This isn’t a post about how the past four years of my life, four years that have changed me more than any other set of years I’ve lived before, are over — and now I must move on to something else, something new. (Hopefully that something new is a job I am passionate about, an apartment in a city I love, a group of friends and colleagues who make me happy and thoughtful and kind. But this isn’t a post about that.)
This is a post about how, when asked to stand before an audience of my professors, my peers, and my parents, and to speak with eloquence about the years I spent at Stanford, I did it. I may not have been perfect, I may not have said exactly what I wanted to say, but I rose to the occasion and I did justice to my heart.
I stood up at the front of Memorial Church and looked out at all those people and I spoke:
There are many things I could say about my years at Stanford, but it is most tempting to say that I am just lucky to be here in the first place. After all, who am I but some girl from Nebraska who likes to read? I am lucky, unbelievably lucky, to have found a home at Stanford and a place in a department as wonderful as the English department has been. The professors and administrative staff have done so much more than just learn my name; they care about my life even more than they care about my essays; they want not only my success but also my happiness. When I did probably the worst thing you can do upon meeting a potential adviser — that is, break down in tears and rant hysterically about how I had to go to grad school or else I’d be a failure — this professor did not send me away and refuse to ever see me again, although I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had. Instead, she let me cry for over an hour right there in her office, and made me promise to come back in a week, to see how I was doing. In the end, she became my honors thesis adviser and helped me through what has been the biggest intellectual project of my life.
My classmates in the English major have also supported me in ways I never anticipated. They have shared with me the books they love, the stories and poems they have written, the lessons they’ve learned in classes I never got the chance to take. They stayed up with me for all-nighters and bought me doughnuts at two in the morning when I needed an energy boost, and when my vision was too blurry from exhaustion to check for typos, they read my papers and found all the mistakes.
So yes, I have been lucky. And I think most of us in the English major would say we are lucky, for these reasons and for many more. But to say it is just luck, to leave our experience as a matter of fate, is to fail to realize that we must live up to what we have been given, even if it was just luck that gave it to us. Stanford may have made us lucky, and may have left us slightly embarrassed by our privilege, but it has made us better. I am a better reader, a better thinker, and a better human being than I was four years ago. The English major has forced me to be better.
I am well aware, of course, that every other month or so we must justify the existence of the humanities, including the English major. What is its purpose? skeptics ask. What practical skills do you learn by reading a bunch of old books?
Well, look around you. Look at the friends and colleagues you have made, the people you’ve argued about books with, talking about how Virginia Woolf is a genius and Ernest Hemingway is a jerk. Look at the peers who have forced you to think as you have never thought before. And look at the professors who taught you how to write a sentence so that is isn’t just clear and strong and argumentative, but also beautiful. Look at the scholars who have shown you how to love books with your heart and your mind. Look at your parents, your siblings, your friends, your supporters: the people who may have accepted your love of literature, who may love literature too, or who may have balked when you told them you didn’t choose engineering — but who are part of your story nonetheless. These people we have known, and this place we have loved, are part of our story now.
So what is the point of an English major? Well, in the past four years, I have become a very good reader of stories, and that is a skill in high demand — because we are all stories, unfolding, growing, being written with each new day and each new person who crosses our path. Mine may look like the story of a lucky girl from Nebraska who just likes to read, but I know now that stories can be bigger, and better, and more breathtaking than that. I know now that the best stories are not about luck, but about how deeply human a person can become. Luck, both good and bad, will shape the plots of our lives, will bring in new characters and take away old ones, but our stories — stores vibrating with that ineffable something that takes mere plot and turns it into meaning — belong not to fate, but to us. As we leave Stanford, and the English department, let’s claim our stories, claim our humanity, and live up to the beauty of both.
So this is not a post about graduating. That post will come. This is just a post about bravery, about accomplishment, not encapsulated in four years and a million memories, but in one moment, in a walk up some steps, an adjustment of a microphone, and the sound of my own voice echoing around me.