Because of You…
Yesterday was Harvard’s Graduation and, for those who haven’t seen one, it’s like any other graduation you’ve ever seen except super-sized. It’s higher academia on steroids, the royal wedding of college commencements. Lady Gaga couldn’t dream up some of the performance art on display yesterday morning: the top hats and tails, the parade of faculty in their courtly (ie. court jesterly) regalia. The sheriff of Middlesex County calling the ceremony to order, as he’s done every year for a few centuries; the fresh and/or bleary eyed young troops, on the cusp of a new life. Harvard traditions are just shopworn clichés most of the year, but not yesterday. Not for me, anyway.
The morning starts early, as we lead our students from Pforzheimer House into the Yard, bagpipes blaring as we make our way into Memorial Church, stopping traffic and dodging tourists, for the seniors-only service of hymns and reflection. Most of the students are too excited or hung over to appreciate the moment, but I always pause to read the engraved names on the wall in memory of all the Harvard men who died in World War Two. That phrase, “gave their lives” – not lost – catches me every time. I’m struck by all the Anglo-Saxon names, with just a few Southern and Eastern European ones interspersed, which seem almost foreign to this 21st century ear. And of course: their youth.
I wonder, too, about how our new graduates will fare in the world, what sacrifices they will be willing, or required, to make. As House Masters, one of our singular duties is the signing and conferring of diplomas. My husband and I have a vested interest in how these amazing young people turn out; we’ve lived and taught and worked with them for years. Will they make good on Harvard’s charge to “advance knowledge, promote understanding, and serve society?” I don’t know how that squares with a newly minted job at Goldman Sachs, but I do know what it’s like to be young and hungry. I try to reserve judgment, mostly. Life is long and there’s time to find life’s passion.
It’s hard to be unmoved – and I do try – by the way that incredible expanse of past and future, which co-mingle pretty uneasily most of the time, comes into perfect alignment on one leafy, blue-skied commencement day each year.
And I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition yesterday as I watched Representative John Lewis receive his honorary Doctor of Laws degree. John Lewis of Alabama, son of sharecroppers, who was beaten bloody at Selma and marched on Washington with Dr. King. John Lewis, our civil rights warrior, our civil rights hero, about whom Barack Obama wrote, when he became president, just this: “Because of you, John.”
Universities are unsentimental places, as a rule. But when John Lewis was called to receive his honorary doctorate, Harvard’s family, 30,000 strong, rose to its feet and cried.
My wish is that one day someone will say that about each one of our graduates: Because of you.