Spencer Len Green
Class of 2008
9:30 a.m., May 18, 2008
When I received an e-mail from Pam Montgomery informing me that I'd been selected to speak at this year's Baccalaureate Service, I was very honored. Terrified and nervous, but honored. A few days later, when I learned that I was scheduled to speak between Monessa Cummins and Mark Pitzer, two of my favorite, favorite professors at Grinnell, I felt like the Commencement Committee was playing a practical joke on me, because, let's be honest, that's like asking Britney Spears to perform between Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. But here I am, and here you are, all several hundred of you, and I do have a few things to say.
During my sophomore year a family friend asked me the question that no liberal arts student wants to hear: "What are you going to do when you graduate?" I told him my best answer at the time, which was that I was thinking about working for a non-profit organization or going into journalism. He looked at me pityingly, as if I had said I wanted to be a supermodel, before considering the embarrassingly paltry options. After some thought, he declared "Well, then I think you should go into journalism, because at least you can make some moneyâ¦and still try to save the world." I appreciated the advice, but I thought he reached a faulty conclusion there-to say nothing of the assumption that you can actually make money in journalism-a conclusion that's far too common and even dangerous to liberal arts graduates: that there will always exist some sort of trade-off between personal success and the work for the nebulous "common good" that our mission statement valorizes and that we so confusedly seek. That when the inevitable ultimatum comes you should save your own ass or you'll regret it. And that it's impossible to reach your full potential if you've always got one eye on the world around you.
It's a cynical misconception that's especially important to consider now, and many of us are wary of the post-Grinnell world for this reason. A few weeks ago I walked into a friend's room to find him sitting at his computer, hard at work looking for a career. He was using one of the many available job search websites, and I entered the room just in time to see his face fall with disappointment at the words, in huge block letters at the top of the screen, "Your search for the terms 'socialist' and 'agrarianism' did not return any matches."
We've spent four years developing sophisticated, passionate ideas about who we are and how the world works in a community that actively encourages idealism, imagination, and compassion. We've had conversations about heteronormativity and the social construction of race and the ethics of patenting genes with the same casualness and enthusiasm with which we speculate about the love lives of our peers, all while attending a football game or waiting in the beer line at Harris. We've attended art salons and drag shows, political rallies and dance parties. The values we've defended and the creativity we've developed became part of our everyday lives. No, these themselves are not marketable skills. Yet contrary to what we sometimes cynically and fearfully think, Grinnell isn't just shielding us from the cold realities of the outside world, only to have our souls crushed once we leave; it demands these qualities of us because they are the only tools with which we can ever hope to achieve anything meaningful or memorable.
Grinnell has shaped us to work the common good in the most powerful way: not in restricting what we can do but in forging a strong character that defines who we are. As we enter any field we know to consider the consequences of our influence, to question the measures of our success, to challenge authority and to respect difference.
Yes, in leaving Grinnell there's bound to be friction. We may encounter the occasional dissatisfaction or compromise, but the talents and identities we've developed leave us fully prepared. In the spring of our first year several students found swastikas written on the walls of some bathrooms, and the campus response was overwhelming and immediate. The Hate-Free Grinnell march around campus and into town included students, faculty, staff, and members of the Grinnell community, all holding banners high and yelling rousing cheers of support. It remains one of the most well attended events I've ever seen while a student here. Nearly three years later, 34 members of the LGBT community and their allies received anonymous homophobic hate mail a week after another incident in which a student's room was vandalized and their property destroyed. The campus wide rallies that followed were exuberant celebrations of our own student body, not the angry hysteria of an uncontrolled mob. We have direct experience of dignity and passion overpowering the effects of trauma. We have seen the efforts of a few brave and innovative leaders inciting campus wide action and attention. These are not worthless lessons.
We're leaving a campus that's incredibly diverse, and not in the usual sense. As a friend recently put it, "It's astonishing what you consider to be normal after you leave Grinnell," and I love every last weird one of us. Even if your life had nothing directly to do with mine, you undoubtedly shaped the spaces I moved through and the people I knew. As much as we fight to reject any sort of general description in the name of maintaining this difference, I absolutely refuse to accept that you could grab any fifteen hundred 18-22 year olds in this world, put them together, and recreate Grinnell. We share three things. The first is our instantly recognizable, stubborn individuality. The second is our shared understanding that our individuality isn't sacred if everyone else's isn't. The third is the imagination and creativity to enjoy the hell out of both endeavors while you live them. Congratulations to all of you, and thank you for making this college in the middle of nowhere the center of our world.