Class of 2017 Candlelight Speech – You are the artist of your life

Read at the Candlelight Ceremony on May 12, 2017:

It is such an honor to stand with you tonight on YOUR special occasion. This is your weekend and your Candlelight Ceremony. I am so grateful and I want to give you a moment to remember. I want to give you an Oprah moment – everyone gets a car. I want to make you laugh out loud like when you think about Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes – who does that?? I want to give you a JFK line – asking you to do something for humankind. Not sure I’ll get us to that point – the crescendo moment may be a whisper, but I will be brief and there’s always candles to light at the end. So, let me try to evoke a few emotions for the next ten minutes.

Walking to the School of Education with my cohort to receive our degrees

Walking to the School of Education with my cohort to receive our degrees

When I was a kid I enjoyed drawing, painting and sculpture so much I planned to go to school for it. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I was accepted into art school and I got to showcase my work to the art director. After looking at some of my artwork, he glanced up from his desk, the director explained, “everyone who comes here can draw and paint. Those who belong here speak through their art.” I slunk into my chair. I was suddenly unsure of myself. Do I really belong here?

I was without a plan at a time when I felt I needed it most. I would not attend art school.

And so, life moves on, or so I thought. No longer drawing, painting or sculpting, I was on a new path, with art in my rear mirror, or so I thought. The years passed more quickly than I’d imagined. And nearly twenty years of teaching, advising, mentoring, leading, coaching at William & Mary brings me here – standing before you because some really kind students thought it useful for me to paint a picture for your commencement celebration. I am, in this moment, here with YOU, right where I am supposed to be.

Years later, while I was volunteering alongside some phenomenal William & Mary students in tropical Belize, rain dancing on the tin roof above us, I answered his questions – albeit to myself – I had my answer to his call to action. Each and every painting, photo, drawing or sculpture was wrapped in heavy expectation for the viewer to interpret for herself, what justice looks like. A meticulously crafted pencil drawing of a four-year-old girl who knew little about the racism she’d endure. Through art we refrain experience, offset prejudice, and refresh our perception of what exists so that it seems new and worthy of attention. Through art I was writing a story, on canvas, about how our world is paradoxically perfect and broken simultaneously and it is us, the collective we, and the singular me, who decide its destiny. I realized that I was not destined to paint or draw, BUT that the reflection of the meaning of the art was the skillset I needed to be my better self for you. So, go with me on this, you let me be an artist.

And, I assert, that each and every one of you – is an artist too. You sculpted William & Mary into what you wanted it to be – and here’s why.

A couple years ago, while I was walking through Wren toward DoG Street I discovered a William & Mary secret. Not that there are secret societies. No secret there. Not that some people are in multiple societies – no surprise there. I discovered a different kind of secret while enjoying the beauty of the Wren yard.

Here’s the secret: she is you and you are her. You are William & Mary and she is you. When you succeed so does she. When you hurt, she hurts as well and when you rejoice, in celebration of your accomplishments, she rejoices. She would not exist without you and you’d not be who you are without beloved William & Mary.

Now, there’s more to the secret – For all of her beauty, she is clearly imperfect. Her story is the story of our humanness. And, when I discovered what I’m about to tell you, I was in awe – shocked – like when I learned that Eboni Brown is the Griffin.

Here’s the secret about William & Mary – she is a reflection of us and when we gaze across her horizon, we are not so much looking across a distant landscape as we are, in fact looking into a mirror, soaking in the story of our own life.

And, like us, William & Mary is imperfect. She could have been better in the past and even now. She is scarred and yet we still love her. And, so too, you are scarred and so too we love you.

She chose you and you chose her.

For all of her imperfections, she is beautiful.

And, as she ages, she becomes a better version of herself – and so do you.

And that’s how it is meant to be. With each passing year, with all that you do in between the bookends of the ceremonial walks across campus, you make her better and she the same for you.

I began our time together by expressing my gift of art – that I am an artist, that I grew up an artist and that I am in this moment an artist. And yet, I rarely draw or paint or sculpt with clay. We are all artists – the sculptors of our lives. For a moment William & Mary has been our canvas and each day beautiful works of art created – by you. By you. You are the artist – of your own life and you bring color and brilliance to your friends – surrounding you here tonight. You share a deep and special bond, a sacred connection, a language that can only be understood by those who’ve rejoiced in her beauty. And for all the anxiety about the future, you are exactly where you’re supposed to be at this moment in your life.

So, my thesis on your graduation is that you were born to be an artist, to paint your own paintings. And, with time for deep personal reflection you have the power, the privilege, the opportunity to create your life’s canvas. And, here’s the disclaimer in my thesis – If you don’t like what you’ve drawn, start over.

When you walk across campus in the morning, William & Mary will once again, greet you with open arms. As you walk her path, joyful and celebratory, nostalgic and a bit scared, at some point your mind will wander. You’ll find yourself in the real final exam of your college career. No grades, no pressure. Instead reflection on what you’ll take with you on your journey. You’ve learned about friendship, compassion, asking for help, forgiveness, the healing power of laughter, believing in something greater than yourself, doing the right thing even though it’s the hard thing, humbly acknowledging your misgivings and you’ve been forgiven by your friends. You’ve failed and woke up the next morning to the earth, spinning just as it had the day prior. That’s training for life – for a life well lived.

I was once concerned about going into the world and doing something bigger than myself. When I got knocked down it took a long time to get up. A dear friend, someone wiser than me, eventually pulled me up and he helped me re-invent my story. There’s wisdom in your friends – standing beside you right now. Even though the distance of space and time will make it harder to indulge in spontaneous adventures, your friendship will endure, it will evolve, it will strengthen. That “someone wiser” may be standing beside you right now.

When we understand that we have the awesome power to paint our life story, we are free. We no longer feel the need to impose our story on others and to defend our interpretation of the world. Instead, we see all of us as artists with the right to create our evolving masterpiece.

You are an artist. Always have been, always will be. No one can take that from you and – this moment of immense accomplishment is YOURS. This moment is your masterpiece.

One of your fellow graduates gave me an idea that could emerge only from her brilliant and creative mind. She’s designed an exercise that will capture this moment in what will instantly become a lasting masterpiece and create some mayhem. I’ll have a nearly impossible task of returning us to form, but why not, give it a try.

Members of the Class of 2017, please take out your phones. In just a moment I will ask you to huddle with a few people closest to you. Take a photo and then release it into the world with the hashtag #wmcandlelight. Later this evening search the Instagram hashtag. Your screen will be flooded with photos from this event – a reminder of the artful masterpiece that is joy, that speaks of celebration, of accomplishments, of beginnings and endings. And, in a few weeks or months, when it need a reminder of this weekend, take a look at the smiling faces that scattered the landscape of your life. So, artists, are you ready? Begin.

See, you are an artist.

You are ready.

May you never turn against your playful heart.

William & Mary is yours, always, your place to wander with childlike enthusiasm.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Careers, Commencement, Community Engagement & Service, Diversity, Faculty & Staff Blogs, Student Leadership Development, Traditions & Events Tags: , ,

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