“Why does King Lear suffer? What is a neutron?” poet Billy Collins asked a crowd of 3,000 anxious graduates, proud parents, and supportive friends, during his speech at Lehman College’s commencement ceremony last Thursday morning in the Bronx's Bedford Park neighborhood.
“It’s not about knowing the answers to these questions,” Collins said. “It's about having the intelligence to know how to think.”
Emphasizing his point, Collins quoted the biography of Noah Webster, founding father of Webster’s Dictionary. For Webster, Collins said, “completing the requirements for his degree would signify not that he was a learned man, but that he had acquired the necessary tools to become one.”
Gloriana B. Waters, a vice chancellor at the school, echoed Collins' theme. “Your time here has not only given you the education but the knowledge and with hard work and tenacity you can accomplish anything. You are all success stories!”
Aside from acquiring the tools necessary to be successful, another theme hammered home during the ceremony was pride.
Collins said communal pride is part of any graduation ceremony, “but it’s more poignant here [in the Bronx, at a commuter school where many students have families of their own] because you have had to work for it. Instead of throwing a frisbee on the leafy campus of some New England college, you were getting on the 4 or the 6 [train] to get to your job on time. Instead of playing Quidditch, which I’m told is a game you play with a broomstick between your legs, you were picking up a child at the daycare center or racing home to let in a younger sibling.”
While many grads dabbed the corners of their eyes and smiled at the messages of pride, hard work, and friendship, it was class speaker Michael Hintze who stole the stage, delivering a bittersweet message full of hope and despair.
“We knew what we needed to do in order to graduate, but the truly unfortunate and truly amazing thing about life is that there are no general requirements,” he said. “And now, the world is troubled. Things have changed since we entered college in 2007, back before HD and Twitter, life was simpler,” he said, as the soon to be grads laughed.
Hintze, who doubled majored in Math and Computer Science, added that “the real world is a broken world. What went wrong? We did our part. We worked hard and were told when we graduated there would be a job for us.”
Hintze, as he says, is “seeking refuge” at graduate school in California. But he said most of his classmates face an uncertain future.
“So what’s the silver lining of it all?” he asked. “Well, maybe we are. Maybe this generation can address the real internal healing that is needed in this country. Maybe we can put an end to the “get rich or die” mentality. Maybe we will be the generation to have more pride in a new education system than a new car…After all we are the Obama Generation and the world desperately needs us .” The crowd erupted in cheers.
After the ceremony, grads scrambled to take photos with their families and to say their last goodbyes to teachers and friends. Many expressed a sense of relief.
Eddie Koblstein admits that he is “kinda sad” that he is leaving. “I’ll miss the online classes,” he says with a smile.
“It feels amazing,” Stefi Louissaint said. “It’s over….well, until my masters that is!”
“I’m so relieved!” David Sampong exclaimed. “But this is just the beginning,” he said.
“I am just so proud of him,” Sampong’s girlfriend, Nana Yaa Ayisi said, putting her arm around him.