Baccalaureate Address: Nancy Simon
Sunday, May 21, 2006
“The View from the Banana Peel”
Baccalaureate Address by Nancy Simon, Professor of Theatre
Saturday, May 20, 2006 - Whitman College
“Baccalaureate,” she mused, sounding like Pontius Pilate in an old Biblical epic. “What is baccalaureate?” Was it like the vermiform appendix, at best useless and at worst troublesome? Her online dictionary defined “baccalaureate” as “a religious service held at some educational institutions before commencement, containing a farewell sermon to the graduating class.” Religious service? Though reports of God’s death might be exaggerated, she knew that he/she/it/they was/were now politically incorrect. As for the farewell sermon, she could scarcely be described as a woman of the cloth. Perhaps it would be best to present herself as a large, friendly, overstuffed fortune cookie.
I last attended a baccalaureate in 1963 when I graduated from Whitman College. (As I’m a slow learner, they’ve made me come back for an additional 39 years.) I remember nothing of that occasion, and I expect those of you still around in another 39 years will remember little of this one. That is as it should be, for life, like theatre, should be lived in moments, not memories or expectations. I have changed. Has Whitman? Well, like many parents in today’s audience, mine were appalled when the tuition was raised, soaring into the stratosphere beyond $1,000. The only other theatre major in my class was expelled for having been found in her boyfriend’s apartment after hours. Six years later we had coed dorms. It was a time before Xerox machines, computers, I-pods. But then as now, Whitman was a tight-knit community of friends and scholars, who through many years have remained guiding influences in my life.
As an optimistic and self-centered child, I was quite sure a cure for death would be discovered before my time came. As a realistic almost grown-up, I spend far too many of my fleeting moments contemplating mortality and considering one of my favorite vaudeville jokes, “one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.” Having fallen off stages far too frequently during my theatrical career, I am well aware of the foot on the banana peel. I’m just not sure where the other is at present. But while at least one is above ground, let me share with you a few observations about what I’ve learned on the slippery circular path I’ve followed since first setting forth from Whitman College.
Arriving in Boston to attend grad school, she views a billboard over the Harvard Coop: “Keep An Open Mind.” Stop before rejecting. Life is short. Let yourself see it, smell it, hear it, taste it, feel it and think about it in as many ways as you can. Don’t close the door on any of its possibilities because you’re lazy or afraid. Willful ignorance is the deadliest of sins.
A bit short on humility despite being rejected by Yale on a form letter, she goes off to Seattle and still more grad school, where she hears the gentle voice of her Scandinavian drama professor: “You don’t really think that, do you Miss Simon?” You are human, and no matter how you strive you will be imperfect and often wrong. There’s no such thing as perfection, and those who are afraid of not reaching it will never come close to it. Take risks. Dare to be wrong. Know that you may be wrong: the worst crimes of humanity have been perpetrated by people who were convinced they were right. Embrace uncertainty: the worst crimes of humanity have been perpetrated by people who needed to have all the answers. You can’t make the world a perfect place, but you can and will change it in large and small ways. Be aware that your most trivial and thoughtless act will affect the future. Don’t ask or allow other people to take responsibility for your actions, your identity, or your life.
She returns to Whitman College, armed with three degrees and an acorn of experience and convinced that Mom and Dad were right: she was special. Slowly I learned that we are all special—in what we have to give, so we mustn’t stint on it or waste it. Not in what we deserve, so we shouldn’t park in the handicapped spot because we’re late for work or determine our foreign and environmental policy by the cost of filling up our gas tanks.
Thirty-nine years later, she stands before you, (note banana peel under one foot) having been privileged to spend forty-three years at this College and almost sixty-four on this earth. I have a strong sense that I am part of a continuum, wandering a path that many have walked before me and hopefully leaving it passable for those who will come after. A retired minister of my acquaintance, when asked if he believed in the hereafter, responded, “Yes. Every time I walk into another room, I say, “Lord, what am I here after?” When I leave the banana peel behind and plunge from the stage of life, I don’t believe I’ll sit at God’s right hand, dwell forever in a garden with streams beneath, or even, as many who know me might predict, burn forever in the fires of hell. I believe our immortality rests in what we give to and leave for others on the path that is life on this earth and that we must strive to give freely, energetically, and abundantly with warm and open hearts.
She knew what “commencement” meant: it meant “Get out and get on with it.” Perhaps she ought to do just that. She hoped the Class of ’06 would always smile at babies. She hoped they would never become so sophisticated that they couldn’t see the magic in Jello.
I wake these mornings to the smell of lilacs outside my window and news of carnage on my radio. This life of ours is both horrific and achingly beautiful. I wish you the courage to confront its cruelty and to cling to its joy. To follow life’s path is to slip and fall. Whether you’re flat on your behind or dancing, savor every moment of the journey. One foot is always on the banana peel, and you never know where the other one may be.