Each year a Middlebury student speaks at graduation. This year I submitted a speech. Reflecting on the past four years was an incredible exercise. In the end, my friend Jenny Johnston was chosen to deliver the speech - she absolutely killed it (watch here).
A week after graduation, I figured I'd share mine anyway.
President Liebowitz. . . Faculty . . . Families . . . and of course classmates. I’m honored to be here. I do feel a bit funny speaking to you today. I haven’t fought as many jellyfish as Diana Nyad. And unlike our resident geographer president Liebowitz, I can’t point out Tajikistan on a map, nor pronounce it correctly. In short, I’m no older than you, so I hardly feel qualified to offer towering insights or advice.
Instead, I thought I’d share two stories.
Both are about regrets.
First story. My father reads the New Yorker every week. And Years ago, he cut out a cartoon and framed it. It’s been sitting on his desk for as long as I can remember.
It’s a picture of an old man lying in the hospital looking out a window. He’s in a small room that is sparsely decorated, like a jail cell or a Battel double. His family is gathered around him. His daughter is crying. And his son is holding his hand.
A small table, holds cards and flowers.
He is on his deathbed.
Excuse me - I should say, “it appears the man is on his death bed.” Maybe this man just likes flowers and holding other men’s hands. If there is one thing I’ve learned at Midd, it’s not to be so hetero-normative. But, for the sake of the cartoon, let’s say the man is on his deathbed.
He’s speaking. Presumably his last words. His family is leaning in to listen. And in little more than a whisper, he says:
“I should have bought more crap.”
I share the story for two reasons.
Partly, I feel quite old myself. Classmates, look at us. We aren’t the same youngsters our parents dropped off four years ago. We don’t have the endurance to go out four nights a week anymore. And by the end of the day, we’ll be carrying canes.
More importantly, I share this story because in this time of transition, many of us have regrets. I recently polled my classmates asking for their regrets and collected over 100 responses. Here are some:
I wish I’d skied Tuckerman’s Ravine.
I should have studied stats and jazz.
I should have eaten more chicken parm.
I should have made more friends in my own class.
I should have gone to SIM (acapella) callbacks.
I shouldn’t have spent so much time on Facebook.
I should have studied things I enjoyed, not things I thought would get me a job.
I should have kissed that guy.
I shouldn’t have spent as much time with Logan Randolph.
My second story is about a regret that I have.
Back in April, I was at the Two Brothers Tavern with my sister Morgan. She’s a freshman at Midd and took one of my favorite classes, contemporary moral issues. After we ordered, Morgan pulled out one of her morality books and a half finished essay.
“Can I pick your brain for a second” she asked. I nod.
“Suppose you are walking to school past a shallow puddle and notice a drowning child. Even if you’re in a rush, you still have an obligation to jump in and save the child. Right?”
“Now, suppose this child is on the other side of the globe and you can help them just as easily – by donating thirty dollars. But you can’t see the child. Are you still obligated to help?”
Thirty minutes later we look up. Our meals are in front of us, untouched. Our faces are red from debating. And all the other patrons are whispering and looking at us. We realize that all the tables are full of families with sons and daughters who look about 18. And we realize why Two Brothers Tavern was packed on a Monday: it’s prospective student week.
My sister and I looked at each other and Morgan spoke quietly “there is no way these guys pick another college after that performance.”
Later, as we walked back to school, I was overcome with sadness. I realized that I could count on one hand, the number of deep conversations like that I’d had with my sister. I wished I’d spent more time with Morgan. I wished I’d introduced Morgan to my friends and met her friends. I regretted that I hadn’t been a better brother.
As my sister and I approached the library she looked over and said something:
“You have to keep helping me with this stuff, Loges, even after you graduate.”
And then I realized, it wasn’t too late. Unlike the man on his deathbed, I wasn’t out of time.
Classmates, you’re not either. Think about it, most of the regrets you shared with me, are statements of value. They are realizations about the importance of family, leisure time, Shakespeare, hooking up… even proctor chicken parm. We can act on these realizations. Understanding what we love, hate, regret and value will help us create joyful and meaningful lives after we leave Middlebury and this wonderful bubble.
Maybe a liberal arts education isn’t meant to teach us big words like hetero normative. Maybe a liberal arts education isn’t even meant to teach us to how to think. Maybe it’s meant to teach us how to live.
Classmates, while we have regrets, we are most emphatically not dying. Infact, far from it. Today we have flowers and cards but they are celebrating birth not death. Our relatives are crying because they are happy, not sad. The very word commencement means beginning, not end.
If there were a cartoon about our class we would not be on our deathbed. We would not be looking out a window. We would be walking through a door together. I believe there would still be cards, flowers and crying relatives. But the caption would read, “I should have done lots of things. And why not start now.”
So, President Liebowitz, families, faculty, Middlebury community, on behalf of my class, I thank you for pushing us, encouraging us to fail, and duping us into trying new things. I thank you for giving us free time and unconditional love. But mostly I thank you for helping us have these regrets at the age of 22. When we have the rest of our lives to act on them.
And to my fellow seniors. I thank you for listening. I look forward to walking out that door together. We are a passionate and powerful class destined for greatness. But more importantly I know that after four years at Midd, we are destined to live joyously. Thank you. And good luck.