Story posted October 28, 2011
"To End Our Parades: What Tietjens Can Teach Us"
Sam Hanson '11
Bowdoin College's 2011 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 28, 2011, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by student speaker Sam Hanson '11.
Thank you President Mills for your generous and thoughtful introduction — I am grateful for your kind words, and truly thrilled and honored to be speaking here today. Thank you to as well to Dr. Berkin for your inspiring address — I am honored to be speaking in such good company.
First things first —congratulations to all the scholars here. To all the Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars, the Book Award Winners, the Phi Beta Kappa inductees, and to Skyler, our Almon Goodwin Prize winner — today is a celebration of your efforts. Congratulations. Very, very well done.
I will confess to you that this is my first time attending this ceremony, and also that this summer when my mother (who is here today, and wonderful) — received a letter marked from the Dean’s office, she didn’t open it, but instead immediately called me and demanded to know what I had done. I didn’t remember anything particularly egregious, so we shared a brief moment of telephonic anxiety as she opened the letter and relayed — with more than a little skepticism — that I was a “Sarah and James Bowdoin scholar” — no doubt imagining some cruel award given to the worst student of the college.
When I received this call I was in Los Angeles, where I spent the summer — thanks to a Bowdoin Professor about whom you will hear more in a minute — working for the Oscar-winning President of HBO Miniseries, himself a Bowdoin alum. The big-ticket project of the summer was a Tom Stoppard adaptation of “Parade’s End” — a tetralogy of novels written by Ford Madox Ford set during the First World War. While I was at HBO, the scripts were in the process of being written, and I am very proud to say I played a large and crucial part in the caffeination of all the people responsible for actually writing and developing the show.
At some point, however, I did get an opportunity to read and discuss the scripts, and must say I found the story unexpectedly captivating. There are, I expect, only a few of you that have read Ford Madox Ford’s four “Parade’s End” novels, and in all likelihood none of you who have read Tom Stoppard’s script adaptations. This is terrific news for me, as it reduces to a large degree the risk of audience mutiny — but it also means, regrettably, that some summary is in order. Please, bear with me here.
In the broadest possible strokes, “Parade’s End” tells the story of a Brit named Christopher Tietjens and the code that he lives his life by — a gentleman’s code of sorts that compels him to maintain a certain image, or as Tietjens puts it, march a certain parade. Married to the socialite Sylvia Sattherthwaite, Tietjens parades through his loveless marriage — all the while deeply in love with the beautiful but far less prestigious Valentine Wannop. Rejecting a safe posting out of pride, Tietjens marches his way into captaining the front lines of the British Army, where he is not an altogether incompetent Captain, but seems constitutionally unsuited for the military — as we see when his orders lead to the death of a soldier and he is unable to shake his guilt.
Tietjens likens his code and the choices it entails to a parade because it is — like any good parade — full of flash and grandeur, spectacle and bravado. A parade is in its nature a display of strength and power — an act of triumph, and pride. Parades are about falling into line, marching in step, wearing a uniform — getting with the program. Parades are about making as much noise as possible — waving flags and blowing horns — so that people might notice you and observe you marching, and perhaps clap for you. Parades are about victory! and promoting one’s image. Most importantly, parades are about group consciousness. A one-person parade is no parade at all.
Ultimately, as you may have guessed from the title “Parade’s End,” Tietjens ends his parade. He retreats from the war and — perhaps a braver enterprise — from his wife. He finally stops marching, and he goes on to live a more obscure, but far happier life away from the trenches and with his true love, the aptly named Valentine. Nobody claps for him.
I tell you all of this not — as no doubt some of you are thinking — as an attempt to exhibit some scholarly dexterity. For the cleverest folk here, perhaps the Book Award winners, I too see the irony in making a speech about stepping away from the limelight and the applause. I also am fully aware that we all paraded over here. I guess despite my monopoly on the subject matter, I may still be at risk for audience mutiny.
But before it gets to that — hear me out. Tietjens’ story is important because we all have our own parades, and I will be the first to tell you that I have perhaps marched more than my share. Let me start from the beginning.
Growing up, I loved what I will call “story” — the creative process of reading, watching, telling, writing, and otherwise engaging and interacting with narrative. My father — who is also here, and wonderful — would read to my siblings and me at night, and insist that we predict the endings. While my ending to Treasure Island was certainly off-the-mark (I think aliens got involved, which leads me to wonder if maybe a child wrote the latest Indiana Jones movie), the verisimilitude was not, back then, the point. The point was the effort to understand the mechanics of narrative — how did it work? Why is Heidi so sad? — Rumpelstiltskin so scary? — White Fang so poignant? On bring-your-dad-to-school day in third grade, my father chose not to discuss his profession, corporate law, but rather to read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” explaining to the class that the story was not only more interesting, but also more important. A storyteller perhaps above all else, my father also taught me to tell a story, how to first experience life and then relate it to others in a meaningful way.
Of course, you might say that all children love story, and picture books, and cartoons, and all the other color-in-the-lines, paint-by-numbers recess games. You might say this, and I might believe you. In fact, I did believe you. As I moved through high school I started to see people beginning to march — not all at once, but gradually — looking ahead at the band conductors and trying to match their feet with the beat. Seeing this, I too started to look ahead to the front of the procession — who was that up their wearing a colorful top hat and waving that golden baton, looking so important? — and before I knew it my feet were marching too. Story suddenly seemed childish, naïve, a silly thing that silly people did. I did not want to be silly, I wanted to be important. So I marched.
I marched my way into Bowdoin College and picked the most important subjects, the least silly subjects — to study. Government! History! Economics! Computer science even! Surely such important studies would make me, too, important.
The loudest, most attractive parade — or at least the one in closest proximity to my doorstep — was finance, and so I began to wear a finance uniform and play a finance instrument. Very, very importantly, this is not at all to say that finance is somehow a professional parade — this is by no means an Occupy Wall Street speech, and many of the greatest mentors in my life are men of finance — but rather to say that for me, personally, it was an assumed identity. The uniform didn’t fit, and besides it wasn’t even the real thing — it was a costume. Most importantly, I didn’t know how to play the instrument. I couldn’t even read the music.
Nevertheless I marched, hoping for some misguided claps from the parade-watchers, but more than anything just to be part of the parade. I loved telling people — “yeah, I’m gonna be a banker and run hedge-funds.” “What’s a hedge fund?” my sister once asked me. I didn’t know, and I still don’t really know. What I do know is that they are really, really cool, and that one of the coolest people I know is a hedge-fund guy. He is also a Bowdoin graduate. I was really marching.
By sophomore year I was truly unhappy. I had replaced story with spreadsheets and books with calculators. School became a chore — an instinct to learn had been replaced with an instinct to survive. Like Captain Tietjens in the trenches, I seemed constitutionally unsuited for what I was doing, and began to act out in a very unproductive way. You might say, perhaps, that if today I am a Sarah and James Bowdoin scholar, back then I was a Lindsay Lohan scholar — or perhaps even a Charlie Sheen scholar. For those of you not registering my innuendo, I drank a lot.
Witnessing my unhappiness, my mother, my wonderful mother, recommended that I take a class called “Intro to Short Narrative,” with Professor Goodridge, my now advisor and dear friend. I took the class, which fulfilled a requirement, and during that semester Professor Goodridge encouraged me to consider studying English and creative writing — an idea I dismissed, denying myself this pleasure like Tietjens denies himself Valentine. Professor Goodridge did plant a seed in my head, however, and when — at the end of the semester — I took a leave of absence to address my drinking, she again approached me and suggested that while away, I might explore the world of finance, to test it out so to speak. To this advice, I listened.
I got an internship working for a private asset management group and worked there for six months. Like Tietjen’s wife, Sylvia Satterthwaite, this job was beautiful — sexy even: I wore a suit, I had an office (thank you, recession), and was making money — not a lot (again, thank you recession) but certainly more than I had been making as a student. I felt exhilarated. I felt serious. I felt important. Like Captain Tietjens in the trenches, I was doing what I knew would be approved of. After years of watching the parade go by, I had finally joined it, and worked hard to keep my feet in step with the beat.
But, just as Tietjens came to sense his ill fit for the military, by the end of my internship I began to sense my ill fit for asset management. I could suddenly feel where my uniform didn’t quite fit, or hear when I hadn’t quite hit the right note. I was marching still, but for the first time I started wondering where the parade was headed.
I got my answer at Johns Hopkins University, where I spent the next part of my leave. Still marching, I continued to study economics and found housing with an Economics Ph.D. student named Danny, with whom I proudly prowled the economics department buildings. In a conversation I had one night with Danny, I asked him why he was getting a PhD in econ — why not, say, work for a hedge fund? They’re so cool, I told him.
Danny told me that he had, in fact, worked for a hedge fund, but had stopped to get his PhD. “I just love studying economics,” he told me. This blew me away —
“You love studying econ? I asked him. “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t you?”
I didn’t, and so I enrolled that semester in both a screenwriting course and an American literature course. I felt like a big-lipped trombonist finally finding a trombone after a lifetime of clarinet. My big lips are perfect for this trombone! I thought. And they were such a hindrance to my clarinet playing! I was early to class, on time with all my assignments, constantly in my professors’ office hours. Suddenly, I wanted to learn, not just get good grades. I wanted to understand, I wanted to know.
By the fates of symmetry, my American literature class was taught by a Bowdoin grad — Professor Jared Hickman — and after a few conversations with him I knew I had to go back to Bowdoin, to come back here. The following semester I did, and was greeted by a smiling Professor Goodridge who introduced me to Professor Watterson, my now dear, dear friend and mentor — and whom, in the lone exception to my prior claim — you might see walking the streets of Brunswick in a definitive one man parade. If Professor Goodridge sheltered my flame for story from the wind, Professor Watterson took that flame and set with it a forest fire. Under his guidance, I enveloped myself in English classes —Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Modern Novel on and on and before I knew it — I wasn’t marching anymore. I was walking, running even, but it was, for the first time, my own stride that propelled me.
After getting a taste for creative writing in Professor Bechtel’s Playwriting course, I took a fiction seminar in the spring taught by Professor Brock Clarke, who (to continue this self-indulgent metaphor) took my forest fire and channeled it into the furnace of a forge — asking that same question my father had years before — how are stories built? — but then forcing me to pick up the hammer myself, and to try swinging it against the anvil. Of course some of my first efforts were misshapen, some were even unsalvageable, but by the end of the year, I was building on my own — simple, rudimentary, building — but nonetheless building. Writing, that is. Writing. Even now, it seems, I feel compelled to link it some practical application — to justify its usefulness — but no, I am not talking about building or blacksmithing, I am talking about writing.
For it is writing, you see, that is my Valentine Wannop, and it is Bowdoin College that has given me the strength to surrender to her. It is this college, this wonderful college, that has effectively rained on my parade — and it is this wonderful college that has taken away my wet marching uniform and rain-soaked sheet music and replaced them with running shoes. Bowdoin has done for me what I could not do for myself — it has ended my parade — and furthermore it has done so with a level of commitment and support that Christopher Tietjens was never afforded. For while poor Tietjens’ parade ended silently and without applause, Bowdoin College has for me loudly clapped its hands, and without this recognition I may still be marching. In the spring, I was awarded the Mary B. Sinkinson short story prize for a story called — in keeping with this never-ending metaphor — “Set Your Life on Fire.” With the help of my Professors, I found my way to Los Angeles last summer, where this long speech began, and with their help I am now writing an honors project — a collection of short stories called “Above and Below,” inspired in large part by the writings of John Cheever. For those of you familiar with Cheever’s personal history, I suppose you might say that today I am a John Cheever scholar in a much different way than I was three years ago. Again, for those not registering the innuendo — I stopped drinking — thanks in large part to the Bowdoin counseling center and my dear friend Archie, who is also here today, and wonderful. In this vein I must also mention that Bowdoin has helped me to use my experience toward a positive end by allowing me to co-chair, alongside the marvelous Meadow Davis, the Alcohol Team — a group set up to help Lindsay Lohan scholars like myself.
This college has helped me to see who it is I am, and what it is I love. I can think of nothing else a college should aim for than this, and when in May, I walk across that stage and run, not march, out into the world, I will do so forever indebted to Bowdoin’s gift.
Thank you, Bowdoin, and thank you all.