Monday, January 2, 2012

Graduation Speech by Kendra Little (1998)

Kendra Little is a 1998 graduate of Shimer College. She currently works as a Senior Database Administrator. The following is the text of the address she gave at the Spring 1998 commencement.

Part I

"Friendship," wrote Oscar Wilde, "is far more tragic than love. It lasts longer."

In the past months, thinking about my time at Shimer, I have come to understand this claim. I want you to hear my thoughts. This is something that makes sense now, set against an audience composed of people who we have left and are leaving, in one way or another. Here are many of our friends and families. We have often talked about how we left these people to come to these books, these discussions, this community. We came to this education, and we came back, and we came yet again. In doing so, we stood ourselves apart from all sorts of pasts, familiarities, and happinesses to come to this strange little college, this education. This was not easy.

Here also are many from our community of recent years—those we have known in and out of class. We together have haggled over words, ideas, and decisions. We have read, talked, written, and moreover we have made some change together. This I believe: our learning has been important beyond ourselves as students. When we went to class, to meetings, to our jobs, we shared some influence with both other students and those who work here. Our attempts at reading, writing, speaking, and listening not only helped determine the nature of our classes, but also affected the community, the College as a whole in a substantial way.

This was not inevitable. We have not simply been a part of Shimer College, but in an important sense we have been Shimer College because we put ourselves into this education and risked our understandings of ourselves and of reality. Look at the situation we are leaving behind: We packed ourselves into spaces to read, spaces to sound out our thoughts, spaces for frustration, for again studying, thinking, sounding, and these spaces filled this College. Amid more texts than I can name and more complicated social relations than I care to think of, we have dallied, slept, and wondered in thoughtfulness. We returned to some peculiar kind of learning and interest again and again. And this College is a place so affected by this activity that our changing abilities, our ways of talking and listening, made more of a difference than I feel I can explain.

This interest in learning, and why and how this interest ought not be left behind as we graduate, is related to friendship—the friendship that becomes more tragic than love by lasting longer. I want to talk about our friendship. For comparison and amusement, I want to talk about love first, though.

Part II

I will, out of generosity and a sense of propriety, pass over most of the specific details of how we have loved one another. Our loves have been our passionate attempts to get hold of something—a fevered longing to have possession of some understanding or person, stringent desires to win an argument, to get a particular decision made. We have loved, and we have seen each other love. We have also known the abbreviated nature of our passions. We have experienced and witnessed the fatigue, anger, and boredom that follow love. We have also known the re-invocation of passion and the next decline and fall. Etcetera, etcetera.

I do not mean to criticize love for this brevity. Really, I say that passion’s best feature is this clumsy inability to sustain itself. This is its charm, and it is this that makes love more of a comedy than a tragedy. We have spoken before of the farce that occurred when this someone loved that someone, and when someone was positive that we ought to build a hedge-maze on campus, and when someone was once so certain that Freud was really on to something. Loves such as these are mortal—they passed as have our days of being students here together. It is sad that we go on, apart. It is sad, but it is not tragic. It is what happens now. It is what we expected.

What is tragic is what lingers, what undoes sureness, what troubles our clear ideas and feelings. This thing that lingers is an abiding curiosity. This curiosity is why we returned ever and again to this difficult learning: to books when we were sick to death of reading, to thoughts rehashed too often and dulled from their passion, to people we knew too well, to Waukegan. It is by this interested returning that we made ourselves real and a changing force at Shimer College. It is by this interest that we made the books, the thoughts, and each other fascinating. And we were often fascinating.

This interested curiosity came forth in all sorts of our attractions to one another. We have found in it the charm of a willingness to play carefully with together, to be interested in each another in our books, in our bodies, and in our experiences. What we did here, and what I say we may as well call friendship, was to curiously question each other in a myriad of ways, to play with what each other and therefore the world might be, to practice, again and again, youth. This youth, this friendship, has been a concerted attempt to undo one another’s assumptions. While love is a passionate arrest of the world in a moment, friendship is an injection of a subtle confusion into reality, a troubling of what is so that learning becomes possible, a youthful state where much is undecided. The strange tragedy of friendship, of course, is that as we have become more adept at practicing youth, we have grown older. We are no longer quite ourselves in this friendship, and time and circumstances demand the dislocation of this practice that we have grown so used to in this particular place, in this particular way.

The interest that has made our time here meaningful has taught us to linger while we must move on. Because of this, our removal from this time that especially fostered our curiosity seems pretty tragic to me—we are marked by a friendship that will no longer be present to us as we have known it, and we may ever attempt to recover and reinstall it in a confusing world. We few are not so obviously important and central to the various institutions of the world as we have been to Shimer College.

But what I mean to say, though, is that this interested curiosity is a challenge that we may maintain to the foreboding and often boring landscape of the texts and speeches of the world, both ancient and corporate. As with all that we have read and discussed here, I see no reason to accept that words mean what it seems they say at first, or that their meanings must remain what they have been decided to be. We may ask questions when it is long past the time to ask questions, we may listen inventively and make the most of what we hear, we may say inappropriate things as long as we do so cleverly, we may think when it is clearly inefficient and impolite to do so, and we may, above all, effect a change in one another’s lives that may or may not be obvious. This is what we have done here. This is what we have practiced. As long as we do this, some friendship exists between us, at least in some living memory—tragic or not, it will last, and that is what is important.

I am glad of this. We made a life here, in Waukegan, that was unreasonably interesting. I thank all of you that were part of that, and all of you that supported it. Take care of yourselves, and I hope we meet again.

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