Campus News

Baccalaureate 2009 Address: Mary Helen Miller '09

Story posted May 22, 2009

"Bowdoin Space"
By Mary Helen Miller '09
DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Prize Winner, First Prize
May 22, 2009

Nearing the end has a way of bringing up memories from the beginning. Now that we're finishing up at Bowdoin, I've been thinking back to those first days.

Mary Hellen Miller150.jpg
Mary Helen Miller '09

I remember that when my parents dropped me off at Bowdoin at the beginning of freshman year, one of the last things they said to me was "We're never going to call you." They told me I was always welcome to call, but they weren't planning to contact me because they didn't want to bother me.

While their decision seems reasonable now, my memory of it is somewhat traumatic: I'm standing alone outside of Coleman Hall, my parents are driving away down College Street. My mom leans her whole torso outside the passenger side window and yells back to me,

"Don't expect to hear from us, EVER AGAIN!" My dad laughs manically from inside the car, and steps on the gas, burning rubber. They whiz away, back to Tennessee. And I am left. I turn around to this seemingly huge campus, and feel lost, excited and scared.

Since then, my parents have almost kept their promise. They've called me about six times in the past four years, though I check in with them about once a week. This seems to be more frequently than some of my classmates talk to their parents and much, much less often than others. I had one roommate whose parents called a few times each day. Sometimes when she was on the phone with her mother, my roommate would say to me, "Mary Helen, my mom wants to know what you ate for dinner." I'd grudgingly give her an answer, but there's no way I'd tell my own parents what I ate at meals. The truth might make them too jealous. And they've never asked me. Maybe they were afraid my answer would be Cheetos.

By not nagging me about what I put on my salad or what classes I was planning to take, I think my parents were trying to give me space. On that first day of college, I was overwhelmed, and quite frankly scared, by the four years of space that surrounded me. This space dwarfed me. I wondered, did I need to have something to show for myself at each step along the way? And if I did, did it still count as space?

These days, a college degree is a hot item. It seems strange now, but the very earliest Bowdoin students may have thought it peculiar that we're having such huge celebration for earning a diploma. In those days, more than 200 years ago, students might go to college for a year or two, without the goal of completing a degree. If you spent a couple of years at Bowdoin and then left, nobody would call you a college dropout. In fact, people would probably regard you as a better thinker, learner or person, just because you studied here for a little while. In those days, you certainly did not need a college degree to pursue a professional career. If you wanted to become a doctor, you could skip the liberal arts and go straight to medical school. You came to places like Bowdoin because it offered the space to become a more whole person; one who would make a good minister, teacher or statesman.

Two hundred years ago, only five of the 11 members of the Class of 1809 actually graduated from Bowdoin. But, both graduates and non-graduates went on to careers in the clergy, agriculture, teaching, government, law, banking, medicine and sailing. One non-graduating member of the Class of 1809 even became a U.S. congressman. One hundred years later, the Class of 1909 yielded a larger percent of graduates — with two-thirds of its members graduating. In terms of career choice, the non-graduates outdid the graduates for this class. Those who completed the full four years entered occupations that were expected, and let's face it, kind of boring: doctor, engineer, journalist, supreme court justice. The non-graduates, on the other hand, went into more glamorous fields: professional baseball, acting and meat-packing.

Now, in 2009, many of us will take jobs never fathomed by those who matriculated 100 or 200 years before us. Our class probably will not even fit the profile of more recent graduating classes — we come from a wider array of backgrounds and we live in a different age. Simply put, we aren't the same as those who have come before us.

This campus, which is slicker and shinier than ever before, is constantly transforming, too. Even in our four short years here, we've witnessed the renovations of six first-year bricks, the Museum of Art, Studzinski Recital Hall, Adams Hall, 30 College Street, and more, and we've seen the erection of the new fitness center and this ice arena. While maintaining the façade and basic structural integrity of pre-existing buildings, features are added, and the inside is updated and made ready for the next generation of Bowdoin students. But even when the walls are blasted to rubble and swept away, our curiosity inhabits the interior space with the same questions that have been there all along. And we ask new questions. These buildings are temples of ideas, confusion and discovery.

Last year's renovations to the Museum of Art created polished, well-lighted and ventilated spaces for works that have been on our campus for up to 200 years. The collection inside is bigger than ever, but we pause for the same, still contemplation as all the others who have stopped to study the art. Picasso still dizzies and intrigues us. The Old Master drawings ask us the same questions about human and artistic capabilities that they asked Hawthorne. The expansive 19th century American landscape paintings inspire patriotism for a beautiful country. But, now we wonder if we stood in the same spot as Inness did, if the scene would still be pristine. We wonder why an artist would want to fuel patriotism at that particular time in America. We think about the social circumstances necessary for genius to be created, and we realize that the Old Masters may have been more numerous and less homogeneous if artistic training were more accessible to all. We ask ourselves if Picasso's known chauvinism should affect the way we try to make sense of his drawings and paintings. And then, we push away these modern considerations, narrow our perspective and reflect intimately. We react as a human in front of a piece of art.

Each day in this community, we experienced Bowdoin as a material shared space. We've shared bedrooms, bathrooms and even mailboxes. But the truest shared space here is the space above and within — the metaphysical space that is Bowdoin. This is the place where we commune with each other and with those who have come before. All we really share with every other alum — living or dead — is the years of space in between coming and going that we've had at Bowdoin. And, many of those who have passed through never really left. They dwell here, beckoning us to join them in contemplation and scrutiny of what it means to be human, and what it means to be human today. Russwurm asks us to think about equality, and Longfellow lingers to show us beauty. Hanley Denning speaks with us about service. We discuss movies with Bart and Greg, and we have sex talks with Kinsey.

But Bowdoin graduates are just one contingent of the people who gather here. Any college is a place where Shakespeare and Du Bois can sit with Woolf and Foucault. Our college is the place where those minds mingle more intimately with the thinkers and artists of Bowdoin.

In our studies, we lived in the world of ideas. We grappled with new concepts of great thinkers before us or wrangled with numbers and theories, without sweating or even moving from our desk chair. We've trudged, then bounded, through our own original ideas, and we've created art — some that should be hidden away, and some that breathed life and humbled us. Navigating this space has been nauseating, thrilling, infuriating and occasionally calming. This is the space we may now enter without hesitation. Its vastness will still overwhelm us, but we have touched — if just barely — what is possible when we tread there.

Thank you.

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