Baccalaureate Speech: Phillip J. Prest '02
Story posted May 24, 2002
Confessions of a Polar Bear: Reinterpreting the Bowdoin Bubble
by Phillip J. (P.J.) Prest '02
Doctor Paigen, President Mills, Dean Bradley, Members of the Bowdoin Community, and Friends:
It is with the greatest humility that I stand before you and speak, for I do not come with any new or radical conclusion to the Bowdoin experience. Rather, I come bearing the simple realization of an old message that I have reinterpreted and reexamined throughout my time here. But it is an important message nonetheless, and so I share it with you today with the utmost seriousness and respect.
Let me say first, by way of introduction, that I feel as though I should be able to stand up here and look back on the past four years and conclude something. Walking over here today I took a long look at our precious quad: the double-loaded brick corridors where we've lived, the chapel where we've gathered for speakers, and the museums and halls where we've learned. We've fulfilled our distribution requirements, we're about to enjoy our last lobster bake, and have managed to survive four frozen winters in Brunswick. But as our former President Edwards would say - "therefore what?" What does it all mean? What should we conclude after all we've been through?
To answer that question, I must start by looking back even further. I was lucky to attend a distinguished private secondary school. And it was there that I met a wonderful teacher who believed that that such places should exist only with the foreknowledge that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. I took this advice probably not unlike many kids in high school would. I had heard sentiments of "giving something back" my whole life and took my teacher's advice as nothing more than a fancy way of saying something I already knew to be good and true, something that seemed too obvious to warrant lengthy exposition. Ever since grade school we'd go to a soup kitchen called Martha's Table, or we'd make trips to the Children's Hospital, or we'd clean up a local baseball field. And while that's all well and fine, I came to look for distinction in society which I could use as sorts of beacons telling me when and where to serve. And so it's no surprise that I came to Bowdoin thinking that since I was someone to whom much had been given I was supposed to live my life looking for opportunities to give back - to live up to my own singular expectations, as society demanded. Much was expected of me...and while that might sound pretentious it was an exciting way to look at college because it meant I had potential: I had something to give, something that others presumably did not have.
But now I was in a new place, far away from the world I was so comfortable in, and I became increasingly suspicious of where I fit into it all. What Bowdoin served to do was provide a unique place in which to reexamine my position in society constantly. If much is expected from those to whom much is given, whom exactly are we talking about? Who is in this select group charged with living up to some high standard in order to benefit society? College, for me, was a quest to find this group - those privileged persons - and, if necessary, rally them - rally us - together in secret to make plain and clear our responsibility to humanity.
At first I thought I was the only one in it. Needless to say I had a rather high enough opinion of myself in the fall of my first year. And why not? I had come from St. Albans, done well, and was eager to save the world. Look out Bowdoin - here comes someone from whom much is expected.
And then came my first chemistry exam. Now how was I supposed to live up to my expectations if I couldn't even do well in 109? And before long I came to believe that everyone but me was a part of this special group. Was I the only one in my entire chemistry class who couldn't figure out what the limiting reagent was? My own mother has asked me questions of that nature so many times I bet she too has wondered whether I'm the only one not in this elite group. (She's still my biggest fan though, so it's ok.)
And then things began to happen. I realized, slowly, that it was not that hard to make a difference in someone's life. Simply put, it's not that hard to make someone smile. A little extra time here, a little less sleep there - what is it in the end? I'd rather leave Bowdoin knowing I made some people happy than leave Bowdoin well rested. Maybe "to whom much has been given" refers to something more than a privileged upbringing, or innate intellect. I began to wonder if going to soup kitchens every once in a while was really what my old teacher had in mind.
And then I really opened my eyes. The more I lived here the more I grew in awe of the people around me. I saw young women and men from around the world coming together - people who I didn't know and who didn't know me, and yet we all had something, some intangible gift that could be harnessed, and packaged, and given. And that gift would bring enjoyment, security, and smiles; not of the trite kind from simple pleasures, but rather of the kind that comes from real inner peace. The more I sought counsel from people, the more I found myself offering my own advice to others who asked it. And the more I felt fear and sought comfort, the more I found myself doing the same for others. There is nothing more humbling than asking someone for help, and there is nothing more rewarding than being asked to provide it, and those are lessons I've learned very well. They are lessons we have all learned very well; they are lessons that will be continually taught here; they are the lessons that really matter.
It doesn't take too long to realize that the idea of a privileged sect within Bowdoin is foolishness, as is the concept of a needy one. After countless hours of dorm debates, chemistry labs, group discussions, practices, wins, and losses, I've concluded that we're in this together, and we've all, by our very presence at Bowdoin, like it or not, been inducted into that group to whom indeed much has been given. I do not mean this to be pretentious; I am not giving a talk about how great our school is. But make no mistake, for Bowdoin is a great place. Just look around you. You see the beautiful structures on the quad; the professors and coaches who have instructed us; the families and friends who have cared for us. To come to Bowdoin is to receive a gift, a gift that not all receive. In fact, a gift that most do not receive. And so as much has been given to us, much is therefore expected of us all. And so we must look to one another, yes - but most of all to ourselves - to do something with that gift. This is not the time to look backwards and pat each other on the back and talk about all we've accomplished. Commencement is so named because it charges us to take what we've been given and make good on it.
There is a statement that gets thrown around here that embodies much of what I'm talking about - that "we have to burst the Bowdoin bubble" every once in awhile. More often than not this refers to our close-mindedness. It is easy for a small community such as this to become self-absorbed to the point of total ignorance of the outside world. We therefore talk a lot about bursting the bubble and bringing in fresh ideas, or new perspectives on old issues. And all that is well and fine - it is indeed necessary to keep the door open to innovation. But we do not talk enough about bursting the bubble and going the other way. We do not spend enough time suggesting that perhaps it is what is outside the bubble, and not inside, that truly benefits from the bursting. If we love Bowdoin as much as we say we do, if we cherish this quad and all that it stands for, then why not spend some serious energy making it a little bigger? Why not grow outward, that we might better serve? I know Bowdoin is far from a perfect place, but is it not more perfect than many places? Isn't that why we come here?
Abraham Lincoln, Commander and Chief of our own Joshua Chamberlain, once said, "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light that I have." Lincoln was not speaking to any specific group, and his sentiment shows no bias towards those to whom much has been given. Instead, he suggests that we all are privileged. The light of the Bowdoin sun has now touched us all and so we are, in a very real sense, bound to live up to it. Much has been given to us all; much is expected from us all. I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but I have no doubt that we are all up to the challenge.
Thank you very much.
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