Sara Woolery '11
Needless to say I am a little bit nervous, but I’m hoping that my excitement at finally getting a chance to talk to all of you this morning will be enough to carry me through. Good morning, Grinnellians. Before I begin, I just want to say thank you for the honor of addressing you this morning. I really love this community, and this chance to speak to you and your family and friends is not gift I take lightly.
To begin I’d like to frame my speech with a quotation from Richard Bach. He says, “the simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? Think about these once in a while and watch your answers change.”
When I was a child, elementary school age, I would have told you that I was born in Portland, Oregon, that my home was in Omaha, Nebraska, and that I going to stay there for the rest of my life. In high school, I probably would have told you that I really, to borrow Robert Frost’s language, “came into my own” or was born in a sense in Malburn, Iowa, that Iowa was and always would be my home, and that I was going to change, not the whole world, but my corner of it. Today, I would tell you that I was born into a specific context, a time, a place, a culture, that has given me many privileges and has continually shaped who I am. That my home is wherever people know me best and love me anyway, and that I’m going home as soon as possible and bringing anyone I can find along with me.
I think one of the most exciting parts of graduation, and also one of our biggest worries, is that we know we’re on the brink of remaking and redefining ourselves yet again, just as we have all done before, but we don’t know who or what we’re becoming yet. Which is okay, but is doesn’t necessarily feel okay. We like to know details, to make predictions, to feel safe. But what we can do, and this part of the purpose of today’s Baccalaureate service, is take time to reflect on who we have already become. You’re not going to magically change into somebody different the moment you take your diploma in hand. Who you become will be a function of who you already are. As your speaker, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you who you are, so you can see how awesome you are, and take heart for the future. I’ve talked to many of you, had my share of awkward, painful, hilarious, joyful, loving, and inspiring encounters with you. I have listened to your debates, your conversations, your drunken rants, your Plans secrets, your class presentations. I have noted the off-hand observations you make as you walk to the dining hall, the incredibly nerdy and clever things you write on the whiteboards in Noyce third, the creative expressions you inscribe on the inside rims of desk lamps in Burling, and the assumptions on which you base your marketing when you postered for events. Overall I feel like I know you pretty well and I love you. I love you and I want you to love you too.
So let us ponder together some of these simple profound questions. Where were you born? The answers range from Des Moines, Iowa to New Delhi, India; from Tokyo, Japan to Washington, DC; from Guadalajara, Mexico to Chicago Illinois, Taipei, Taiwan, Boulder, Colorado, El Paso, Texas. Needless to say, you were all born into specific cultures from which you learned language, etiquette, social norms, traditions, beliefs. Where you were born has shaped your worldview, your values, the way you live your life from day to day, and how you interact with each other. You are were all born into a specific time, a time which may have been sort of random but which has led to us all being placed together in this particular class, having met at the end of the summer in 2007 as a bunch of oddly dressed strangers sweating under the oppressive Iowa heat, and now re-gathering in May of 2011 to celebrate whatever it was we did those past four years. What we did, among other things, was change and grow. College has been for some of us a difficult but wonderful time of being reborn, of coming into our own. But for others of us, for all of us on some level, college has been a struggle to hold on to who we are in the midst of change, to make it through the challenges of this place and come to the stage tomorrow still clasping what we have always held dear: our values, our faith, our sense of worth, our family, our home.
Home, where is your home? For many of us, the home we left to come to college is no longer there for us to go back to, because while we were off, changing and growing, our homes were changing too, and in some cases moving elsewhere all together. This is not to say that we will never go back to the places and people who influenced us, or that they will stop influencing us, but simply that that relationship has changed with time, as all relationships do. I think sometimes we like to think that home is supposed to be this one stable predictable thing in our lives, and we are disappointed when people and places change with time and circumstance. The homes do change just like everything else, and our claims to home change as well. How many of you, five or six years ago, imagined yourselves claiming Grinnell, Iowa as home? You know I was reading past Baccalaureate speeches because every good Grinnellian starts with a little bit of research, right? Nearly everyone I read described Grinnell as being in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle Iowa, as if the two were synonymous. Professor Tom Moore in his 2006 speech at least took a moment to recognize the trope, saying, and I quote, “I’m 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.” But often times home is not exciting, but rather a place you go to get away from excitement. Home is where we feel comfortable to be ourselves, to pick the flowers, and climb the trees, to walk or run around naked, to leave our computers unlocked in shared spaces, to throw banana peels at each other over dinner and yell “squid!” You would never do that in a place you didn’t call home. Just because Iowa was not home for many of you before that summer in 2007, and even though you may not have even heard of the place before then, doesn’t mean it is not a place of beauty and value. While I could go on about this topic for hours as someone who has lived in Iowa for nearly nine years, I could find evidence to counter or support just about every Iowa stereotype you could throw at me. Instead I will just say that sometimes Iowa is beautiful for what it does not have as well as what it does, and that before you criticize the weather too harshly, you should think about how blizzards and tornados fostered kindness and community. Any place, ultimately, is what you make of it, and you, Class of 2011, have contributed toward making Grinnell, Iowa a beautiful place.
The last question, of course, is “where are you going?” This is not a question I can answer for you, but I can’t wait to see how you answer it for yourselves. I can tell, you are going to be challenged, and sometimes get stuck in hard spots for a while. You are going to make the best of whatever is given to you. You are going to change people’s lives for the better and to be changed for the better. You are going to keep in touch with me, and with Kelsey Montgomery, and with each other, and let everyone know how you are answering that question as the years go on. Because Grinnellians care about each other and admire each other and follow each other’s lead, and you, my dear Class of 2011, are no different. One of my friends found me in the Grill on a bad day once, and after listening to my worries and fears about not measuring up - because we all have those - took me by the shoulders and said, “Have you met you? Have you met Sarah Woolery? Because she is awesome.” Now I turn to you and figuratively take you by the shoulders, and look you in the face and say, Have you met you? Have you met the Grinnellians of 2011? Because they are awesome, and they are going to do good in the world for others and for each other. Thank you.