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Valediction

Commencement 2011 at Mount Holyoke College.

Farewell to Shadley

Compared to the age of the earth, or even to the much briefer age of the human race, it was barely a moment ago in 1837 that Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke. It was just a split-second later when, while taking care of a sick student, she fell ill herself and passed away.

And now, today, our commencement speaker asked: “What are people able to do and to be?”

More to the point would be the question: What are we able to do and to be?

We can do a lot, because we have been given a lot. Now, it’s our turn to start giving back: to our communities, to our societies, and to our world. To all our fellow human beings, great or small. To those who suffer poverty, disease, or injustice. To those who look like us and those who don’t. To those who follow our faiths and those who follow other paths.

And we can also be a lot. We can be people who set an example of leadership, compassion, and dedication to the good. We can be people who make Mary Lyon proud that she founded Mount Holyoke. We can be people who, as Mary Lyon said, “fear nothing in the universe but that we will not know all our duty or shall fail to do it.”

Today, we celebrate the opportunity that we had to attend one of the finest colleges on earth — with the most dedicated teachers, the most interesting fellow students, and a curriculum that challenged all of us to become better than our best. Today, we celebrate how we embraced that opportunity and met that challenge. Today, we celebrate both the achievements of yesterday and the possibilities of tomorrow.

But today we also leave behind a place, and a part of our lives, that changed us forever. To sally forth into the new, we must let go of the old. And when we let go of something we love, it hurts. Part of us will always be at Mount Holyoke, and the spirit of Mount Holyoke will always be within us.

The word “valediction” comes from Latin. “Vale” is the command form of valere, meaning to be strong or be well. The “diction” part comes from dicere, to say. To give a valediction means wishing you to be strong and to fare well on your journey through life. I wish that to all of you: to my fellow Mohos as well as to my teachers, family, friends, and readers.

Be strong and fare well: The world needs you.


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.

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Martha Nussbaum and Me

I’ve been super busy and I didn’t mention that our commencement speaker is Martha Nussbaum, who is Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.

I actually wrote about Dr. Nussbaum back in January, when she published a book about the dangers and abuses of the Internet. She has some keen insights about the hazards of Internet anonymity, especially when it lets people attack others viciously and irresponsibly.

We’ve got our senior barbecue on Thursday, along with our “Class of 2011 Final Lecture,” which should be both informative and inspirational. And there are several other events. Then graduation. I’m still excited, happy, and sad about it, all at the same time.

Tips for Firsties

Welcome to Shadley!

You’re starting one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences of your life. And you’re going to be great.

Here, you can become whatever you want. Your fellow students and your professors will support you.

Maybe you’re nervous or worried about going to an all-women college. Don’t be. There’s lots of studying, because this is a top school. You need to work hard. But there’s also lots of social life if you want it.

Convocation is your real introduction to life at MHC. You’ll have three more after this one. When you get to be a senior like me, and it’s going to be your last convocation as a student here, you’ll cry a little. Or maybe more than a little. Like I am, right now. By then, this place will be your second home and family. It will mean that much to you.

Anyway, here are some tips for firsties:

  • If you’ve got a car, leave it at home next term. You won’t really need it and parking is a bother.
  • Get some ice cream and participate in activities on Mountain Day. You’ll hear all about that later on.
  • Get to know The Thirsty Mind. There’s no other place like it. By the way, if someone refers to “The Dirty,” they’re talking about The Thirsty Mind.
  • Get to know your Big Sister. She can give you good advice about everything from classes to traditions. She’ll be your friend for life.
  • Get to know your professors. Unlike at most schools, professors here take a personal interest in you. They will give you all the help, support, and encouragement you need.
  • Get involved!
  • Get to know the area. Shadley pretty much closes at 9pm, but it’s still great.
  • Get to know Amherst and UMass. They are our principal suppliers of guys, if that interests you. UMass parties can get pretty wild. Amherst tends to be a little more like the Upper East Side. 🙂

And last but certainly not least:

  • Study! Do all the work. Here are some tips.

I can’t tell you how much this place means to me or how much I will miss it when I graduate. Enjoy it, make the most of it, and it will be part of you for as long as you live.


Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

Seven Questions for Anne Fadiman

Here are seven questions that I’d like to ask Anne Fadiman, author of the wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, when she speaks on campus:

Question 1

In your book Rereadings, you remarked that the first time one reads a book, she does it with more velocity; the second time, she does it with more depth.

Coming back and rereading The Spirit Catches You more than 10 years after you wrote it, do you feel as if you understand it better now? Is there anything you would do differently? Are there parts or aspects of the book of which you are especially proud — that make you think, “Anne, well done!”?

Question 2

In your essay “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” you said that you were thrilled by the writing of Carl Van Vechten, who tossed off unfamiliar words and classical-literature references with the same ease that some of us can recite details of the latest “Gossip Girl” TV episode. In particular, you wrote that:

What simultaneously thrilled me and made me feel most like a dunce was Van Vechten’s vocabulary. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met so many words I didn’t know.

In writing, it seems like we have conflicting goals. On one side, there are beauty and depth. On the other side, there are clarity and communication. Based on your description, Van Vechten’s writing seems to succeed at the former but fail at the latter. How can we balance those goals, or should we even try?

Question 3

In your essay “The His’er Problem,” you told how at age 19 you met William Shawn and got a summer job at The New Yorker. Today, print magazines are shrinking or disappearing, and the Web doesn’t yet seem a reliable way to launch a writing career as opposed to a hobby. Do you have any advice for young writers who want to follow in your footsteps?

By the way, I adored your description of the meeting with Mr. Shawn:

“I considered The New Yorker a cathedral and Mr. Shawn a figure so godlike that I expected a faint nimbus to emanate from his ruddy head.”

Question 4

From your essay “Marrying Libraries,” we know that you like William Butler Yeats. Who are some other poets you like, and why? What about contemporary poets?

Question 5

Do you think that reading and writing poetry helps us develop a good writing style? Are there any poets whom you especially recommend for young writers?

Question 6

In your essay “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” you applied the metaphor of the Procrustean bed to four questions about how to evaluate literature. Do you think that metaphor applies more widely, to issues such as economic justice, gay marriage, health care reform, and even to having a woman or African-American as president? If so, how?

Question 7

Your book The Spirit Catches You is filled with ideas about life, destiny, choice, and forgiveness. As the author, what lessons would you most like us to learn from it?


Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.