Kathleen Burke ’03
President Hansen, distinguished members of the faculty and staff, family members, and honored guests, on behalf of our Class, thank you for joining us today to begin the celebration of our commencement and the promise of the years to come. And to my fellow Classmates, congratulations. We’ve made it. This is truly a special event both for Bates College and for each of us in the Class of 2003. The effort, persistence, faith, and passion it took to reach this day are a testament to all of us gathered here — both those who will graduate tomorrow and those who have helped us to do so. This ceremony itself is a reflection of some of the passion, love, and creativity found in our Class, a Class whose unique identity I will talk about briefly today.
As each of us has struggled individually to find ourselves over the past four years, so too has our Class and our age group in the world of pop culture. Somewhere in between Generation X and Generation Y, we were the children of the Eighties without a label to our name. But something curious has happened over the past ten years. In the very years when our search for identity was undergoing its defining moments, a new and expression of pop media culture and media frenzy emerged, in apparently endless variations: reality TV.
When we were in junior high, MTV advertised a new show called “The Real World” which soon became a hit for publicizing the “true drama” of interpersonal relationships and living. Similarly, the emergence of “Survivor” in our sophomore year had everyone questioning social Darwinism and the outcome of a constructed television game. Some of us watched these shows; others refrained in disgust. But these shows had a profound effect on our lives and on the people our class would become.
While television constructed a reality of how people live together, we struggled with life in our dorms, sharing treasured late night talks as well as bathrooms, negotiating personal lifestyles and beliefs with fellow classmates in an intensely personal manner. While television asked us “Who wants to marry a millionaire?” each of us struggled with our own personal relationships, realizing that love is not an equation or a formula but an intricate dance, to which some, if not many of us, have not quite yet learned the steps. While competitors fought on “Survivor” for immunity, we dealt with a world sadly distanced from immunity to hardship. Together we confronted such difficult realities as a white supremacist rally in our city and the complexities of racism in our community and on our own campus. We worked in schools and in shelters, and ate meals with people whose “realities” were sometimes very different from our own, and sometimes quite the same. This was not immunity. It was opportunity – a chance to learn with and from members of our own community, a chance to ask hard questions of ourselves and to take important risks. As viewers tuned in to watch “Mr. Personality,” we were constantly amazed by the personalities of those around us, amazed by both their beauty and depth. Personality was not a construct, but a fluid truth, something we searched for and revealed to one another and to ourselves.
Paul Simon’s well-known song “Under African Skies” notes, “This is the story of how we begin to remember…after the dream of falling and calling your name out, these are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.” We sit here today surrounded by the natural beauty of Maine, the beauties of this institution, and the understood beauty of our collective experience. And we must sit a bit taller with the knowledge that we are now beginning “the story of how we begin to remember life at Bates.” I am proud to say that we have grappled with life and risen above the constructed media alleged to define our lives. And I am eager to see how the “roots of our rhythm” that remain at Bates will grow in the years to come.
Poet Maya Angelou writes, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer them.” For each of us leaving today, our years at Bates have done a bit of both. While we came in yearning to know absolutes and formulas, we found instead that life is full of variables and curveballs, and that each of these twists brims with opportunities for invaluable learning and understanding. While some of us researched the Crusades or synthesized carbohydrates in the chemistry labs, we also learned that individual responses to war are multi-faceted, and that decisions about life after Bates might not be as clear-cut as we had first imagined.
We have all lived our lives in a world demanding answers and results. The so-called “winners” of reality TV come out on top with money, drama, contracts, spouses, makeovers, or whatever other supposedly exciting “prize” enters the mind of a Hollywood producer. But here in Lewiston, Maine, our experience was vastly different from “reality television.” It was a true experiment in reality.
None of us can gain immunity from life; neither would we want to. We leave Bates today with torches of wisdom and countless resources for the next leg of our journey. We leave as well with the confidence that we can rise above all pseudo-realities constructed for us, that we can engage reality itself.