that you actually want to be a psychiatrist in Manhattan. A friend of mine did that.
What you end up pursuing may seem to have nothing to do with what you’ve studied here. It will, though, be the result of the way you have learned to think. Remain open to new ideas, to arguments you disagree with. Embrace serendipity. As Emerson said in his essay on self-reliance, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
My father was an editor, and that’s what I did after college. Luckily, I ended up loving my profession. In fact, editing at a general interest magazine feels a little like college—sitting around complaining about all the stupid things that politicians and other people in power do--and also learning every day, about everything from boxing to the newest trend in venture capitalism.
But eventually I stumbled on an unexpected passion: American history. That was something else I’d never studied, but because of a happy accident, I ended up writing a whole book about an era and a part of the country I’d barely known existed.
Some years ago, I found a few dozen old letters that my grandmother had sent home to her parents in upstate New York, and I discovered an amazing story. She and her closest friend had graduated from Smith College seven years earlier. It was 1916. They were supposed to be married, with children, and hosting afternoon teas. Instead, they were still looking around for something meaningful to do with their lives. The President of Smith had always told students, “Be lifters, not leaners.” But there really were just about no jobs in those days—at least for female college graduates. My grandmother told me, “No young lady in our town had ever been hired to do anything.” So they found themselves twenty-nine years old, and still living at home.
Then, through an acquaintance, they heard about a job that was farther away from their pampered lives than anything they could have imagined: a young lawyer and cowboy on the Western slope of the Rocky Mountains was looking for two teachers from the East for a one-room schoolhouse he and his neighbors had just built. Even people in Colorado called that part of the state “the wild country.” The only people up there were a few dozen homesteaders--poor farmers who lived in tiny log cabins, in the hope of making better lives for themselves and their children. The Homestead Act promised 60 acres of free land to anyone who wanted to take part in settling up the West, and it sounded a lot better than eking out meager lives in the South or Midwest.
This was the opportunity those two Smith graduates had been looking for--teaching children whose horizons stopped at the town of Hayden, 15 miles away. The little kids thought that the lawyer-rancher who organized the community to build the school was the President of the United States. They called the American flag “Old Gory.”
But when my grandmother got the telegram saying they were hired, she said, “It began to frighten us very much. We’d realized what we’d done. We knew not the slightest thing about teaching, absolutely nothing”--or about the western frontier. But they went. The young lawyer advised them to bring their rifles—it was grouse-hunting season. They didn’t even have anything to wear when they rode horses to school, so they stopped in Chicago on their journey West to do some shopping. They bought divided skirts at Abercrombie & Fitch, and two rifles and 1,000 rounds of shot.
That was their first experience of freedom. It wasn’t easy. There was no electricity or water or a furnace in the cabin they shared with a family of settlers. At night the snow blew threw the cracks between the logs. But they knew it was infinitely tougher for the homesteaders. One student walked three miles to school, in shoes tied together with string. The kids brought their lunch to school in old tobacco tins—sometimes nothing more than a cold potato.
The settlers’ cabins are long gone, but the schoolhouse is still there, and I’ve been back to see it many times—a monument to the homesteaders’ hopes. Many of its graduates went on to college, and one or two of them to graduate school. During one of my trips, in the little museum in Hayden, I found the construction-paper yearbook of the class of 1920. The students said that, despite all the hardships, as they looked off at the blue and purple mountains of the Rockies, they felt as if they were standing on top of the world. My grandmother and her friend felt the same way. They were changed forever by the resilience and good humor of the pioneers. Both of them considered it the best year of their lives. By far.
One of my friends at the magazine told me when I was working on the book that it would change me, and after I finished, I knew what she meant. To write an effective story—fiction or nonfiction--you have to enter the lives of your characters. I learned what it was it was like—not only to be my grandmother at age 29, but to be the seven-year-old student who, when told about the Atlantic Ocean, excitedly said it was like the “crick” outside his house.
Now I’m writing another book, about an historic figure you have heard of.
She was a slave born in a place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland called Tobacco Stick. As a little girl, she was known as Minty. One day in a dry goods store, the overseer of another slave picked up a two-pound iron weight from the counter and hurled it at him. It struck Minty instead, fracturing her skull. Two days later, she was sent back to work, the blood and sweat rolling down her face. For the rest of her life she had violent headaches, seizures, and blackouts.
Minty later changed her name to Harriet, after her mother, and she became known as Harriet Tubman. When she was thirty years old, illiterate and alone, she escaped from slavery, walking from Maryland to Pennsylvania, a distance of almost ninety miles. She slept during the day and walked at night, to avoid slave-catchers & bloodhounds, helped along the way by Quakers on the Underground Railroad. She was euphoric when she crossed the state border—then overcome by homesickness and fear. She said later, “There was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters.” But she joined the Underground Railroad and returned to Maryland many times, to rescue her family and many dozens of others. John Brown tried to recruit her for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, his failed attempt to incite a slave rebellion. He called her “Captain Tubman.”
During the Civil War, she worked as a nurse and spy for the Union Army in Beaufort, South Carolina. She did take part in a raid down there—along with the first regiment of African-American soldiers--to rescue 750 slaves from rice plantations along the Combahee River. After the war she dedicated herself to civil rights. Almost 90 years before Rosa Parks made her heroic stand on a bus in Alabama, Tubman refused to move from her seat on a train in New Jersey. The conductor shouted racial slurs at her, and she told him she would be called black or Negro. She was as proud of being a black woman as he was of being white. With the help of two passengers, he wrenched her from her seat, cracking her ribs and injuring her shoulder.
What does Tubman have to do with you? Most of us can barely comprehend the kind of courage and selflessness her life represents. America’s bloodiest war ended a hundred and fifty years ago this spring. The first Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1866. Four years later, African-American men were granted the vote, at least officially, in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. (Tubman still couldn’t vote, of course. Women were granted suffrage about fifty years later.)
But history doesn’t end; it mutates. Look at the news of the last year—especially the current debate about police tactics in communities of color, mass incarceration, and the miscarriage of justice. In the New Yorker, we published a piece a few months ago about a sixteen-year-old from the Bronx named Khalief Browder who was accused of a minor theft, and thrown into one of the jails on Rikers Island. He refused to plead guilty, and couldn’t get a trial. He ended up spending three years there—two of them in solitary confinement. He was beaten repeatedly, by guards and by other inmates, and he tried to commit suicide. In the end, prosecutors dropped the charge, and he was released. His freedom too was not easy. He tried to kill himself again, and he s still being treated for PTSD. But with the help of his lawyer, he got a job and is attending a community college.
I was thinking about these issues last week at work, as I was reading a piece about Detroit in the 1960s—a city we think of as a bankrupt, burned-out shell, riddled with violence. Many of the people who still live there would move someplace better if they could. But back then, with all the jobs provided by the auto industry, Detroit was full of entrepreneurs of all kinds, and it had a vibrant middle class—white and black. In May 1964, President Lyndon Johnson flew to Detroit to gave a commencement address to the graduates of the University of Michigan. He talked about the troubles plaguing American cities: the lack of decent housing for the poor, the decay of inner-city buildings, the “despoiling of the suburbs.” “Our society will never be great,” he said, “until our cities are great.” He imagined a place, fifty years in the future—today—where “the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” Some people are just beginning to move back to Detroit and start new businesses. It’s not yet clear whether they’ll succeed.
The needs of the body and the demands of commerce are compelling. But don’t overlook the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. They are all part of the American Dream. You’ll choose your own visionaries. Maybe some of you already have, from the courses you’ve taken, or from someone in your family. They’ll help you to reimagine your life in 21st-century America.
No one believes more profoundly in the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence than those to whom they are denied. Most people express dismay when others are robbed of those rights, and then retreat to the all-consuming demands of their own lives. A few do something. You know that. The founders of this school, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, inculcated the ideas of diversity, academic excellence—and justice, peace, and service. These are not abstractions.
Avoid inertia. Be humble but bold. Be lifters, not leaners. I went online to see what some of you have been doing on campus and are doing next: Bayonia Marshall, a first-generation college student, has been involved in Iona’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, for students who want to work in technical fields; Raymond Garo, also a first-generation college grad, is a member of Habitat for Humanity and an aspiring entrepreneur; he has had three internships in the past year. Kyle Byrne is moving to La Plata, Argentina, to teach English and help create a TV and radio station at a private high school there.
Those of us who aren’t graduating today are experiencing a vicarious thrill as you receive your diplomas--thinking about all of the lives you are yet to touch and change. We have more confidence in you than you have in yourselves. Your minds aren’t narrow and foolish. They are expansive and generous. Take a leap of faith. The future is yours to shape--and so are the transcendent ideals of the past.
Thank you very much. And now—go celebrate.