Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science
9:30 a.m., May 21, 2006
Thank, you, Ben, for that nice introduction. It's an honor to be asked to give this speech. It's an honor also to share the faculty duties with Don Smith. Certainly Don has been one of my heroes over the years, cemented a few years ago when we shared time on the College's Executive Council. Don made so many salient, cogent, and eloquent contributions to the range of our discussions that I constantly found myself just wanting to say, "I'll have what he's having." When Ben and Matt Cleinman corralled me in my office with the invitation to speak, I immediately said "yes." A faculty member cannot do otherwise. It is therefore with the utmost respect, Ben, for you and the committee that I implore you to grant me a short extension.
You see, Ben and Matt have been at best marginally helpful in giving me this assignment. Several times I have asked Ben what I should speak on and he would say, "Nothing specific, but we just know that whatever you say will be great." I e-mailed Matt with the same question and his e-mail said: "I trust that you can do a great job." You guys are throwing that word "great" around a little loosely and all I can say is, "Oh, ye, of exorbitant faith."
Laboring under these expectations of greatness began to haunt me the past few weeks, so for my topic, I'd like to talk about great expectations and what the dickens to make of them.
For a speech of this sort, it is useful if the speaker can point to some personal coincidence that endears him to the graduating class. I can. It was 37 years ago that I had my own college graduation and 41 years ago that I had my high school graduation. And 37 and 41 are both prime numbers. Naturally, such an aligning of the stars gets one into a reflective mood. There is a picture of me in my high school yearbook that surfaced last summer as I prepared for my 40th high school reunion. I gaze pensively at a small piece of paper, hand on head, buzz cut looking pretty cool. The caption reads: Tom Moore studies his report card carefully. I am a type A person, a fact, not a statement of pride. We have many type A's at Grinnell, and I am right there with you. Old-timers will say we had fewer type A's long ago, but grade inflation has taken its toll. "Type A" is synonymous with "driven;" interesting the word we use is "driven" and not "driving." The passive voice.
So who is the driver? The clichÐ¹, of course, is that we type A's drive ourselves, but I claim we get plenty of help: teachers, friends, family, all well meaning, but in many ways just adding pressure with each great expectation. I can recall that those close to me had such exaggerated expectations for me that I swear if I had been playing Boris Spasky in chess they'd say: "Boris Spasky? Piece of cake!" Pretty soon, you begin to realize that your efforts are less for you, less for the fun of discovering or accomplishing or learning something strange, fun, bizarre, or useful, and more just because it is expected of you. Indeed, is Laura Labedz not speaking for many of us when she rants in a recent S&B: "What's the point of working so hard? Are my grades and awards and honors and test scores going to matter in the long run? Will good grades make me a better person?" Seems to me Laura is speaking to the frustrations, built up from 16 years of schooling, of meeting the great expectations of others. And we should listen to Laura because she is a fully educated Grinnellian, meaning she took introductory statistics from me.
This week I received a note from a young friend of mine who was reacting to the notion of my giving this speech. She said this: "When I graduated from college I was terrified, although I pretended I wasn't. I didn't feel excited about my future, because I didn't see how the things I loved would ever pay the bills. And I wasn't really connected to enough politically and environmentally aware people, so I felt confused and lost. And then I took a job I hated." So if you find yourself with similar feelings, you will not be alone, but you may feel alone. And if you do, please remember that Grinnell is still here for you. A Grinnell education comes with a free service contract, a sense of community and willingness to help that extends well beyond tomorrow for you all. Steve Langerud has proposed institutionalizing our career development programs beyond the 4 years, but de facto they already are. Molly Backus in a recent Grinnell Magazine extols the importance of her Grinnell Plans community in her challenging, Teach For America life. And I have been communicating all year, I hope usefully, with another TFA friend from 2005, Sung Ju Park.
I do not intend to ignore those of you for whom direction and future plans seem perfectly clear; we are here for you as well. Indeed, I was more in that camp myself when I was young. It was love at first math. But, you may change your mind.
Now, while I have confidence you are all equipped to make it in the world, you may need some coping skills when encountering those who do not fully appreciate the greatness of Grinnell. I have been at gatherings of other academics, and when I say I teach at Grinnell, they sometimes say, Grinnell? I've heard of that. This happened to my wife and me a few years ago out East. Then we asked him where he taught and he said, Harvard. So, of course, Emily being Emily said, "Harvard? I've heard of that."
Sometimes they'll respond, Grinnell? You have the 1 billion dollar endowment. If they say this, be sure and correct them: one point _four_ billion, tell them. It's bad enough they just think of our money, but they should at least be accurate. If they have visited campus before, they might actually say, don't you have railroad tracks running through campus? And you don't? I try to say. Finally, some insensitive people might say, "How do you get students to come to school way out in the middle of Iowa." Ignoring for a moment that some of our students actually come from the middle of Iowa, I am always intrigued by the insistence on the word "middle" It conjures up to me exciting hot spots on the edge of Iowa: Mason City, Keokuk, Council Bluffs, Lamoni, Muscatine. Excitement, abounding.
After my reunion last summer, a classmate put this statement on the class web site: "I was so proud to hear Tom Moore became a teacher, all those brains today would have gone directly into making the big bucks." Boy was she misguided; I teach at Grinnell College; I do make the big bucks.
But what she can't know is that teaching at Grinnell College was the job I was meant to do. So let me finish by sharing five favorite words about Grinnell that I would like to have worked into the speech but could not figure out how. Sort of like getting to the end of the assembly line and finding a handful of bolts in the trunk.
The first word is "quirky." Grinnellians are quirky, which is one of the reasons it is so wonderful working here. I am reminded of something a woman in this class wrote for the S&B on your arrival here which said: "This place isn't paradise, but it has naked men, beer, and even interesting and intelligent people, so it's about as close as anyone gets."
The second word is "spunk." Grinnell students may spend lots of time trying to satisfy all the great expectations we set before them, but they have the spunk to still do extra-curriculars they have a passion for. For example, just this spring Free the Planet succeeded in getting trustees to commit to a wind energy project for the campus, a project that followed on the good work of former students and current staff members.
The third word is "ablative." There is no way to put this into a speech, but it is such a cool, arcane word, and it's fun to say.
The fourth word is "interstices." Thoreau said, "I love a broad margin in my life." Yea, and I like anonymous, large deposits placed in my bank account. I find much reward in teaching you all statistics and the task keeps me surprisingly busy. But the most fun I have here is enjoying those interstices, little spaces of time in our collective lives, when I can just talk with you or attend a concert, presentation, or competition of yours.
Which leads me to my final word, which is. . .
"Thank you." Okay, two words; my bad! But thank you it is, to you all for listening, to Grinnell College for 26 years of support, and thank you students for being, simply, the best.
Please remember we are here for you. Go out and live your lives, but keep in touch, and visit often. And when you return, should you forget the way to campus, just turn north at exit 182, and head toward the wind turbine. I won't expect a thing from you; so, surprise me!