My University offers a student speaker slot at the commencement ceremonies. I auditioned for it. They didn’t pick me but I didn’t really expect it – this is Arts & Sciences, there was a theatre major probably who had been working on their speech for three years.
Anyway here’s the speech.
When you sew a quilt what you start with is several yards of fabric, a set of instructions, and a pair of scissors. Taken together, the instructions and the stacks of uncut fabric against the one pair of scissors seems like a monumental task. But, over the course of hours, days, even weeks depending on how dedicated you are, you whittle down the fabric and end up with an assorted collection of geometric shapes that are sewn together into what eventually becomes, over time and quite a few more steps, a quilt.
There’s a quilt I have on my bed right now. I pieced it together, my mother quilted it, and my grandmother bound it. It was a team effort between a few generations of family. Which, I submit, is a perfectly apt metaphor for the girl who is humbly standing before you today. I’d be willing to bet that it is a good metaphor for many of you as well.
A quilt is a combination of labor, creativity, love, and the guidance and expertise of others with more skill than you. So is a degree. In the Fall of 2013 I stood in the middle of McClung plaza with a backpack full of pens and paper and a schedule. In front of me was four years of essays, term projects, midterms and finals, countless books and readings, lecture after lecture and part-time table waiting. Taken together, the years and papers and books against the one girl seemed like a monumental task. But over time, and with hard work, creativity, passion, and the guidance and wisdom of people with more skill than I, I completed a degree.
We have all worked hard to be here today and we should be proud. College graduates still only comprise 20% of the nation’s working population. The number gets even lower for our own state – 17.6%. There are people in this state who could, and should be sitting here with us. Part of the reason we are here instead is because people in our lives have supported us, have pushed us, and have propped us up at times.
At Orientation, they told us a story about a turtle on a fencepost. A rancher walked past and noticed the turtle. How did it get there, he asked? Did it climb? It was far more likely that someone put the turtle there. I’m essentially saying the same thing today. Only, that metaphor has its limits because what good is turtle on a fencepost?
If all we ever use our educations for is to remain on top of a fencepost, relegated to a pedestal above a huge majority of the population, then we will live our lives with a false sense of superiority and be of no use to anyone. You see, quilts are beautiful but they also provide warmth. They provide comfort. You can take your finished quilt and fold it up and put it in an oak chest away from the world and all the things that might tear or stain it but then what is the point? What good is a turtle on a fencepost? So, graduates, we should all rightly feel pride in ourselves today. All of the support and luck in the world cannot replace the role that perseverance has played. But tomorrow and so on, let’s go into the shadows so that we might give light and warmth to others with the torches we’ve been given and have now earned the right to keep.