Graduation: A Time of Silence

This is a slightly modified version of a speech given at the senior-speak off and intended to be a shortened version of a graduation speech.

A character in some obscure British film I watched once said something that really stuck with me: the best way to forget something, he said, is to commemorate it.

What does it mean to go out into the world with the experiences of four years at Amherst — and what does it mean to hold an Amherst degree? Graduation should be a time where that question presses against us with all its weight and force; where the implications of that question burn within us with constant, raw, energy. Graduation is a time where the meaning of our place in the world must unsettle us — not just personally, but collectively, as a graduating class, as a body of students representative of Amherst and its supposed values. Graduation is a time to ask ourselves what these four years have meant to us, how they have changed us, broken us, questioned us and made us question Amherst; how much our education may have coopted us in structures of power, and how much it has enabled us to challenge these structures when we face “the real world.” (And what does that mean, too? Why is Amherst unreal, isolated, distant? Why is it that our education and experiences here must count for nothing except a degree credential and a leg up to the capitalist job network?)

Yet, too often, we let the institution answer this question for us — we let these answers be foreclosed, predetermined. What does graduation from Amherst mean? Easy. We’re all in this together. Best four years of our lives. Lives of consequences, investment banking jobs, the ability to talk about Plato over drinks in a meeting with a client or at a dinner party, to rave about your “diverse” classmates and “free curriculum,” terras irradiant. We’ve won. We did it.

But for some of us — for many of us, graduation is a time of silence, a time where our experiences are wiped under the purple carpet of institutional glorification and clichéd celebrations. Graduation is a time when we forget that graduating with and amongst us are survivors. Students with anxiety, students who’ve had isolating and alienating experiences at Amherst, students who’ve barely made it through, students who have survived despite, and not because, of the college. Graduation is a time when we forget the microaggressions and the macroagressions we’ve faced here — particularly if we’re women, students of colour, queer, disabled. Graduation is a time when we forget we hold not just a degree affirming four years of outstanding scholarship, but also four years of association with an institution that has its flaws, many of them — a questionable mascot, a history of administrative controversies, a culture of exclusion and elitism.

Graduation is a time when we’re told that if this wasn’t the best four years of our lives, we are outliers, freaks, malcontents, dissidents, menaces, problems that should never be named. Graduation is a time of such pointed celebration, that any message of discontentment is shamed into silence. Graduation is a time when we honour David Brooks uncritically, even as we’ve all taken classes on social justice and the horrors of income inequality and capitalism. Graduation is a time when a smile is a compulsory uniform; when “getting over it” is institutionally demanded.

Graduation is a time when we forget that Angie should have graduated with us right now.

It is against everything we claim to represent as an institution — the seeking, valuing and advancing of knowledge; the engagement with the world around us; the leading of lives of consequence — and I’m quoting all of this from the mission statement here — to allow for such a forgetting, for such a silence. If we are told to ask uncomfortable questions in the classroom, why can’t we ask them now? We must not let graduation represent one more victory of the status quo over the marginalized and the silenced. We must not let graduation be a celebration of complicity and power. We must not let graduation have the final word on our Amherst experience — tell us that it was all “worth” it, for some Latin degree, some image of the perfect liberal arts major, some idea of an elite degree making you a better person in and for the world. We must not let graduation abbreviate, summarize, talk over or cast aside our experiences, for everything they are — good and bad; traumatizing and invigorating; suffocating and liberating; isolating and unifying — into a neat and prepackaged message.

If we were to celebrate anything this graduation — let us celebrate the dissidents amongst us. Let us celebrate our resistance, our capacity to care for each other and for the issues we are passionate about so much we butt heads with the institution, our bonds of solidarity that we have formed with our fellow students, with professors and with staff, that have helped us survive these four years. Let us celebrate our sleepless nights holding a friend and comforting them when life gets too much, and saying, to hell with papers and academia, my humanity and my love matters more. Let us celebrate the times we have sacrificed our classes for our education, rejected our busywork and our grades in favor of really learning. Let us celebrate the times we stood up, with signs and microphones and our disruptively loud voices; the times we walked out of classes; the times we called out administrators and deans and lawyers and professors because our solidarity with each other incapacitated our fear; every protest, every challenge, every push towards making this place better for our friends and our peers.

Let us celebrate all of us on the margins, all of us who don’t fit into the boxes of successful liberal arts college graduates with fat paychecks, all of us who fought the networks of elitism and cultures of oppression that the Amherst bubble isn’t immune from. Let us celebrate an education that allows us to articulate our own complicity with power, and question and destroy it: not an education that helps us perpetuate it. Let us celebrate those of us who’ve faithfully tried to follow the tradition that’s always lived on at Amherst despite every attempt to suppress it: the tradition of those who sat in at Converse until a Black Studies department was formed; the tradition of those that pushed the college to divest from apartheid despite the backlash; the tradition of those who battled the administrators till their voices were hoarse to include women at this college. Let us celebrate those of us who don’t ask, but demand; who don’t stand by, but push: let us celebrate the spirit of Amherst that lives on despite and not because of the institution.

Let’s not let graduation represent our silence any more. This graduation, let’s toast not to the winners, or the leaders, or the paychecks or the honors — let’s toast to the fighters.