Delivered May 31, 2018.
Fellow graduates, friends and family, faculty and staff, guests, and President Lahey –
Thank you for being here to celebrate with us today.
I’ve been advised never to start a speech with “I will be brief,” especially when there are Shakespeare scholars in the room, because it’s always a sign that you have no intention whatsoever of being at all brief. So instead, I will start by talking about someone called Tabitha.
Tabitha is a much-loved member of the King’s community. She’s a hanger-on who tends to come back to visit every year in the early spring. She’s faithful and patient and she has a knack, so I’ve been told, for speaking up at just the right time.
Tabitha, for the parents in the room, is a donkey.
It’s a bit of a FYP tradition to wake up on Palm Sunday, peer out the window, and decide that you must still be dreaming, because it looks as though the quad is full of strange people in long robes, singing and marching and carrying unlikely objects, led by a donkey.
It sometimes takes a while to realize that this isn’t a dream after all, but a perfectly ordinary part of Chapel life, and that the people singing are really not much stranger than what’s considered normal here.
I mention this now because I have never actually met Tabitha. Somehow, I’ve managed to miss her every year. So, for me, Tabitha remains one of those King’s myths that others insist are real, that we always wait to see proof of for ourselves one day. Many of us first came here with our minds filled with some of these myths – like it being possible to write a good introductory sentence to a FYP paper, or to give a proper definition of metaphysics, or to effortlessly navigate the LSC.
Some of you may have seen these particular myths slip into reality. Good for you. I have not.
So, as we wait, we take these myths on faith – “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
But sometimes it’s difficult to define the things we hope for. Studying at King’s is a leap of faith that, by the end of our time here, we will know or have or be something that we can scarcely articulate, let alone see evidence of.
And now, with several years of university and quite a few tater tots under our belts, all we can say for sure, is that, like Socrates, we know nothing. (I hear this is a good thing to bring up in a job interview, or when relatives at family dinners ask about your liberal arts degree.)
This leap of faith can at times feel foolish, fanciful, absurd. Here at university, we’re often told that we’re not living in the real world. And, it’s true, King’s does sometimes seem like a tiny magical kingdom, sheltered from the wind and the busyness outside, a secret place that you won’t find unless you know it’s there, full of mysterious traditions and unanswerable riddles and friendly beasts (Casey and Mocha, of course).
There’s sometimes a feeling that the real world is at bay, waiting to pounce once we leave this place, to batter us with its difficult job market and its overwhelming social and political and environmental crises.
One of the last authors I read for a King’s class was Donna Haraway, who recently wrote a book called Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. In the face of ecological devastation, and the feeling of powerlessness and isolation it induces, Haraway urges the need to forge kinship with strange and unlikely companions, in order to make a liveable future together. Our task, she writes, “is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.”
I can think of no better description of the challenges we are facing, or the task that King’s has prepared us to tackle.
And, if there’s anything that we as a graduating class have done in our time at King’s, it’s to challenge what the “real world” is supposed to mean, and how it came to be this way, and how it could be different.
Journalists here have tackled pressing issues, shone light on the cracks in our systems, and even pieced together an award-winning exploration of how this corner of the world might be if the Halifax explosion had never happened.
Activists here have spent years fighting for our curricula to include voices that have often been left out, for our institution to be more accessible, for our governments to listen to our concerns.
Students here have poured countless hours into organizing conferences and publishing journals and holding events to celebrate and share their classmates’ remarkable work.
People have taken all the discussions we have here about ethics and responsibility to heart, and have volunteered in the community, tutored youth, supported refugees, and contributed in so many other, often unrecognized, ways.
Student workers have built the world we have inhabited for the past few years, the one where if you need to track down a book, or if you need a coffee or beer to get you through one last paper, or if you need someone to talk to late at night when you’re lonely and homesick in first year, there’s always a friend to help.
And artists here have taken us beyond the real, with poetry and plays that transport us to unexpected places, with the snatches of otherworldly music that float through the quad and make the most mundane moment extraordinary.
We have spent our time here making trouble, stirring up response, settling troubled waters and rebuilding quiet places. We have spent our time here making kin, learning and struggling and dreaming with each other. Through all of the battles and existential crises and all-nighters, there has always been the incredible kindness of this community to fall back on. I am continually awed by the way that people here take care of one another. The way that our teachers come to our events, and march with us for free tuition, and make as much time for us as we need because they really, really want us to love Dante as much as they do. The way that students listen to each other, and make us believe that we have things to say worth listening to. The way that the motley assortment of quixotic strangers who arrived here years ago have indeed become kin.
“Making kin and making kind… stretch the imagination and can change the story,” Haraway tells us. She celebrates what she calls oddkin – and we certainly fulfil the criteria for oddity here.
We cannot know, of course, what will happen to the bonds we have formed here after today, when we start to scatter across the world. But, to me, “kin” suggests a relation that does not fade with distance and years of separation and silence. Kin implies a lasting tie which holds fast against the changes of the world, which always brings a responsibility to shelter and protect one another. And somehow, in my mind, this is bound up with the Homeric duty to recognize and welcome in the stranger at the door, the stranger who might become kin. To let the donkey into the quad, so to speak.
Subscribing to this idea of kinship means being able to hold together myth and reality, substance and faith. It’s equal parts intangible abstractions, like the ones I’ve just uttered, and the simple, muddy daily acts that form our lives together.
So, with these strange ties binding us together however far apart we roam, let’s continue making and stirring, settling and unsettling and rebuilding, stretching the imagination and changing the story.