Convocation 2013: Lynn Pasquerella

Tuesday, September 4, 2013

Lynn Pasquerella, President of Mount Holyoke College

Introduction of Michelle Brooks-Thompson

Welcome to our amazing class of 2017, to the phenomenal class of 2016, our exceptional class of 2015, to my first-ever firsties--our extraordinary seniors, the class of 2014, to our remarkable FPs, to all of our alumnae and to our dedicated and talented faculty and staff.  It is my pleasure to introduce Mount Holyoke’s favorite star from The Voice, and 2006 alumna, Michelle Brooks-Thompson.

 

never fear/change

Over the last few days as you pulled through or walked past the Field Gate, I’m sure you noticed the bright blue welcome banner saying: “Mary Lyon Saw You Coming.”  And indeed our entire Mount Holyoke community has had you in our sights. We’ve been hard at work preparing for your arrival.  “How hard,” you ask?  Let me give you some specifics.  Our facilities team has scrubbed and waxed every inch of residence hall space: over 1,000,000 square feet.  That’s 20 football fields of buckets and mops and buffers.  Our LITS staff moved 30,000 books over the summer to make way for more books and more study space in the Reading Room. And they registered to the campus network a total of 2,212 computers, smart phones, tablets and other mobile devices.  Our dining service is poised to serve 29,000 meals a week.  Meals that include 3,636 eggs, 2,432 slices of cheese, 330 pounds of tofu and—who could forget—1,000 of those Chef Jeff cookies.  Our 298 professors have fired up 685 syllabi.  And that’s just for the fall.  Wait until you see the spring!  Every tree, every pillow, every academic journal, every knife, fork and spoon has been pruned and puffed and positioned and polished just for you. Why, even Jorge, the Mount Holyoke goose, has been practicing his honk.

We’re ready for DAY ONE and we know you are, too.  But that first DAY ONE?  The very first day that Mary Lyon opened the door at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Were they ready then?  The answer is yes and no.  On that first day in 1837 Mary Lyon worried about a thousand details. One observer reported “the day came before the house was fully ready.” And it’s true.  The front door was without steps, the windows had no blinds, stoves were not yet set up in student rooms, delivery of furniture had been delayed by storms and no one even knew where the new bedding was. 

One of the trustees saw no other solution but to pitch in and help.  The first sight many new students took in was Deacon Safford on hands-and-knees setting up bedsteads.  “We are in glorious confusion,” he good-naturedly bellowed. Small comfort, perhaps, to the 116 students who had paid a whopping $60 for tuition, room and board.  (The next morning--by the way--“board” meant mashed potatoes, bread and butter for breakfast.  And while I am a big fan of comfort food , don’t worry, we have plenty of eggs and cereal now!)

We’re lucky to have a reliable record of what one young woman from Vermont experienced when—noticing there were no front steps in place--walked around to the back of the seminary to begin her great adventure.  Within minutes, she said, Mary Lyon appeared, her “face all aglow and under the traditional turban.”  “Come right up the stairs,” Lyon said. “You have come to help us.”  There was a lot to do, of course, and academics were at the top of the list: courses in history, chemistry, physiology, and rhetoric.  Four instructors, including Mary Lyon, handled all the teaching.  You wonder what passersby must have thought as they looked at the big five-story seminary building at night.  It glowed from the light of a hundred oil lamps: a great fortress of women lit up, blazing--incandescent almost.  It is not surprising that “phosphorescence” was one of Emily Dickinson’s favorite words. She must have seen it here. Felt it.  And speaking of the light.  On some occasions, there was only one light burning deep into the night.

Once--in the early years of the seminary--student Mary Webster got all caught up in a book she was reading--Days of Bruce: A Story from Scottish History. She said she could not sleep and ignored the bell to retire.  Now let me tell you: at Mount Holyoke in the nineteenth century--you did not ignore the bell to retire. Breaking a rule would cost you.  Mary was taking a chance.  Luckily, one of Mary’s teachers was sympathetic.  Maybe, like Mary, she once had been so engaged by a book that she was willing to risk it.  Maybe she, too, had experienced the thrill of a book’s ideas or the rush of plot or the thunderbolt of imagery.   The teacher decided Mary’s lamp could remain lit.  “For something very necessary,” she reportedly said.  Mary read until almost midnight.  I think all of us probably have kept the light on too late “for something very necessary.” A passion for reading, after all, is one of the reasons we all are here.

When I think of DAY ONE, I have to admit that I also think of my own first day at Mount Holyoke.  It was 1978. I was a 19- year old transfer student.  I arrived in “my uniform”—a pair of Lee’s jeans, a Mount Holyoke sweatshirt and Dock Siders. That DAY ONE, I received the key to 103 Dickinson House.  I felt excited. I felt eager. But I also had the uneasy feeling that someone would discover that I didn’t truly belong. 

I guess my family knew that.  Within weeks of arriving, I pulled an orange envelope from my mailbox.  It was from my grandmother: a letter offering me encouragement.  Trying to light a spark.  “I was talking to the school teacher who lives upstairs over me,” she wrote, “and told her you were going to Mt. Holyoke College and she said that was the college she wanted to go to but her folks couldn’t afford it. She also told me to tell you not to worry about your marks-- that a B or a C was as good as an A at any other college… I hope you like it there and don’t get discouraged if it’s hard.  I know you will make it.”

It was hard and, as you know, I did make it.  I was encouraged in my quest by many people: my community college prepared me, Mount Holyoke professors inspired me, and my dorm mates offered support and cheered me on in countless ways.  But I also was fueled by a most unlikely place: a light switch factory.  The summer I was 16, I did “piecework” alongside my mother at Arrow Hart, an assembly plant that manufactured light switches. I learned a lot about light switches that summer, but I also learned a lot about gender.  I learned that gendered power structures kept women on-the-line while men supervised them. Institutional sexism was evident in pay, in rank, in behavior, and even in sanctioned bathroom breaks.  When my mother became a shop steward, I also saw that an opportunity to lead could transform those sexist structures. Leadership gave dignity, respect, independence and a sense of the future that all too many women couldn’t imagine.  Working-the-line with those women literally “flipped a switch” in my understanding of what women could do together. They gave light to my understanding of solidarity, self-worth, possibility and power. 

This year at the College, we are rolling out a new charge: “Never Fear/Change.”  The phrase means be bold, self-aware, future-focused, optimistic, fierce.  We want you to look at the changing world with confidence: confidence not only to face change, but also to lead it.

Mount Holyoke College has produced many women who have led change, not the least of which was a shy, awkward young woman from Amherst, Massachusetts who stayed one year at the seminary, then left and changed the world word-by word-by word.

“Here comes the Emily Dickinson quote” you’re saying.  Right?  Well, there’s a reason we quote Dickinson around here.  She’s brilliant! And 150 years after she wrote such startling verse, her words continue to speak to us, unsettle us, bewitch us.  But I hesitate to call her “our” Emily Dickinson.  Even though Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke in 1847 and studied with Mary Lyon herself, we don’t own her.  Quite frankly, we can’t. Emily Dickinson is larger than that.  She belongs not to us alone, but to the entire world.  Her words belong to human consciousness itself.

Dickinson used to say, “my Business is Circumference.”  She meant, I think, that her brain was wider than the sky, that everything interested her, and that the whole wide world was hers.  The whole world: what she loved, what she didn’t understand, even what she was tempted to turn away from.  Dickinson never flinched.  Her poetry is filled with moments that go right up to the edge of wonder.

Writing to her cousins in May of 1863, she told them “I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it.”  (Letter 281)  Dickinson wanted to “light the danger up”--not turn away from it.  She wanted to look boldly at what others couldn’t or perhaps didn’t want to see.  She wanted to use every ounce of her being to live life and understand it.

This year we are drawing to a close the 175th anniversary of Mount Holyoke’s founding.  Today--at this very moment--we take the first step toward the next 175 years.  We want you to step toward what is difficult. We want you to face the future with energy, openness and grit.  Like Mary Webster back in the seminary—keep the lamp burning. Like the women trying to make the quota on the light switch factory line--flip the switch of opportunity, solidarity and leadership.  Like Emily Dickinson—“light the danger up.”

I invite you as Mary Lyon did to her students on DAY ONE:  “Come right up the stairs.  You have come to help us.”  And in the process, never fear/change.  Thank you!

 

Sources

Dickinson, Emily.  The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Manuscript file of Mary Webster, Mount Holyoke Class of 1855, MHC Archives and Special Collections.

Mount Holyoke Seminary: First Half Century. Published by Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.  MHC Archives and Special Collections.