Commencement 2011 Address: Edward Gottfried '11

Story posted May 28, 2011

"The Marks We Make"
By Edward Gottfried '11
Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner
206th Commencement
May 28, 2011

President Mills, members of the College, friends, family, and Mason Smith: Today, we are at a watershed moment in our lives. This year has been a difficult balance between looking forward, applying to graduate programs and jobs, and looking backward, spending as much time as possible with friends here, checking boxes off our Bowdoin “bucket lists.” It seems to me that one of the greatest stresses comes in wondering what we will leave behind once we accept our diplomas.

Edward Gottfried200.jpg
Edward Gottfried '11

After all, so much of the appeal of college is the unique residential life we lead. Every walk across the quad is a social experience — while we may mourn the death of the “Bowdoin hello,” it is alive and well in those moments. And the way we are able to meet up with any friend at the drop of a hat for a study break in the library, dinner at Moulton, or coffee in the café is a luxury that we only now realize we will miss moving forward.

The hardest pill to swallow is the realization that life goes on here at the college, with or without us. The teams we captained and groups we spent so much time with will find new members and leaders. Other students will be assigned our carrels, our dorm rooms, and our advisors. For all intents and purposes, we may even feel forgotten. And while we have each undoubtedly affected the college with insightful questions that made a professor rethink future lesson plans, research projects which will live forever in the library, or a thoughtful and well-timed comment card promoting chicken cacciatore in the dining hall, it’s still hard not to feel like we could have done more. There just wasn’t enough time. We could have started clubs or bands or planned events or parties, but we blinked twice and now it’s graduation. And what do we have left?

There’s a place on campus, which has provided me with a touchstone of sorts, reminding me how clearly our legacies can be felt even long after most traces of our college careers have vanished, and it’s not where you’d think. It’s not anywhere in the library. It’s not in the attic of Hubbard Hall. It’s not even in Massachusetts Hall, where the continuity of our existence on this campus is best showcased.

Instead, this window to the past is in another building which has weathered this campus’ centuries in one form or another: the Chapel. And though this may seem an obvious place to go to reflect and seek solace, I’ve learned more about Bowdoin’s past in the chapel bathroom.

The next time you enter the Chapel, instead of walking straight into the sanctuary space, turn left immediately upon entering through the front doors. You’ll see a relatively non-descript wooden door, drab in dark chestnut with only a black plastic sign labeled “restroom.” Open it, and the perpetually dark antechamber of the Chapel is flooded with a strange out-of-place fluorescent light, which would be inappropriate were it not for the intricate contents of the inside of the door and its jambs.

It is here that the past and present students of Bowdoin College are united, where they have come together to share what they have experienced, what they know, and who they are. The space is crowded with names; quotes; class years; fraternity, club and team alliances; and memories. Most of the students who have made their mark here have done so in typical graffiti style, leaving just some initials and their class year, like R.F. Goff, Class of 1918, J.H. Brett, Class of 1905, or even the class of 2011’s own so-called “Tum Tum.”

For others, however, the door has provided a space to record in greater detail relatively mundane parts of their lives. Frequently, these were their accomplishments within the Chapel, like one anonymous student who was so proud of his feat of peeling up the carpet on August 19th, 1921 that he scrawled: “I TOOK UP THE CARPET IN CHAPEL AUGUST 19th 1921.” Others recorded their triumphs on the field – for example, the 13-0 football victory over Williams on October 21, 1933. Some even wanted us to know about our athletic failures, too – one inscription reads, “In Memoriam, Bowdoin Football Team 1959. Wins: 0. Losses: 7.”

The contents of this door would take hours to absorb, so perhaps I’ll distil them to their best: these inscriptions are at their most fascinating when they go beyond initials and attempt to record the mood at some point in history. Close to the top in jet-black ink reads a perfect example: “Free all political prisoners. Free Mumia.” Some inscriptions are touching records of students who communicated an uplifting message or who were looking for solace. For example, in one place there are three successive lines, each in a different hand and with a different writing tool, which say: “September 11, 2001.” “Please Remember.” “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Not far away are two names, Stuart and Vicki, with a date, 4-24-99, and two interlocking rings. Another simply reads “17 October 1901, 5:30 PM. The double rainbow. Grace.”

This, to me, has been the door’s beauty — it is a miniature archive of life at Bowdoin. Of the mundane day-to-day activities we partake in, like William Fearnside clearly bored waiting for attendance during mandatory services at 5:35 PM on April 10 in 1933. Of our inside jokes, like the class of 1948’s Tom Donovan, forever immortalized as “The Hunchback of Bowdoin College.” Of the splendor and sorrow we see in every single day, of the momentous changes of the politics of the world and the tiny victories and downfalls of the athletic field. Of the love we found, the friends we made, or just the fact that we too passed through these doors, read this book, or sat on this seat.

In the door, we see where we’ve been. We see simple pleasures, and overwhelming tragedies. We can appreciate how far we’ve come, and the missteps and possible stumbles along the way. Looking closely enough, the door provides an overwhelming reflection of the stresses and strains on the college and its students. It informs us of the wide range of experiences the campus has served host to, where deep concerns about the Bowdoin community and the world sit alongside crass jokes. The wide range of scribblings on the wall has a dual focus: the specific dates and names of each class, as well as the general moods and sentiments of generations.

The power of this door in my mind is that it serves as an analogy for how we will remember Bowdoin. Like the act of carving your name into a bathroom wall, our memories of Bowdoin will be both highly communal and highly personal. In our memories, Bowdoin is a place that we can go to reconnect with the names and dates that are meaningful to us. And while our lives may continue far from Brunswick, there will always be a small part of us that remains here. Our memories are what we take away as well as what we leave behind, and the door shows both.

I’ll admit, that this is what I take from the door is a little strange. But though the door is by no means a traditionally beautiful monument on this campus, it is an elegant reminder of how our experiences will remain here.  Though we may be left with regrets now that we haven’t done enough to leave the college different than we found it, even in our moments of frivolity we’ve managed to carve out a little reminder of our lives here. So I urge my classmates, as you leave Bowdoin, take the dates, the names, the anxieties and the triumphs with you, and carve, pencil, or sharpie them into your memory. And then revisit them later and cherish the marks that you’ve made and admire the marks of your peers: We were here. 5-28-11. Bowdoin College Class of 2011.

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