What had been a mild mental fog thickened into a cloud of confusion over our heads and the commencement speaker continued, saying, “You have been granted a special gift. You were allowed to go to college instead of working, or raising children. Never forget this. You owe a debt to society, one you must pay back, a dept to the community that let you go to college.”
The woman sitting beside me didn’t just bristle, she dang near turned into a cross between a porcupine and an echidna. She’d worked a part-time job off campus, plus an on-campus work-study, plus earning two scholarships in order to go through school. I think I might have heard something about “I don’ owe society nothin’.”
Behind me, one of my friends intoned, “If we have a debt to society, what do convicted criminals have, huh?”
In case you hadn’t guessed, none of us were pleased with our commencement speaker. At least she didn’t go over time. As it was, we barely got the ceremony finished before it started to rain. Ah, the southeast in the spring.
The speaker went on to a short but notable career in politics, then became an activist, and I think was institutionalized at some point due to a slow-onset mental illness. I hope the person found a way to cope. For us, the speech sort of summed up a lot of what we thought of our four years in the college – off-base, out of touch, and something best left in the Ivy-covered Halls. (The school went through several major administrative foul-ups and shakeups and a few other things during our tenure. And the Biscuit Lady really retired for certain our junior year. We spent breakfasts our senior year in mourning.)
A debt to society? For being able to go to college? If anything we had debts to our parents, banks, the donors who made scholarships possible, and our work-study bosses who let us do overtime. Not “society.” My classmates from Eastern Europe had some pungent things to say in various Slavic languages about the very thought. We might owe the great cloud of people who made Western Civilization so open and prosperous, and the women who had made our college an academic power, but not “society.”
I suspect some of my class agreed with the speaker, though. I’d collided with three of them, one head-on, the other two indirectly. The indirect collisions had led to agreements to disagree and détente, since we had things such as music in common. The direct collision caused me to resign from an honor society and to ignore the other person. She refused to be ignored, so I ignored her and her friends harder. She went on to become a social justice activist. One of the others became a music therapist, if memory serves. The other runs a co-op thrift store and last I heard, she and her husband were fostering two special-needs children. They would likely agree that we had an unearned privilege and needed to pay it back, then “pay it forward” in socially approved ways. The years may also have rubbed some of the idealism off since then, too. Or perhaps not.
As you can tell, that graduation speech still rankles. We were polite, no one stormed out, no one yelled in protest. In truth, most of us were just ready to leave campus. Even those who loved the place were tired. We had places to go, jobs to start, and the like. I have not returned to any of our reunions. The timing is not ideal for someone tied to an academic calendar, and the distance doesn’t make it an easy trip, either.
The last time I thumbed through the mailings from the college development office, my class had the lowest per-capita and total donations of any graduating class to date. I’ve got a good idea why.