If you are like me, and you find yourself stuck at a large banquet with some after-dinner speaker about to offer grandiose “Remarks,” you probably console yourself with the thought that, Well, the sooner he begins speaking, the sooner he’ll be finished. With any luck, that is true, though I have to say, you are not as lucky as last year’s seniors, whom I had the honor of being asked to address at this same banquet—a tornado warning that occurred at the very last minute granted them reprieve. (It’s true. At 6:27 last year, the Senior Banquet was cancelled, and the police made everybody move to the basement. You might recall that the Sewanee Children’s Center was located there at the time, so there were all of last year’s seniors with glasses of wine sitting at these little tables on little chairs) Alas, you all will not be spared the whirlwind of words. Let me start that whirlwind off, though, with an expression of sincere gratitude for the invitation to be with you here tonight as we recognize those who have shown such leadership on behalf of the Senior Class Gift Campaign, and, while it may be a bit premature, let me also offer an anticipatory congratulations to the Class of 2015.
What a year you have had as seniors, I can’t help but think. So many things have happened, globally and locally, and there has been so much for all of us to talk about. You came back late last summer to begin your final year here to a campus that looked markedly different than the one you had left behind in the spring. Over by Stirling’s and Humphries Hall, for instance, some old army barracks were replaced with brand-new townhouses as well as with something called a Social Lodge, a place that has already become a locus for constructive interaction. Likewise, many of you probably had not had a chance to see anything of it when you left last May except the exterior of the new Sewanee Inn; inside, as I’m sure you’ve heard, it has become an important part of social life on the Domain. Certainly I have had many a good conversation in it already, at a wedding last June for a new graduate, for instance, or over breakfasts and drinks with job candidates throughout the year (some of whom will be joining us this fall). Even just this weekend, a recent alum and I met at the Inn. “This place leaves me speechless,” he declared, and then he began to tell me about his post-graduate life for a few hours.
These happy changes did not come without competing sorrows. I am sure all of you were saddened when you came back for your senior year to see that a fire had left Rebel’s Rest a burnt and water-logged wreck. The absence of Rebels’ Rest on University Avenue is a palpable one for many of us, especially those on the faculty and staff who spent our first nights in Sewanee in one of its guestrooms. Though the wisteria that covered its porch can still be seen to bloom, the building is gone, no unlike that time of my life when I myself was a younger job candidate. The place exists only as a memory now, and discussions are just getting underway about what should be done with the location where it sat. Rebel’s Rest, after all, was built in a day long before there were electric lights; by contrast, its successor will have to be building that is not only WiFi-ready, but ready for whatever it is that will eventually and inevitably come after WiFi. The discussions that take place concerning this site at the heart of campus will have to be careful. They will have to balance issues of symbolism and pragmatism, to weigh the wistful against the useful, to negotiate commitments to the past as well as designs for the future. Something will be built there, no doubt, something we will all be proud of. But before we build, we have to talk.
That makes sense, of course, because dialogue is at the very heart of the university’s identity. What makes the liberal arts the liberal arts, and more importantly what Sewanee Sewanee, is the way we make a point of speaking with each other about things that matter. This past fall, you will recall, the film “The Obvious Child” was postponed to after the elections, an act that was called censorship by both the Sewanee Purple and the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. When it was eventually screened, it was the probably the campus’ most talked-about film of the year, as a rom-com about abortion probably should be. After Eric Metaxas’ convocation address in January, there was a loud back and forth discussion on campus and on-line about what he had said—while at times it seemed that more heat than light was generated, still I was happy to see positions staked out, questioned, defended, and seriously debated. Not everything that is said is meaningful, of course. Sometimes silences can be eloquent, too, as those of you may have participated in Friday’s Day of Silence can attest. But at times, we must speak up, speak out, and speak to one another, as you did–much to your collective credit–earlier this month, in a forum the IFC hosted, prompted by hateful remarks made at a fraternity in Oklahoma. My hope, and I’m sure you share this, is that with these efforts we are beginning to build a stronger community. As I say, we have to talk before we can build.
In a famous chapter from his 1941 memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy writes about his college days here that people who live in Sewanee [quote] “seem always to be leaning from the top of their tower, busy with idle things; watching the leaves shake in the sunlight, the clouds tumble their soundless bales of purple down the long slopes, the seasons eternally up to tricks of beauty, laughing at things that only distance and height reveal humor in, and talking, talking, talking— the enchanting unstained silver of their voices spilling over the bright branches down into the still and happy coves.” [endquote] Percy’s memories are drenched in nostalgia, of course, but he’s right about the talking. Still it’s worth saying something a little more about why we need to talk so much. Because it’s important to say that a place like Sewanee is not a place for empty chatter, but a place ultimately for contemplation and discernment. When we talk, we do so to get our thoughts straight, to put into words what we think and feel and most deeply believe, and we listen as others do the same thing. In our conversations in classrooms, in dorm rooms, over caffeinated drinks and other kinds, we are most happy when we sense that the sparks fly, the neurons fire, the complacency shakes off, and the light now and again breaks through.
Isn’t that the reason all of us wanted to be in Sewanee, after all, to take part in discussions that were worth having, to be involved in things that were worth being involved in? Over the past several years, I have had many Facebook chats with friends from Sewanee, but two recent conversations stand out. In each instance, the alum was angry over events taking place at Sewanee. One declared not give any money in response to the Cliteracy exhibit, the other said something similar about the appearance of former Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez. Both spoke in the anger of the moment, but I think neither of them will make good on their threats –to take their bat and ball and go home is neither one’s inclination about this place. YSR runs a little too deep in their blood, as does their devotion to their alma mater. Distance and height will reveal the humor in things, and they will not remember having said such things next time we meet here on the mountain, trust me.
For some here tonight, it may be quite some time before you’re back to the mountain after graduation. When you return, some old buildings will be gone that you are bitterly going to miss, some new ones will be built that your generosity will have had some part in constructing. In a similar fashion, the students who come after you will have conversations of their own, subjects they will feel the need to debate, speakers and exhibits they will want to host or protest. Some of what happens you may not like. But they will be young, as you are now, and as you are now, they will be intelligent and intense. And at some point they too will grow up and become alumni of the University, as you are bound to be in just three Mondays from today, when the Vice-Chancellor will have bid you farewell in Latin as Iuvenes dilecti et nunc exornati. All I ask is that you “chosen and now honored youths” have some patience with the whipper-snappers that follow you. Let them talk, in fact encourage them to do so, and listen with forbearance to them too. And let us continue to talk as well, in the few weeks that are left to you as students, and in the many years to follow when life will take you God only knows where as alumni. Be sure to stay in touch, because your alma mater will miss you. And that is all I have to say.
Monday, April 20, 2015, Cravens Hall, University of the South, Sewanee, TN