September 7, 2010
I can't tell you how happy I am to be back at Mount Holyoke to celebrate the class of 2011, to greet the classes of 2012 and 2013, and to welcome new students, faculty and staff into our community. Like the class of 2014 and the new transfers and FPs, my first convocation at Mount Holyoke took place on September 7th. It was 1978, and at the time, I could not have known its significance in marking the beginning of an educational experience that would transform my life and bring me full circle.
Instead, until last year, like all other true Red Sox fans, I came to know September 7, 1978 as the beginning of “the Boston Massacre.” On July 19th of that year, the New York Yankees were 14 games behind the Red Sox in the standings. By September 7th, the lead had been slashed to four games and was about to disappear.
Both teams ended their seasons with 99 and 63 records, in a tie for first place in the American League East. A one-game playoff on the 2nd of October was to determine the fate of these rivals. It was a crisp, clear day, and Boston had won the coin toss, giving them the home-field advantage. By 3 in the afternoon, my dorm-mates and I were crowded around a small t.v. in the living room of Dickinson, watching ABC. About three-quarters of us were Sox fans. The rest had on their Yankees caps or were there out of a sense of solidarity. The now infamous game featured Bucky Dent's home run in the top of the 7th that gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Carl Yastrzemski, who had already driven in two of the Sox's runs during the game, could not save them from their stunning 5-4 defeat. Bucky Dent earned a new nickname among Boston fans that day, and the loss became a cornerstone in the monument of suffering endured by the Fenway faithful.
Baseball has always been a passion of mine. I would spend hours as a child, listening to the radio, keeping a scorecard and memorizing players' stats. When I interviewed for the provost’s position at the University of Hartford, President Walter Harrison and I had a disagreement over who would make a better commissioner of baseball. I adopted my e-mail address, “commish” as a reminder to him of my position on the matter. It didn’t stop there, however. Walt had written his dissertation on baseball and pulp fiction, so like any good Mount Holyoke student, I immediately began reading his work with the hope that I might be able to find something I could use in my arguments against him.
Yet, it was through one of these pieces that I came to understand not only my affinity for baseball but why I can still remember that day in Dickinson so vividly all these years later. Walt’s article highlighted philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen's contention that by 1919, baseball had become the national religion for many immigrants, offering “redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.”
The notion of a “unity with a larger life of which we are a part” underlies both today’s celebration and the feelings that I discovered on that day in October. Despite the circumstances, the emotions were not grounded in baseball but rather in the Mount Holyoke experience. Like the immigrants of which Cohen spoke, I was in a new world that was filled with as many uncertainties as there were hopes and possibilities. For the first time in my three weeks at Mount Holyoke, I was confident that I had found a new home. It was a home in which I could fulfill my dreams as a first-generation college student to live within the walls of the academy, and it was also a home in which there was a sisterhood that bonded me to other Mount Holyoke women. This kinship went beyond those with whom I was studying in South Hadley. It spanned across generations and resulted in an embrace that extended around the world.
The strength of this bond was never more evident to me than on May 1st of this year when I traveled to Cheshire, Connecticut to have a spring luncheon with members of the class of 1947. It was a perfect day in every sense, and the organizers, “Johnnie” and “Cush,” welcomed me with a corsage tied in blue and yellow ribbons, signifying the colors of our respective classes. I reveled in their stories about favorite professors, tales of how several of them took flying lessons as soon as the flight ban was lifted after World War II, and the ways in which each one of them has made this world a better place through individual and collective acts of caregiving, mentoring and civic engagement.
After a spectacular meal taken from a Mount Holyoke cookbook they compiled, I participated in a question and answer period. When it was my turn to ask the questions, I wanted to know, given all of the experiences they recounted, what they valued most about their Mount Holyoke education. With a seemingly singular voice, they chimed, “Each of us around the room. These life-long friendships have been the most enduring benefit of Mount Holyoke.” I was immediately struck by the fact that regardless of the extraordinary professional and personal success they had achieved, from their vantage point, there was no greater value to life in South Hadley than one another.
When I left the luncheon, one of my hosts said to me, “The class of 1947 will never forget you, so please don’t forget us.” I promised that I never would, and this is one of the easiest promises I have ever made. For, how could I possibly forget the lessons they provided? When I was driving home, as the sky was darkening into dusk, I thought about how their lives and words reinforced the message of writer and activist Thomas Merton who encouraged all of us to redefine our concept of success by focusing on neither the results nor recognition of our work.
Merton reminds us, “You may have to face the fact that your workw ill be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself...gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people...In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
The personal relationships that you forge at Mount Holyoke will be with a world-class faculty who will challenge you to excel, an amazingly dedicated staff who will offer a stunningly beautiful campus and a nurturing environment in which you can thrive, an alumnae network which will always be there to support you, and with your peers who will provide inspiration, friendship, and love.
In the process of building these relationships, I want you to take seriously the responsibility you accrue as a result of your membership in this community. It is a responsibility which includes never taking for granted the privileges that come with the opportunity to study here. At the same time, I want you to be bold enough to take some risks by exploring new avenues that will best enable you to carry out our mission of using liberal learning for purposeful engagement in the world. Keep in mind the words of Helen Keller in “Let Us Have Faith,” who warned that, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than out-right exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
So, go behave like free spirits in the face of fate, be mindful of the ways in which you are contributing to this mystic unity of which we are a part, and don’t hesitate to call on me if I can help you in any way along your journey, now and throughout your lives.