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Commencement Navigation

Student Speaker: Lydia Nuhfer ’20

Lydia NuhferThis is it, right? This is the big one. I have to say that this is a profoundly weird way to be delivering this speech.

Four years ago, I was on the Bridges trip “How to Cook your Life.” Solomon was my Bridges leader, and also head selectperson that year. He would open every town meeting by telling us that by simply sitting in the dining hall together, before any business had begun that we had achieved what we meant to do. He would say: “we have arrived.” 

Although we are scattered, unable to sit down together in our dining hall or in the auditorium, it is an honor and a pleasure to say this to you, class of 2020: we have arrived.

I sincerely wish I could have finished Plan with all of you. I don’t know what fueled you through those final stretches, in these very unusual circumstances—I, personally, have been binge watching Community on Netflix, imagining what it would be like to be a comically arrogant student at a somewhat dysfunctional college. I’ve also started doing Jazzercise—no joke—and inventing terrible, nearly unpalatable cocktails. And pretending my friends from Marlboro are here with me. What have you been doing, Anna?

Cool, cool.

So we did it. We wrote like mad, we didn’t sleep, we painted, we programmed, we planted things, we read too much or not nearly enough, we k-pop danced our fucking hearts out. We got here. Not alone—never alone—we were nourished and supported by our blood families and chosen families, by the incredible, hardworking Marlboro staff, by our dedicated faculty, and by each other. We couldn’t have done it without that support.

People are saying it feels like the end of the world. But before I talk about the world, I want to talk about Potash Hill, about our home. Because it is still here, even without us. Right now as I record this the trout lilies are blooming, and the wood violets, and the coltsfoot flowers have given way to leaves. Potash Hill—the hemlock trees, the woodpeckers, the quiet stone walls burying themselves in the woods—these things have seen us. The strange crawfish making homes in fire pond, the rotting apples, the spring mud, that cold sap of the earth—all of these and more have witnessed us, held and beheld us. Some of us for long decades, some only for a semester or two.

There are all these little traces of us on the hill, little memories of the last few years we’ve had together. I am reminded of some of my favorite markers of Marlboro:

  • The clear bare footprints in the snow in the middle of January, the distinctive tracks of a wild Clemetson brother;
  • Stray graffiti memorializing conflicts past—faded sharpie reading “chomp chomp eat the dean;”
  • Mysterious and horrifying Simpsons cartoons left on the blackboard of the science building lounge, surrounded by mathematical symbols
  • Blood spilled at broomball and WWE party and debutante brawl, making, we can only hope, the grass grow
  • Lovingly photoshopped, anonymously created Christmas cards starring Kevin and various anime characters
  • The hollow sound of the hill in front of the dining hall, where many believe Robert Frost is truly buried, not that fake grave in Bennington
  • The Howland dragon, Emily Mather, Marlboro North’s ghost cat, John Sheehy—all our beloved spectres and spirits.
  • The book I found in the library entitled Preserving Library Materials, which had a big bite taken out of the title page—embodying perhaps the enthusiasm and hunger with which we’ve approached our studies.
  • And out there in the woods, the snow has thawed, and hundreds—maybe thousands, most likely billions—of mugs and cups are being covered by debris, sinking into the earth as a gift for distant archaeologists.

I am proud of the work this class has done—getting each other birth control, engaging in political action, bailing each other out of jail after political action, walking each other home in the dark, cooking community dinners, refusing to ignore injustice even here in our own community. Holding Marlboro accountable when it has failed students, students of color, disabled students, survivors of sexual assault. Celebrating each other. Arguing. Arguing well. Creating some really good, really weird art. Placing tokens on that shrine in the woods, behind the stone circle—all these little pieces of this one very slightly larger little shrine in the woods we’ve been building together.

Late this past autumn, about a week before the Emerson announcement, I stood in front of the outdoor program, looking at that familiar brilliant night sky. I turned to a friend and said confidently “I think this is going to be a really peaceful winter. I have a feeling we’re all going to get the deep, quiet rest we’ve been needing, and come into spring rejuvenated and calm.”

Whoops!

I just gotta say, my freshman year someone allegedly summoned a dragon to protect Howland, and ever since they knocked that building down stuff has gotten really, really weird.

So maybe it is the end of the world. It’s the end of this one, at least. But it was always going to be. Even under normal circumstances, we could never meet like this again. This moment, all the little moments we’ve had over the last four years, they are irreproducible. Ephemeral, like our vernal pools, coming from the greek: epi hemera, literally, in a day. And what a day. It has been beautiful, and we are prepared. Lots of worlds have ended and begun here. We are old hands at complexity, we are prepared to handle grief—grief, after all, is the underside of love. And we are so, so capable of love.

What do you do—what can you do at the end of the world? You do good work. The same good work you have always done. Our work isn’t to prevent endings and it never was. You have to feed people, even though they will be hungry again. You have to dance, even though despair will still exist when you’re finished. You have to fight fiercely for the woods, even knowing that our ash trees will, inevitably, fall, whether from pests or old age. It all matters. That work, that good work, is all we have to do. I trust us, Class of 2020, to keep doing it and doing it well.

Cause we’ve fucking got this. This class—and those behind us, too, who will be building community in new places soon—we’ve got this. We have outgrown rugged individualism. We are basking in the warmth of radical interdependence.

Class of 2020, together we have everything we need. We’ve got Chicago citation format down cold, we’ve got callouses from years of being barefoot, we’ve got grit—that’s a polite euphemism for sand. We are carrying Marlboro with us—quite literally, we will still be tracking that Marlboro sand into our homes for years, I believe.

I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.
All of us watching—staff, faculty, students, families, graduates—we make those firm footholds. I can’t wait to see you all again, in the bright light of our exciting, uncertain futures.

Detours

(a mostly random selection of Marlboro microdestinations)