By Margaret "Mollie" McDermott '06
May 28, 2006
Good morning, friends, family, faculty, staff, our distinguished guests, and President Creighton. Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today.
I intended to begin my speech with a bold opening line, the kind of opening that would grab the attention of my audience, would generate animated whispers among the faculty, and would cause my classmates to sit up in their seats and take notice. It would be an opening line that audience members would talk about for years to come, pithy, poignant, and wise.
As it turns out, I couldn't come up with anything like that.
Instead, I will force you to listen to a tired, old statement that you have heard a dozen times. Forgive me. "In this world," the saying goes, "nothing is certain but death and taxes." Now, whether Benjamin Franklin was right about all of that early to bed/early to rise business is arguable, as I'm sure many of my classmates would agree. But as for the exclusive certainty of only death and taxes, Mr. Franklin is most certainly amiss.
You may be wondering why I would open my speech with a quote that I don't even agree with. Or, more likely, you may be wondering why I would choose a quote from a man who thought that the United States national bird should be the turkey. Or, perhaps even more likely, you may be wondering why I would choose a quote from a man!
I use this quote for two reasons. The first is this: if there is anyone sitting in the audience right now who can offer some insider tips on avoiding either of Mr. Franklin's so-called certainties, either death or taxes, I invite you to privately address my classmates and me after the ceremony. The second reason is that I would like to add an item of my own to the list. "In this world, nothing is certain but death, taxes, and President Creighton quoting Mary Lyon at the Mount Holyoke Commencement Ceremony."
Actually, forget all of that. Forget Benjamin Franklin's quote. Forget about all of these so-called certainties. For in this world, nothing is certain but uncertainty. No matter how much planning we do, no matter how well organized we are, we can't change the fact that tomorrow is unpredictable, unrehearsed, and that much of it will be out of our hands.
In a way this uncertainty is frightening. As graduating seniors, we know this fear. Most of us do not know what we will do in the next decade, next year, next month, or even tomorrow. We can't predict who we will become. We aren't sure where we will live. We are worried about how we will keep in touch after today. And, if you're like me, we are unsure about whether we're supposed to move our mortarboard tassels to the left or the right after we receive our diplomas.
In another way, though, the uncertainty is wonderful. What will tomorrow bring? Maybe you'll get a brilliant idea. Maybe you'll discover your new favorite book. Maybe you'll take a spontaneous trip. Maybe you'll fall in love. Maybe you'll just trip and fall spontaneously. Who knows?
As our senior year began, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region learned a hard lesson in uncertainty. Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of the people who call the area home, leaving many without homes, wondering where to start their new lives. Families who were left with homes also felt and still share the uncertainty, unsure about when, how, and even if their beloved city will be rebuilt.
I learned a valuable lesson from these hurricane victims. I learned that, although you can do nothing about uncertainty, you can do something about how you handle it. I read about heroes who stayed up for days at a time to rescue stranded individuals from rooftops when their own homes had been destroyed and their own families scattered. I watched families happily take homeless strangers into their houses for months. I heard about entrepreneurs with a sense of humor who sold Christmas tree ornaments made out of scraps of the blue tarps that covered many of the city's roofless buildings. These individuals did not allow themselves to be paralyzed by the painful not-knowing.
As future Mount Holyoke alumnae, we are prepared to handle uncertainty with strength. After all, we've had practice. Remember our bewilderment on that first day of classes back in September 2002? And isn't Mountain Day never quite on the day you expect it to be? Can we ever really be sure about what makes those magic cookie bars so magical? When we entered Mount Holyoke as first-years, the war in Iraq was just beginning, leaving many of us full of questions and insecurities about the future of our world. The tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Pakistan daunted us, filling some of our classmates with the kind of horrible anxiety that comes from being thousands of miles away from your endangered family, friends, and country.
Mount Holyoke has taught us not to fear uncertainty. Rather, we've been taught to make the most of it, to sometimes even enjoy it. Our professors and classmates have taught us to ask the hard questions, to think critically, to not allow ourselves the luxury of engaging in mental laziness or drawing reckless conclusions. We've sought out the grey from the black and white. We've learned to embrace the not-knowing.
Despite an unpredictable tomorrow, there are things about which we can be fairly sure. One of these is that there will be hard times. Life is just a string of days, one after the next, and our job is to do our best in each one. As Mount Holyoke women, we've had four years to practice doing our best. One of the hardest lessons a person can learn is what doing her best looks like. I have this to offer. Some days your best may look like winning a case, making a deal, finally getting through to a student, saving a patient. But there may also be days when the best you can do is muster up enough energy after an exhausting day of work to go to the store to buy that gallon of milk you promised to bring home. I hope that we never forget to congratulate ourselves for these days too.
Armed with the ability to do our best, with the knowledge that we will never possess absolute certainty, with the awareness that we really don't want to know everything, and with the education and self-respect that this institution has provided us, we will succeed. And let us remember not to worry too much. The future is uncertain and much of it is out of our hands. But we leave Mount Holyoke today knowing that we will do the best with whatever is left to our hands, and --oh-- what capable hands!
Thank you and congratulations.
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