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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Commencement Address, December 10, 2005

By Dr. Nancy Barrineau
Faculty, English, Theatre and Languages

To all the distinguished members of the platform party, staff, faculty, and administrators, distinguished guests, but most importantly the graduates, those of you without whom we would have nothing to celebrate today. My goal today is to speak to the graduates not only for myself but also for my colleagues, the faculty members who have taught you over the past four-and-a-half years it has taken you on average to graduate (though of course we recognize that some of you are well above average).

In the early years of my career as a professor at UNCP, a stellar student of mine named Michael started a joke that lasted throughout the several courses he took with me. “Hey, Doc,” he’d say before each exam, “are you going to give us a study guide?” “I already did,” I would answer predictably. “It’s called your class notes.” Today, in honor of Michael as well as all the other students who have asked me that question or wished they had the nerve, that’s what I’m finally going to do. As Walker Percy writes in his novel “The Moviegoer,” “You can get straight A’s but still flunk life.” So today it’s time for the real final exam, time to find out whether you have learned the “right stuff” or simply memorized enough to get a diploma.

Tip #1. It’s not too late to study. What I mean is that whether or not you are planning on earning another degree, you aren’t finished learning. The day I earned my master’s degree at the University of Kentucky, I met with my major professor right before the dreaded oral defense. I had crammed in my degree in just over a year, and my biggest panic was not the impending examination but the rest of my life. I remember telling him that I hadn’t been there long enough, hadn’t read enough, learned enough. What business, I asked him, did I have with a graduate degree? In my panic, I had suddenly grasped that the Emperor had no clothes and that, in fact, I was the Emperor. By the time I ended my neurotic little ramble, he was smirking. “Well, Ms. Barrineau,” he said, when I came up for air, “I guess you’ve learned what we intended all along that you would. You’ve figured out that all you know is that you don’t know enough. Now go home and learn the rest of it.” What I found, as no doubt he knew I would, is that there is no “rest of it.” Like the horizon, it merely recedes farther and farther. Your mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to learn incessantly, insatiably, to follow up on the leads all your professors and your classmates have given you. Read the books we’ve recommended that you never had time for, stretch yourself by pursuing as amateurs those subjects that had nothing to do with your major but that fascinated you as you jogged through them or those that eluded you entirely because you were focused on filling graduation “slots.” Study the stars. Learn to play the oboe. Never pass up an opportunity to travel, to Tucson or Kathmandu If you love the beach, become more intimate with it by learning the difference between a sandpiper and a ruddy turnstone, a tiger’s paw and a slipper shell. In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James writes to aspiring writers, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Whatever your plans, resolve to heed his advice.

Tip #2. Never give up on your goals. I’m not talking about stasis, resistance to change, pig-headed insistence on heading for the wrong destination without a map. We all know people like that: our relatives, friends, and classmates who continue to say, “I’m going to be a brain surgeon!” after failing Biology 100 for the third time. But if you want to be a writer, don’t let that job at the video store become your reason for being. If you crave a job helping people, don’t go down in defeat if you discover that sixth graders aren’t your ideal population. Likewise, ignore the voice that whispers you ought to “settle” – even if it’s motivated by a sense of duty to others – the inertia that keeps you in a job you hate because it’s less trouble than pounding the pavement again or because you’d rather earn enough money to make payments on a plasma TV or a BMW than to forego (or at least delay) material wealth. As the great American philosopher and funny man James Thurber once said, “You might as well fall on your face as lean too far backward.” If you haven’t truly examined your own talents – if perhaps your goal has been the diploma alone – do it now, and think earnestly about how your own unique self can find a calling, not merely a job. The “Oxford English Dictionary” tells us that the word “vocation” comes from the Latin meaning “being. . . called or directed towards a special life” or the “natural tendency to, or fitness for, such work.” Some people look for the one perfect mate they believe is out there somewhere in the world waiting for them. I believe that it is the right vocation (if maybe not the perfect one) that awaits each of us, but that we must strike out to find it.

Tip #3. Don’t let false modesty or, perhaps worse yet, your fears, impede your dreams. When I was about two months short of eighth grade graduation (back then in the dark ages we called it junior high), the principal called me in and informed me that a close friend of mine and I were tied for the highest grade point average in the class. It was his foregone conclusion that one of us would be the valedictorian, the other the salutatorian. Both of us would give speeches to a large, beaming crowd of visiting family, friends, and teachers, and – here is the “kicker” – we would have to recite our speeches from memory. In my anxiety, in my firm belief that I could not rise to that challenge, I decided that day to “throw” the race. I left a question blank here, answered a question wrong there, until I had ensured that I would end the year not first nor second, but exactly third. Secretly, then, I was proud of my cleverness. Now I look back on my childhood self and think, “What a wasted opportunity!” – not the opportunity to say something of importance (I’m not sure that at 14 I had all that much to say to a crowd) but to find out exactly what I was capable of. Let me share a secret with only the three thousand or so of you in the audience (and those watching on cable TV, if anyone is): all my life I have retained that terror of speaking to large crowds–even, to be honest, small ones, such as, say, a sophomore class whose students I don’t yet know. But what if I had decided to “throw” the Board of Governors Award because I would be forced to stand before all of you today? Much worse, what if I had let those fears keep me from the vocation that has been my passion for the past two decades? The answer is that my life–and maybe even some of yours–would have been far poorer as a result.

Tips #4 and 5. Of course I’m going to encourage you to strive for excellence at whatever you choose to do. I know that some of you have called me Dr. Barracuda and probably worse behind my back. I’ve been tough on you, and some of the other faculty members you will remember the longest–and eventually perhaps the most fondly – have been, too. But we didn’t do it – well, at least most of us – because we are sadistic power mongers. Instead, we’ve tried to teach you critical thinking skills, how to think for yourselves beyond the earning of the degree; we’ve tried to convince you that your best may lie far beyond what you could ever have imagined for yourself. We believe, with Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “Once a mind is stretched, it never returns to its original shape,” and we’ve worked hard to stretch your minds and make sure that they don’t spring back after today. But make sure you hear the second part: don’t single-mindedly pursue excellence at the cost of your humanness, your relationships, your health, or your sanity. Don’t let the quest for excellence become an obsession. The dirty little secret we don’t always talk about is that sometimes “your best” can kill you or damage the quality of life of those who care about you. So, in addition to a vocation, find at least one avocation that you love. Smell the honeysuckle. Be mindful of the moment you’re in rather than living in either the past or the future. Play. Develop a talent for hilarity. Love at least one person unconditionally – a child (yours or someone else’s who needs a mentor), your aging parent or grandparent, your spouse or significant other – while leaving your defenses at the door. Remember that however important it is to do, it is more essential to be.


Tip #6. In addition to your goals for yourself, make goals for the world that you never give up on. If you’ve ever stood waiting outside my office door, you’ve seen this line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my own patron saints: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” I concur. But I would add that hope is not enough: with it must come a plan, and with that plan, action. The world, especially in the past four years, may seem utterly hopeless in the complexity of its problems. Some of us, indeed, have felt so daunted in the face of a tsunami in Southeast Asia, monster hurricanes in Louisiana and Mississippi, a devastating earthquake in Pakistan and omnipresent war in Iraq that we have done nothing, or next to it, sheltering ourselves behind the excuse that whatever we can do is inadequate. But here’s the paradox: the sheer size of the task means that there will always be infinite possibility for direct influence. Although it’s ludicrous for me to imagine that by myself I can revolutionize agriculture in a world where far too many people have no seat at the table, through a program like Heifer International I can send a dairy cow to Rwanda or Kosovo, a pair of pigs to Cambodia, a flock of chicks to Camaroon, a trio of rabbits to China or to any number of places where, as author Barbara Kingsolver wrote after a recent trip to the Andes with Heifer, the greatest day of a family’s life is not when they receive a goat, but when they give away its first offspring, literally multiplying the gift. You, too, can mobilize your friends and family to do one-hundred fold what you can do yourself, whether it is teaching people to read, getting out the vote, raising money for Relay for Life, or involving yourself in whatever cause incites your passion. Some of you have learned all this while doing service for a sorority or fraternity or taking a service-learning course. I challenge you to continue without the external reward of Chancellors Cup points or a grade, or, if you’ve been too focused on other pursuits to find time, to start now. As Kingsolver writes, “To trust that our lives have meaning, every one of us needs to effect some tangible change in the world.”

Tip #7. Keep in mind that not only intellectually but socially you are not the same person you were when you got here, nor should you return to being that person after the patina of a college diploma wears off. You’ve matured, even if we didn’t get you until you were 30 or more. The 20th-century American poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote: “the world is made of stories, not atoms,” and many of the most interesting ones are sitting around you today. You have gotten to know people–maybe more importantly kinds of people–you would never have encountered if not for UNCP. In fact, according to this year’s U.S. News and World Report annual college survey, we are the most racially diverse campus in both the state and the South. In addition to those racially different from you, you’ve also lived, studied, and played here with women old enough to be your grandmother (or your grandchild), with many students who don’t share your economic background, your sexual orientation, your religion, your political party, your sense of values. Take your new understanding of the wonders of difference and diversity into the wider world. Stretch the social world you live in: don’t be content with conventional wisdom about whom you should care about, associate or forge bonds with. The fairness we have tried to cultivate in the classroom is a small emblem of the justice you can help create in your own community

Tip #8. At the same time that you relish the diversity that you’ve found here, stay grounded in your own heritage, a heritage that I hope many of you appreciate more fully, know more about, than you did when you got here. You may have thought when we required you to take writing and speech classes, to hone your standard written and spoken English that we were asking you to leave that heritage behind. For most of us, nothing could be farther from the truth. Even though we hope we have taught you to communicate more effectively in the language of the marketplace so that you can succeed at whatever you want to do, even though we recognize the conflict inherent in negotiating linguistic and educational barriers, we also hope you will never forget with gratitude where you came from. In her wonderful short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker writes about a character who fails at that task. Dee Johnson journeys from rural Georgia to a northern college where she is educated but also alienated from the culture that has formed her, including her mother and sister Maggie, the one who has remained to carry on the family traditions and family name. At the end of the story, Dee (who has re-christened herself Wangero, in an attempt to reclaim her African roots) leaves in disgust, hurling at her family as she goes, “you just don’t. . . understand your heritage.” Don’t misunderstand here. Do I think Walker is condemning Dee’s education or the fact that she has seized the opportunity to follow her ambition into the larger world? Not for a minute. But although she may not have embodied it in a single character, surely Walker has left us yearning for a synthesis between the sister who stays at home and the one who strikes out for an education. Those of you who are graduating today, especially the many of you who are the first in your families to earn college degrees, have the opportunity to be that synthesis.

Tip #9. Okay, here is where I step on some of your toes. When you get home today, look in the mirror and, if you’ve never done so before, say to yourself, “I am a grownup” and stop expecting your parents’ generation to support you. One day this past summer, when the world was consumed by violence, no article I came across in the New York Times appalled me more than one that focused on twenty-somethings with good jobs and their own apartments who still feel no compunction about loading up their trunks with booty from their parents’ houses when no one is looking: oil paintings, furniture, and expensive bottles of wine, in addition to smaller ticket items like toilet paper and disposable razor blades in bulk. Psychologists have begun defining adulthood as something that is fully underway only by the age of 35. Maybe it is the parent in me–or the forty-something child of aging parents–as much as it is the college professor, but personally, I’m deeply disturbed by this phenomenon. College has been a wonderful chance for some of the more traditional students among you to delay for awhile the responsibilities of absolute adulthood. But now that’s over. You are it: not the next generation, but this one, the one that will quickly be, for better or worse, in charge of much of the world.

You’ve listened patiently to some of my priorities. My last tip is that you find your own and use them to live your lives intentionally, not accidentally. In his post-9/11 essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” Wendell Berry writes: “Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or ‘accessing’ what we now call ‘information’ – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education,” he concludes, “enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” Today, as you prepare to take the “real” final exam, we ask you to think hard about how to “put first things first.”

We’re proud of you. We’re counting on each of you to succeed. And we ask that whatever you do, wherever you go in this wide, wide world, remember to take us with you.

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