Video: ‘Do you drink the water or the wave?’ asks Baccalaureate speaker Chris Schiff

This year’s Baccalaureate speaker is described as a “mythical wise wizard, like Gandalf the Grey — effusive and emphatically excited.”

That’s only partly why the Class of 2023 chose Christopher Schiff, the college’s reference librarian for music and the arts, as their Baccalaureate speaker. Mostly, it was for another quality described by Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, the college’s multifaith chaplain whose office oversees Baccalaureate. 

Schiff, she said in her introduction, is “simply a really, really good listener.”

“I have loved learning from you, and loved even more those moments when you just stopped by to say ‘hi,’” said Bates reference librarian Chris Schiff as he started his Baccalaureate address on May 27. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College) 

At Bates, the Ladd Library reference desk sits right across from the front entrance of Ladd, so Schiff and his colleagues are familiar faces to Bates students — not to mention friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable.

Like any good librarian, Schiff offers students the nuts and bolts of finding stuff, “wisdom on how to research, structure, and write about the arts and music,” said Longsdorf. 

Watch the Bates Baccalaureate address by Chris Schiff on May 27, 2023:

“But he also has a boundless tender heart in helping students as they sift through challenging subject matter, which as we all know can often illuminate personal challenges in the process.”

As he took to the lectern on Saturday, Schiff told the seniors that the topics they’ve researched together “have been mind-boggling, everything from secret societies to sacred poetry to the genetics of the taste of cilantro.”

And it’s always been a joy. “I have loved learning from you, and loved even more those moments when you just stopped by to say ‘hi’ or made sure to wave hello across the lobby even though you were rushing to another appointment.” 

Schiff and his colleagues serve as reminders that knowledge begins and ends with human connection. “Over the last four years you have paid me the greatest honor that I will ever be paid: You asked me for help when you needed it most, and you put your faith in me that I would help you find the right answer,” said Schiff.

In his address, Schiff used a line from John Fowles’ postmodern novel, The Magus, as his theme: “Which do you drink? The water or the wave?”

Baccalaureate speaker Chris Schiff, reference librarian for music and the arts, walks to the Coram Library Terrace to deliver his address on May 27, 2023. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“I suspect that you thought that getting an education was going to be like drinking water… sensible and predictable,” Schiff said. But of course it was not, mostly because of the tsunami that was COVID.

In high school, when Schiff was asked the water/wave question, he answered, “without any hesitation, that I was going to drink the water.”

And he did. “So long as you ignore the year in the punk band, and dancing in musical theater, and the year on a good old-fashioned assembly line, and the seven or so years washing dishes.”

Every time Schiff tried to reach for a metaphorical glass of water, “the next step in my planned and logical college career, it was a mirage. It would recede into the distance, and instead I would find myself facing chaotic turmoil: the metaphorical wave.”

Some of the waves that tossed Schiff about are similar to the ones that have crashed into Bates seniors. “Lack of money, lack of focus, the need to help family members, a changing world that didn’t seem to value my contribution.”

But, he added, “I had it incredibly easy…. I lived in a world where there were answers to some of the difficulties — the waves — that I faced. My deadlines were flexible, so I could wait for my moment. I could call on family and friends for  help when I was out of resources. 

“The wave faced by you, Class of 2023, has been everything I faced plus a multitude of forces  much more powerful than any I have ever experienced.”

The lesson lies in realizing that “we don’t get to choose logical progression over chaos,” Schiff told them. “Chaos and turmoil are always around us.” Risk takers might enjoy the wave, but as human beings, we can’t survive on chaos and turmoil alone.

“The only answer to the question, which do you drink, the water or the waves, is that we drink both,” he said. Think of baccalaureate as the wonderful moment on the beach “when the waves crest and begin to break all around us.”

“Remember this feeling,” Schiff said, and paused for a beat.

“The wave is and will be here for you and it is the wave that brings water alive. Drink the wave.”