Commencement Speech Caitlin Healey ’09

Sunday, May 24, 2009 - 12:34

Commencement Address
Caitlin Healey ’09
May 24, 2009

Listen to Caitlin Healey ’09 (3.5 MB, Time: 7:43)
(Written text differs somewhat from speech as delivered.)

These things usually start with a very profound quote, no? Class of 2009, you want a deep quotation to live your life by, am I correct? Well, both self-aware profoundness and quotations seem to be in poor taste. But why not give it a try? James Tate, an old man and good poet over at the University of Massachusetts, opens his poem “Same As You” like this: “I put my pants on one day at a time.” Seems like a solid quote and good pants-wearing advice. You usually can’t wear two pairs of pants at a time, and you should wear at least one pair most of the time. On occasion it may be appropriate to go pantless, certainly. As uncommon women, we know all about exceptions. So yes, put on your pants one day at a time. I should be imparting wisdom on you right? Let’s make a list, a fitting last tribute to a campus of great list makers. To-do lists, wisdom lists, grocery lists, graduation advice lists, wish lists, don’t-forget lists. Sure, a list will suffice. Lists got me through college. The list in my pocket reminded me to be here today. I hope someone buys me Post-it notes for graduation.

Ticking things off this new list may not be so easy. In fact, we probably don’t want to be ticking at all. We’ll go for adhering. Adhering to tenets. Profound, indeed. At the top of the list I’ll write The Future. Gross abstractions can sometimes make sense of reality. REALITY. Don’t think about it too hard. It will make you wonder whether or not you really exist. Eat a sandwich, have a drink, and don’t fret. You do exist. You’re wearing that weird flat box on top of your head, and you’re graduating from college. Please promise you’re not texting about how boring your existence is right now. Instead text: Good morning, reality. I’m from the class of 2009, and today I’m graduating.

Back to rule number one: Always put pants on one day at a time. Some days will take a break from pants wearing and let loose. Other days will layer for protection. Number two should be: listen to others. Seems like something that’d be written on a kindergarten chalkboard. But we could use some more listeners. Don’t fall in love with yourself. Well, you can sometimes, you know, when you’re riding high or having a good hair day, but try to rein it in. People need you to listen to them; otherwise we’ll all just be sitting here projecting personal narratives on each other bored to death with our senses dulled.

So three should involve stories. Tell them. Tell them at dinners, at cocktail parties or Andy Warhol parties, at interviews, to your kids, to yourpet fish, to your grandma, to strangers in the park even--we’re big kids now, talk to strangers. You should try to wave your hands and make faces when you tell them too. Refer back to rule number two, and don’t forget to listen to stories as well. You’ll never understand anyone else’s experience because you can never be anyone but yourself, at least for now. You can’t really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So don’t pretend to get it. Sometimes you can’t get it and that’s okay.

Number four has to do with this thing I made up. At least I like to think I did. It’s called bemused detachment. Bemused--a wry and tolerant amusement. Detachment--freedom from bias or prejudice. Fancy college words. Phew, good thing I went to college. Sometimes things get ugly. Take a step back. All these supposedly terrible things can be slightly amusing if you don’t take yourself too seriously all the time. This rule applies to those things that are funny after a week, but only after a week or sometimes a year. Messy breakups, speeding tickets, burnt dinners, bombed interviews. Humiliation can be the best source of joy.

Of course, there will be times when you should take yourself very seriously. Take a hard line when you’re impassioned, defend convictions, don’t tolerate injustices, do all these things Mount Holyoke helped us master. Just don’t forget to take a step back every now and then. Remember that when you think something is going to be really wonderful, you might actually find yourself a little let down. And if you anticipate something to be painful and crushing, you’ll find it’s not that bad. You’re strong, you’re resilient, you’ll live. Meet life in the middle and crack a smile.

Five is a good stopping place. I’m hot and ready to eat a bunch of free food, pack up my room, and roll out of here. You probably are too. Maybe you have a job, maybe you’re moving back home, maybe you haven’t seen home for a long time and don’t know when you will see it again. But we’re running out of time here, and it is time for us to get running too.

So what should five be? Should it be like the little “other” box at the end of a survey? Additional comments? All of the above? Choose your own ending? Yes. Choose your own ending. A freebie, do it yourself, you pick. Because I’m me and you’re you and we all have to choose for ourselves. Then we’ll meet in the middle and crack a smile someday soon. I can’t say what rule number five is. It is to be announced, it took a rain check, has yet to be written. But I do know, class of 2009, one thing. Today is a day of stupendous achievement and anxiety and glory and unknowns and triumph. We will walk out of here today and head in all kinds of crazy and wonderful directions. But we’ll always have this place, this connection, these silly hats, and this moment.

To get back to my favorite profound poet James Tate, because lists come full circle when everything is all ticked and adhered to, yes back to Tate. He says, “We’re practically carved out of the same carrot. I for one can barely tell where I trail off and you begin, since human beings are reported to be 98 percent duct tape and feathers anyway. It’s hard to pull the pants over all of this debris, and once the greensward has been wrenched into shape it’s almost like not going at all. Where have I been, where have I been? Thus I was led into paths I had not known.”

This quote seems like nonsense, and maybe a little heavy on the self-aware profoundness side. But it is all true enough and it’s okay to laugh. Now we’re done here and it’s time to put on our pants, our graduation pants that is, and get going down delightfully unknown paths. Good luck class of 2009.

Related Links:

Commencement 2009 

Commencement Videos

Audio (3:5 MB) Time: 7:43