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Why We Need to Call It Commencement

Graduation season is eerie, one of the more salient markers in the cycle of returns we call life. I am struck this year by how familiar all these end-of-an-era manifestos (ranging from articles to speeches to Facebook statuses) seem, how much they have in common with the reflections of my own graduating class just one year ago. Even considering the myriad ways in which they diverge from each other, there is a certain commonality in every attempt to summarize and make sense of the experience that takes place between the bookends of matriculation and graduation. Namely, we seek to make sense of ourselves in a way that transforms our own singular lives into threads of the same grand tapestry. We want to gather up and articulate all of the knowledge we feel we’ve gained over those months that quickly bloomed into years, that span of time called “college” that is unanimously understood as deeply formative and brimful of answers for us. We seek to be a part of something comprehensible and communal. We don’t want to be alone.

But being human is frustratingly ordinary, and this doomed desire to fit our little collection of moments into cohesive, overarching narratives is as old as recorded history itself. I am guilty of it too, of course — writers are the worst offenders for medicating loneliness with soothing narrative. We want to figure it all out, and shouldn’t we be able to? After all, simply by going to Dartmouth each of us has acted on some faith, somehow, that true knowledge is not only attainable but fulfilling and valuable (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, in fact). We have dedicated years of our lives to the academy, whose foundations would crumble without some collective sense among us that collaborative efforts to offer useful criticism and analysis will illuminate our understanding within any field of study. We believe in answers, or at the very least, we want to.

Telling our own stories gives us the same sort of framework that comes from having an occupation, an address, a job title, being an ‘11 or a ‘12 or a ‘65 — we ground ourselves in the ritual of naming. I remember myself during freshman trips, already picking up on a sense of the childishly absurd yet uncannily charming spirit of Dartmouth (and even this particular return-to-the-beginning reminiscence about DOC trips is by now overdone to the point of being a rite of passage among nostalgic alums). Before I’d had a chance to be indoctrinated into a fraction of what together constitutes those moving goalposts of “Dartmouth culture,” I was struck by how important it seemed to the kids in charge to keep even the moldiest of traditions alive. They just scraped the gross parts off and made us square dance.

Despite my dedication to my own self-seriousness, I did recognize and appreciate the comfort of sharing in an experience which had, however arbitrarily, remained identical throughout the arrivals of generations of incoming Dartmouth students over the years. Yes, the idea of a universal “Dartmouth experience” or even “college experience” is constructed and at times forced to the point of being wholly artificial. Beyond that, a fervent dedication to tradition for tradition’s sake may very well serve to harm and impede necessary change and renewal within a community. I acknowledge that.

But sometimes we have to allow ourselves to want to feel at home, to want to feel as if we know just where we’re going and be reassured that someone will always understand. It is quite likely that won’t be true all the time for most of us, but why else bother? Why else expend words and breath and time on each other? There are nights, out by the observatory, when you can look at the sky and know that whether tomorrow comes or not, you have felt at home somewhere. There are times when the only thing to do is jump in the river, or (tell a freshman to) touch the fire, or give advice you were never qualified to give in the first place. There are times to pretend that we know something, or else all of the unknown that is to come may drown us beneath its stark and foreign surface. There are times to weave answers and manufacture certainties from scraps of best guesses and tangles of half-remembered nights when we touched upon truth while yelling over the bass and knocking over three half-cups. We need that. Just let us have that.

Happy tomorrows to each and every graduate of today. I wish you all the best out there.

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