Campus News

Commencement Address: Tara A. Talbot '02

Story posted May 25, 2002

For other speeches and news click below:
Homa Mojtabai Speech
Barry Mills Speech
Commencement News

The Pride of the Bricklayer
by Tara Anne Lang Talbot '02

President Mills, Mr. Kurtz, Ms. Herman, Honorands, Distinguished Guests, the Bowdoin Community, and Friends: thank you all for gathering here today to honor and to celebrate the impressive achievements of Bowdoin's newest graduates. As a member of the class of 2002, I've been inspired by many of my classmates. Today I will begin by telling you about one of them.

During her junior fall, Carrie began to assist a physics professor in his research. For the entire year, Carrie spent hours in that building right over there [pointing to Searles]. She worked tirelessly in a physics lab sketching and testing designs for a device that she called an "auto-sampler." When her plans were complete, she built her first auto-sampler out of flowmeters, pumps, solenoid valves, heat blankets, and other materials completely mysterious to me. After spending the first week of her spring break in Florida captaining the Bowdoin women's lacrosse team, Carrie flew to San Diego to install her first auto-sampler on a large ship that would then head out into the Pacific Ocean.

When our junior year neared its end, I asked Carrie what she'd be doing for the summer. "I'll be saving the world," she replied. I laughed. "No, really," she said, and she proceeded to explain her plan. During the summer, Carrie would travel to Tasmania to install a second auto-sampler. The auto-samplers, she explained, collect air samples at set times over the next few decades. Scientists then test that air to learn more about global warming, in order to, well, save the world.

Carrie's story exemplifies the very essence of what we have gathered here today to honor and to celebrate: the vision of the class of 2002. That vision, that reason for celebration, also reveals itself in this story that my mother once told me. A woman is walking down the street when she comes across three men who are laying brick. The woman asks the first man, "What are you doing?" and he replies, "I am laying brick." She asks the second man, "What are you doing?" He replies, "I'm building a wall." Finally, the woman asks the third man, "What are you doing?" "I'm building a cathedral," he answers.

When I arrived at Bowdoin almost four years ago, I was a "brick-layer," so to speak. In fact, I think that many of us were "laying brick" in our first year or so. We went to our classes, our labs, and our First-Year Seminars. We attended study groups, and meetings. We wrote papers, and completed problems sets. We earned our spots on athletic teams, and joined theatre performances, clubs, and organizations. We made friends and ate pizza. There's no doubt about it -- the Class of 2002 excelled almost immediately, in all arenas of Bowdoin College. But still, most of us were laying brick.

Somewhere during our sophomore year, the wall began to take shape. The separate "bricks" of our college education began to form something larger, and more significant. Issues that we debated in one class fell into place with issues that evolved from another. We recognized our academic passions and chose the area of study that would then absorb so much of our time and energy. Our coaches became our friends and our teachers. Our participation in all areas at Bowdoin began to make a difference.

As juniors and seniors, we began to see an even larger purpose to our every-day efforts. We traveled to almost every corner of the world in study-abroad programs that changed us forever. We became captains of athletic teams, directors of plays, and leaders in the classroom. A tedious lab report became something more- an inspiration to find an AIDS vaccine, perhaps. A mid-term essay assignment became the seed of a great novel. A heated debate sparked an interest in future peace negotiations. A late night in the physics lab became a small effort to save the world. We developed a whole new paradigm, perhaps without even knowing it. Gradually, the separate brick walls came together and our unique cathedrals began to take shape.

Carrie's story also epitomizes the difference between laying brick and building a cathedral. The hours spent alone in a window-less physics lab will probably not be the moments that Carrie will cherish forever. Researching past studies, crunching numbers out of complex formulas, and testing her auto-sampler designs only to learn that they have failed completely, are probably not the high points of her Bowdoin career. Those were the moments when Carrie was laying the brick. But Carrie was way ahead of me. I only saw the pumps and the valves and the countless hours in the physics lab. I thought the auto-samplers were the final step, the proof that she had achieved her goal. But Carrie saw a larger purpose. She saw a problem that needed a solution and she saw where she could help. Carrie had a vision.

For me, the vision didn't evolve in a physics lab or in Tasmania. For me, it took shape at Isilimela High School in a black township in Cape Town, South Africa. Shortly after arriving in Cape Town for a semester abroad, I joined seven other students from Bowdoin, Colby, and Bates to tutor fifteen tenth-graders in an after school enrichment program. The students worked with us for hours every week to learn science and math. Then, just a few weeks into the program, some of the students stopped coming for help. Because we had seen how sincerely excited they were to learn, I wondered about their absences. One day, Khianiysa told me that the others had stopped coming because they were hungry. They didn't eat breakfast or lunch, as many of their families could not afford it. Most of their mothers were domestic workers making less than eight U.S. dollars per day and many of their fathers were unemployed or not at home. Their small snack after school was often the first meal of the day, and for this, they couldn't wait. We soon discovered a solution. We began pooling our money every week to buy bread and peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches for our students. Gradually, they came back.

Bringing sandwiches for those fifteen students was a simple, and temporary solution to a much more complex and serious problem. It was a small brick in our larger building project. But it was a necessary one. Without the sandwiches, the students could not learn. Without learning, the students could not overcome the lingering evils of apartheid and become the doctors and teachers and singers that they now had the freedom to become. Thus, without that one small brick, the entire structure would fall apart. Without that one small brick, the larger vision could never take shape.

Today, when we leave this quad, this campus, and perhaps even this state or this country, we'll begin a whole new stage in our lives. In graduate school, in volunteer projects, or in our first jobs we will be laying brick. Not every day will be a wonderful success. In our everyday efforts our perspective will make all the difference. Can we be proud of the foundations we lay? Can we inspire others to build with us?

My love for history took me to South Africa. Carrie's love for physics took her to California and to Tasmania. Yet today, we gather here, on Bowdoin's quad, to honor the class of 2002. And there couldn't be a more appropriate place. It is here, in these buildings and on this campus that we have laid the foundations that have allowed us to reach such heights. It would be foolish to say that we've solved global warming with auto-samplers and erased the legacy of apartheid with sandwiches. Obviously, we haven't. But we have laid a few important bricks for the cathedrals of the future. We have discovered the pride of the bricklayer. Thank you.

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