2003 Commencement: Senior Class Speech

Sarah W. Walker

Before I begin my speech, I’d like to share with you all a note that I just found today that I wrote to myself when I graduated from high school. I wrote it to serve as sort of a list of guidelines to keep in mind in college.

  1. If ever chosen to speak at Amherst graduation, do not make pop culture reference, as mention of Backstreet Boys hit single, “I Want it That Way,” met with deadly silence at high school graduation speech.
  2. Take lots of math and science classes, possibly become Chemistry major.
  3. Overcome fear of saying “vagina” in public, possibly by participating in Vagina Monologues.
  4. Stop using urban phrases like, “Let’s Bounce,” as makes me sound excessively geeky and white.
Sarah W. Walker '03,
Speaker for the Senior Class

Wow, that was a long time ago. Anyway, What the hizell is up, Amherst! Holler back! I’m pretty psyched right now because I’m graduating as a double major in Art and English, not to mention that I just blasted “In Da Club.” That song rocks, am I right?? Not as much as the Vagina Monologues though. So I hear. I wasn’t in them. Hmmm. Well then.  I guess my point is, rules are meant to be broken. Nothing goes as planned. Oh, wait. Sorry, guys, I forgot something from the list. It says, “Stop using cliches in everyday speech.” Oh well. I guess it takes one to know one.

We’ll get back to what I haven’t done in a minute. But first, what has Amherst given to me?  What am I taking away from here after four years? What I’d really like is an inventory, a list of tangible items that I can pack up and take away, and possibly sell on Ebay one day for an exorbitant price. I don’t think my student ID will go for much, and I assume school-issued extra long mattresses don’t count. And I guess you’re not supposed to take those. But, for example, my friend got a free computer from Amherst. I’d like one. Especially since I’ve discovered that my Macintosh technically isn’t a computer, and was actually made out of cardboard and pieces of a Fischer Price record player in 1982. I have no idea how I get on the Internet.

Well, obviously, probably the most important thing Amherst has given me is an education. But who can put a price on that? My parents and their lifetime of debt can. And now if you’ll excuse me, folks, I have to refer to another list that I was issued by the school upon being selected as Commencement speaker. It is entitled, “Things to Mention In Graduation Speech.” So I’ll just check off the box that says, “Standard ‘Outrageous Price of Tuition Joke’” and we can move on. Well, according to this list, I’m supposed to say something about Lord Jeffery Amherst and smallpox. Oh, wait, that’s under things NOT to mention. Sorry, my fault.

But back to me. Maybe I shouldn’t concentrate on the material aspect, and ask myself, what has Amherst taught me? After all, I did come here to learn. Well, as an English major, I have been taught that sarcastic and ironic mean the same thing, ironic just sounds more intellectual. I also now know how to pronounce the word “banal.” (it’s not BAnal). As a Fine Arts major I’ve learned the invaluable use of words such as “juxtaposition” and “aura.” From the couple of LJST classes I’ve taken I’ve learned that if I commit a crime I shouldn’t do it in Texas, and that if I ever choose to do something obscene I should call it art, and will probably get away with it, at least in appeals. Every class I’ve taken has taught me the magic of Courier New Font, which can turn a barely five page paper into a ten page wonder, at the expense of all intellectual pride and general aesthetic value. I have also learned that if I want to get that apartment in New York City next fall, I’m going to have to come up with the best darn lip sync I can muster. Thank goodness Amherst has prepared me for real world situations such as these. See, right there, I was being ironic. Or sarcastic. Maybe both. Whatever. I’ve also learned that sledding down Memorial Hill on a tray stolen from Valentine, the quintessential Amherst experience, is only fun in theory and bitterly disappointing in practice. Why can’t we just use real sleds? I’ve learned that I will never master the nuances of the Winter Parking Ban, and whoever designed the Social Dorms around the Little Red School House was on some sort of hallucinatory drugs at the time. I know it was the 60’s and all, but let’s be serious. I’ve also learned that I haven’t done enough here. And that is my biggest fear as I graduate, and maybe some of you share it with me.

Today I was looking back over four years of college with, I realized,  a nostalgia over things I hadn’t actually done. Like the other day I thought about how cool it was when I started that foundation for the needy or abused farm animals or something and won that award for writing that brilliant paper on how I discovered some new metabolic pathway in lab and then celebrated by camping in the bird sanctuary for five days surviving on food I grew myself. You see, none of that ever happened. I don’t even know what a metabolic pathway is. And where the hell is the bird sanctuary? Does it actually have a lot of birds? I don’t know. But one of you does. And that’s the beauty of Amherst. It gives different things to different people. Amherst sneaks into your life over four years. You can never fully wrap your arms around it, but that’s the thing. Our growth and change is so imperceptible because our lives have been in this amazing context for four years where so much is available that it’s hard to even scratch the surface. That’s why you have to appropriate everyone else’s experiences to go along with you own. That’s why hopefully all of you made friends, or at least a friend, and discovered that everyone brings something different and valuable to the table. And if you don’t acknowledge this, I’m sorry that you’ll remain annoyingly pompous for the rest of your life.

But no matter how many people you got to know or how much you did, or didn’t do, it’s not until you’re sitting on the Freshman Quad, listening to/giving a speech for Commencement that you say, “Oh My Sweet Lord, I am really graduating??” The answer is yes, you and I both will be thrown out into the cold world of employment...and unemployment. Hopefully if you’re on the unemployment side you were nice to the people who do have jobs and can live off them for a while. For example, I prepared for my unemployed future in New York by choosing a roommate who has a job at an investment banking firm. While I retain my soul and free time, she will be bringing home the rent money, if she ever does make it out of the office. I suppose I can also credit Amherst for teaching me how to think ahead. So, despite a certain debt-ridden, possibly homeless future, if my roommate decides to kick me out after hearing this speech, I feel strangely prepared, even ready, to graduate. Because even if you took five day weekends your senior spring, Amherst, the campus, the professors, all of you, affects you in an indelible way that, I believe, gives you a feeling of confidence and ease as you leave...even if you never wrote a thesis or made best friends with a world renowned professor. Hey, if nothing else, at least I’m not vegan (though I do enjoy their dessert options and tortellini available at Valentine). No matter how you feel, and though nothing ever goes as planned, you’re more ready than you think you are to graduate. So let’s do it

Photo: Frank Ward