Christopher Benfey, Acting Dean of Faculty
September 6, 2011
Hello everybody! President Pasquerella has spoken today about two of my favorite things: swimming and dreaming. I can imagine a yellow bumper sticker for the class of 2015: “I’D RATHER BE DREAMING.” My only advice for success is this: TAKE LOTS OF NAPS. Some of you may be napping right now! I’ll try not to wake you up.
While looking forward to this occasion, I kept thinking about where we do so much of our dreaming: at home, or wherever home is for each of us.
When I was a college student, back in the last millennium, everybody liked to quote a famous poet from St. Louis called T. S. Eliot. One of Eliot’s poems has a passage that begins like this:
“Home is where one starts from.”
That’s pretty basic. But Eliot doesn’t leave it at that.
“Home is where one starts from,” he writes. “As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated…”
The four years of college, for many of us, are when the pattern becomes more complicated—really, really complicated.
In some ways, of course, we create a second home at college. Roommates are a little like sisters, for better or worse. Faculty are sometimes a little like parents, for better or worse. We have a room of our own, sort of, and regular meals, sort of. The library is a great big living room full of books, with comfortable chairs to take naps in.
Over the Labor Day weekend, I reread Wendy Wasserstein’s play Uncommon Women and Others. It’s about the home away from home that a half dozen women make at Mount Holyoke during the early 1970s and after they graduate. The play is set during the first flush of the women’s movement, as women began to enter the traditionally male citadels of law school and medical school and tried to feel at home in those alien surroundings. Every once in a while in the play, one of the women says something like this: “I think if I make it to thirty I’m going to be pretty ******* amazing.”
But what part of home is a classroom? That’s where the pattern can get really complicated fast. Are we supposed to feel at home in a classroom? Aren’t we supposed to feel a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit away from home?
As you athletes in the audience know, sports events are either “at home” or “away.” The classroom can sometimes feel like an away game: unfamiliar, full of risks and unexpected challenges, sometimes even a little scary, with strangers yelling incomprehensible things in the bleachers.
I’ll let you students in on a little secret. You’ll be dreaming of Mount Holyoke classrooms for the rest of your life. Sometimes, you’ll even have your clothes on. Sometimes, you’ll feel prepared and know exactly what to say, sometimes not.
And sometimes you’ll surprise yourself. Despite all the challenges, because of all the challenges, you’ll feel right at home.
Home is where one starts from. And today, for a little bit longer, is a home game. So, take another nap, dream great dreams, put on your swimsuit, and dive right in.
(Note: This printed text may vary from the speech delivered.)