Baccalaureate Address

Saturday, May 20, 2000 - 12:00pm

The Class of 2000: it has a world-shaking ring to it. Most of you have hoped and intended your whole life to graduate from college in this particular year. You've known that other people, too, would find the thought of the year 2000 especially magical or fearsome or, at the very least, strange.

Imagine how strange that number must have seemed to the Mount Holyoke Class of 1900, as they were putting together a time capsule for you. They must have sensed that you would find them strange, without knowing exactly how. Looking at the wonderfully chosen photos they left you, I have found those young women simultaneously touching and preposterous. Their funny, upswept hair, piled so high it looks like a secret bunch of bananas must be hidden underneath: Could they have thought that taking time to produce that effect every morning was normal? Why did they wear chin-high white blouses that required so much bleaching and starching? And what about those photos of high-spirited jinks in front of the library: we're happy the Class of 1900 was happy, but why would anybody in a corset and a long, voluminous skirt try to jump rope?

Before we write off the past as preposterous, though, we might exercise our imaginations to guess how strange the Class of 1900 would find you. The limitless range of what you're allowed to wear is a mirror, of course, of the range of what your society now invites you to become. If you, the Class of 2000, could send a time capsule backward, you would confuse the Class of 1900 mightily with photos of women who are 22, and 32, and 42 women from all over the world who, depending on the mood of the day, wear a tank top and spandex shorts, or a business suite, or a ball gown, or a sweater and jeans.

Now let's imagine into the future: sending your time capsule forward a hundred years.

Perhaps the most amazing thought is that when the time capsule of your own class is opened, in the year 2100, a few of you now sitting in this chapel will probably be present. We take it as a matter of course that no member of the Class of 1900 is alive today. But recently the oldest person in the world, a Frenchwoman, died at the age of 122. In a hundred years, thanks to advances in medicine, some of you may be reasonably spry, mentally active 122 or 132, or 142. You, accompanied perhaps by one of your clones, will take the trip to South Hadley by whatever means of transportation have been invented by then to conserve the world's endangered resources–and watch the time capsule of your own class opened. To a greater degree than any generation in the history of the world, you will believe in the presence of the past–because you were there.

But what about the presence of the future, the future which is changing so fast that it is harder to envision than ever before? One way people have always sent time capsules simultaneously into the past and into the future is by writing poetry. I'd like to close by quoting Gjertrud Schnackenberg, one of America's most distinguished poets, who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1975. Right after graduation, she wrote a series of poems called "19 Hadley Street," about an old house she was living in, right around the corner from this spot. Take note of that. She dared to imagine, in her early twenties, that somebody would be reading in the future what she wrote today. She dared to imagine that the place and time she stood in could be recorded by the person she then was. And in her poem, she dared to imagine backwards to record the lives of generations who died in her house before she was born. The section I'll read to you takes place in 1905, a little girl named Elizabeth is embroidering a sampler on her lawn, under the benign shade of a pear tree. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Elizabeth's sample is itself a time capsule, just as poetry is a little square of recorded life. Elizabeth's sampler endures, as the pear tree endures, and Schnackenberg's poem may endure, as the work you dare to do may endure. The only way to imagine forward or back a hundred years is to dare living fully in the real moment in which you do your imagining.

And now for Schnackenberg's poem.

Elizabeth, 1905

Elizabeth bounced like a small white moth
Across the lawn, settling beneath a tree
To stitch her square of half-embroidered cloth,
Embroidering a house and family.
In blue and pink, words stream across the skies,
GOD BLESS OUR HOME. The movement of her eyes,
The motion of her arm pulling the thread.
She is one with the little girl she sewed.
Above her bent and concentrating head
The hundred-year-old pear tree buds explode.

Work Cited

Schnackenberg, Gjertrud. "19 Hadley Street." In Portraits and Elegies. Boston: David R. Godine, 1982.