Rachel Lindsay Fields
Class of 2009
9 a.m., May 17, 2009
Good morning, faculty, staff, friends and relatives, and my fellow graduates, the Grinnell College class of 2009. I am incredibly honored to be speaking today - and, as you might guess, incredibly nervous. Last night, sitting in my kitchen, I was thinking that this is might be the most fear Grinnell has ever inspired in me. But then I remembered that last year, I was in a Craft of Poetry class with Ralph Savarese. We were all assigned to memorize and recite a poem, which is a little nerve-wracking in itself. I stood up, said the title of my poem, and Professor Savarese looked me right in the eye and said, "That's my favorite poem."
So I'd like to tell you that I bravely fought through that death sentence and persevered, but I actually completely forgot every word of what I was supposed to say. But I'm still here, because that's life. Sometimes, you get caught in a moment of terror, you think that the world will end. But it doesn't; and sometimes it even gets better; and a year later, some people foolishly entrusts you with public speaking again.
Graduations are always stressful, but - as everyone likes to remind us - we are graduating at a particularly trying economic time. Practically every day over winter break, my mom would present me with an exciting new headline about the state of the economy. You probably know the kind. "2009 Graduates Accept Diplomas, Crippling Financial Burden." I'm an enthusiastic proponent of a liberal arts education, but there comes a point when you look from that headline to your 20-page paper on bird imagery in Jane Eyre and think, "Oh no."
I had similarly bad experiences with my dentist, and my doctor, and practically everyone I ran into at the grocery store. They'd ask me what my major was, and when I said English, they'd ask me what my minor was. Grinnell doesn't have minors, I'd say, and they'd look at me as if I'd just said, "Oh, lifeboats? No, I left those on the shore."
It's not an easy time to be looking for a job. We know we've grown tremendously over the last four years, but when push comes to shove, it's hard not to wonder if we have the "marketable skills" necessary to battle a recession. Maybe we do. Maybe not. But I think we have something better.
Because Grinnell is the kind of place that grabs you by the collar, looks you in the eye, and asks, "What do you care about?" Year after year, it's back, like an aunt asking if you're interested in boys yet: what do you care about? And after a little while, you start to figure it out. Often, it's not what you expected. I came into college thinking I might be SGA president, or the editor of the Scarlet & Black, or a tri-sport athlete. Four years later, I'm proud to say I'm living with the SGA president, and I figured out how to swipe my P-card from that thing at the fitness center. I'm going to check those goals off as completed. But while I might not have done what I expected to do, I have discovered what I love to do. I love doing improv, I love reading poetry, and I love giving baccalaureate speeches.
These might seem like small, unhelpful things to know, especially when seemingly everyone is asking you what you're going to do, where you're going to go, and if you're ready to make your first alumni donation to Grinnell College. But I think that if we're aiming to do good for ourselves and others - and I have a feeling that's the case - we have to start with what makes us happy. I have friends who organize pride rallies, friends who bake vegan, gluten-free cupcakes that actually taste like food, friends who speak Chinese and run marathons and teach kindergarteners not to wage small-scale wars against one another. When you know what makes you happy, you can start building a life around those things - and suddenly, the doom and gloom in the newspapers becomes much less frightening.
In the last few months, a lot the seniors I know have been preoccupied with the idea of "the real world." I don't think anyone knows what this means, but you assume an ominous, knowing tone because it gives you an air of authority. It sort of a similar tone you would use to talk about entering prison or the basement of the JRC.
Facing the unknown is terrifying, but, as my housemate likes to remind me, while college is over, the only border between now and the rest of our lives is the one we imagine to be there. If we focus too hard on that border, it seems unsurmountable. Leaving now, it's easy to assign to Grinnell a happiness that will be hard to find again in the real world. But what makes us happy? Isn't it reading articles about tapeworms or the cultural influence of Star Wars? Isn't it debating the most aesthetically pleasing font? Two summers ago, I lived with my Grinnellian boyfriend in Seattle, where he took the bus to work at a bakery every day. The day of our anniversary,when we were going to go out for dinner that night I said to him, "Man, tonight will be fun!" "I know!" he said, and brandished a textbook. "I get to read my book about viruses for an hour on the way home!" This passion is not confined to Grinnell; it does not leave us when we leave here.This college has taught us to love learning and to seek it out - not just for the validation of a good grade, but for the ability to open ourselves to new people and ideas and ways of living.
Coming into Grinnell, even having a vague idea of how college worked, I had no idea the things that would bring me frustration and sadness and joy. Let me emphasize this point: I thought I was going to be on the swim team. So many times, I saw friends graduate or I went abroad and I thought that nothing would be the same; I thought that nothing could ever top that previous happiness. But there is so much joy waiting for us in places we haven't even thought to look yet - and that is so exciting. It's like a scavenger hunt for meaningful experiences!
I can't promise to you or myself that life after graduation will be easy. But I do know that we aren't the kind of people to sit back and let apathy consume us; even in the face of enormous challenges, we do have the skillset and the help to make every second of our lives enviable and amazing. Over the last four years, you have taught me so much about the world, and about myself, and bird imagery in Jane Eyre. This is only the beginning. We have spent the last four years learning not to accept the presented facts, but question them; not to judge others, but try to understand them; not to glorify apathy, but find ways to wonder at the world. If we continue this education in the "real world" - by simply reading the newspaper, talking to people, asking questions, reading our trusty virus textbooks - we will constantly expand our capacity for happiness.
Congratulations, Class of 2009, and thank you so much for the past four years.