Neil Makhija and Durga Chew-Bose: Senior Class Co-Presidents
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A small part of me wants to start to chant: four more years. But I’ve come to terms that this is the start of new era in our lives. We’re more than ready for it.
A lot can be said about our character in recalling why we chose to come to this institution. We were the first class admitted with complete disregard to standardized test scores, because we knew that no multiple choice test could measure our creativity. Or our independence. We’ve now spent the past four years developing those traits, together turning out thousands of pages of independent research, works of art, and projects done in mediums we never knew existed.
I spent an entire summer here trying to teach a robot dog how to be curious. It involved simulating functions of the human brain and demanded an understanding of how billions of neurons could connect to form the signaling pathways which when activated in synchrony produce emergent behavior. The processes are complex and difficult model adequately; yet everyday refer to those higher concepts in single words like curiosity.
At Sarah Lawrence, it’s the ideal we have in mind, and the long hours we spend are attempts to arrange constituent pieces to produce it.
Anyone who’s taken a writing workshop knows the most unacceptable thing to say about a piece of fiction is: “It’s good” or worse, “It’s really good.” At Sarah Lawrence, we haven’t memorized content for tests, we’ve been pushed to go further, to deconstruct, to recognize the elements of a system and relationships between them, whether it’s the notes of a musical score, minutiae of legal case studies, or as my fellow residents of Warren Green House can appreciate, even our personal routines and how they can collectively shape the health of the environment.
Now we’ve finished our last conference papers, and our tendency to deconstruct and reconstruct has remained with us. The question that arises, what is the character of society we that will emerge from our next decisions? When we make this next decision, our challenge will be to negotiate between the two, the piece that satisfies our needs and that which contributes to the whole, though any memory will tell you, we will only be satisfied to have it both ways.
One of our first memories, within the first days of stepping foot on this campus, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans was underwater, among the first to take action, were members of the Class of 2009. Within a week, poets were brought in from around New York to perform in Reisinger, where thousands of dollars were raised for the relief effort through small donations. With supportive, phenomenal, faculty and staff members, our work during winter breaks and summers in New Orleans, and with local survivors of Katrina in the New York area, has persisted from the day we arrived, to the salvage drive we had this week.
What you’ve taught me is we can continue to serve our community, the nation, and the world by pursuing what we love and sharing it, by finding creative solutions at a time of crisis. It might appear like we’ve studied the art of self-absorption, but I know that following our passions is the only way to build the unbreakable dedication that has become a defining feature of our personalities. In our years, members of our College, from states around the country, studying or teaching different subjects, were called upon to rise to an occasion, and they did, in the separate ways that they knew how.
I do worry that as we leave here, the constraints of the 9-5 world could wear us down: that we might lose what we’ve built here. Those are the times we need to come together, to revitalize our ideals. Those are the times we will remember our friend and classmate Spencer Barnett, whom most of us will remember for his wit, his love of music, his first performance in the blue room, playing a song about washing his jeans in the washing machine, where, he would take a minute to catch his breath, overcoming the obstacles to health, then he’d stand up again to play another song. Spencer always give us something to laugh about. He knew that nothing could get in the way of what he loved, and what he wanted to learn. I'm still uncovering my memories of our interactions, like many of you must be, I think about them repeatedly, whether it was philosophizing about the The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and ‘paradigm shifts,’ or confessing a secret on & off admiration our then-Republican Sen. Spector, I know that when I remember my times with Spencer, I will remember exactly what it meant to be at Sarah Lawrence, where we’ve each profoundly shaped our life histories, in ways that will change the way we live, indefinitely.
To the Sarah Lawrence Graduating Class of 2009, I will attempt to express the ineffable, and I will probably fail. My time here, with you all, appears both short-lived and lasting, and ultimately changing, and so to assume eloquence, is to assume that I have a firm grasp of these four years—its spirit, its tenderness and boldness, its urgency. To receive an education at a college so unlike any other requires the sort of reflection that I know will occupy me for years to come, and that will seize me, suddenly, when least expected. And so, to fall short is simply, the only authentic way I can think of to share with you my impressions.
As a student of writing and of literature, the books I have read and the authors I have returned to have remained my way of reconciling with and approaching a world that so often appears to rush the formative. I can think of few things as humbling and as accepting as loving a book; to be entirely devoted to a single passage or an opening page, to feel acknowledged. It is Sarah Lawrence teachers like Angela Moger and Ilja Wachs, who I am forever indebted to, who despite having taught the same books for years, have preserved and renewed their sense of awe and discovery, who alongside the class are moved and enlivened. I am thankful for my teachers and for my don, who haven’t forgotten the delight of anticipation.
Earlier this year, while reading Moby Dick, a particular passage set off something inside of me that I couldn’t quite pin, but that Ilja encouraged me to pursue. In the chapter entitled, The Fountain, at the very end, Melville notes the rainbows that form in the misty air above a whale’s spout. He writes: “For d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.” As I reread this passage, my reservations about growing up—the gravity of doubt— were suddenly not erased, but accepted. This feeling of being simultaneously invisible and entirely vulnerable is the kind of emotional growth and challenge I received from college. It is my hope that despite fears and hesitations, after all we as well are often topped by a similar set of clouds, that we remain thoughtful and concerned. Be bold, be brave.
But to focus on single instances, without recognizing the whole, would undermine an important part of going to Sarah Lawrence. And so, I turn to language, as George Orwell states in his essay Politics and the English Language, “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” Sure, the final weeks of semesters are hurried with all nighters: racing against both deadlines and the rising sun, but more significant is how despite the hustle, each one of us, is writing and researching something completely contrasting, and often opposing. I am assured by and proud of the autonomous pursuits of Sarah Lawrence students, where competition is hushed, and innovation rises above all expectation. Here, we have sought meaning, and as Orwell urges, “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” My wish is that we continue to pursue our unique desires, to follow our inclinations. If we champion meaning in our lives, we will remain sincere in our choices.
In late winter of this year, in the middle of the night, a group of friends gathered into a bigger group and soon, huddles of students were collected on Marshall Field. We were shivering not from the cold, but from the excitement of being together and the thrill of immediacy. In a brief flash, the sky and our willing faces were lit up from streaks of fireworks that shot up like exclamation marks. We cheered loudly and although the light show was done just as fast as it had started, we seemed to store the energy for much longer. We seemed to radiate it. As E.B White so beautifully articulates, “whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources—from internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.”
To the Class of 2009: We are young. We have more life ahead of us, than behind us. We are trying not to blink, for fear of missing something, but also closing our eyes just a second longer, expecting to preserve everything.
I am honored to walk with you. Congratulations.