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Locked Like Rafters

Baccalaureate Address
by Ruth Russo,
Professor of Chemistry

"So what is the purpose of the battle?" asks professor Ruth Russo, one of four Baccalaureate speakers. "There is more to be won than the laurel wreath."

Members of the Class of 2000 are worthy, not only of "a blessing and a new name," they have earned the right to construct their own new reality, to fashion a new faith, to make things better, and to fail.

They will meet "the divine wrestler" again and again in the guise of new searches and struggles.

One of four Baccalaureate speakers, professor Ruth Russo listens to Dr. George Ball's address.
What does the word "wrestling" conjure in your mind? Maybe you think of the kid in high school, built like a tank, who counted calories and made it to the state championships. Maybe you think of your father, letting squealing children pin him to the carpet and bounce on his chest.

I think of Homer's match between Odysseus and Ajax. (Okay, I'm a nerd. What can I say?) In Book 23 of the Iliad, the Greeks paused during the siege of Troy, setting aside heavy spears and bloody helmets for funeral games.

Both champions, belted tight, stepped into the ring
And grappling each other hard with big burly arms,
Locked like rafters a master builder bolts together,
Slanting into a pitched roof to fight the ripping winds.
And their backbones creaked as scuffling hands tugged
For submission-holds and sweat streamed down their spines
And clusters of raw welts broke out on ribs and shoulders
Slippery, red with blood, and still they grappled, harder,
Locking for victory, locked for that burnished tripod.

(The Iliad, Bk. 23, trans. R. Fagels)

Ajax and Odysseus were not sworn enemies, but the match was nevertheless in earnest, drawing blood and locking the two allies in adversarial embrace.

I also can't help thinking of the World Wrestling Federation. The fact that I know who the Rock is, and that Judgment Day was May 21st (the pay-per-view match, I mean, not the biblical eschaton, although you never know about the Second Coming), means that I am spending far too much time in K-Mart with my sons. Black and red make-up, feigned head-butts, primal screams — certainly, WWF is a commodified, campy caricature of Homeric wrestling, but both are spectacles, dishing up blood and pain for entertainment.

And strange as it may seem, I also think of life at Whitman College, not the polite, pastoral "Camp Whitman" confection whipped up by Admissions and Student Life, but the academic meatgrinder. Aren't you, the graduating seniors, feeling relieved, even elated, to be finished, to be heading off to the showers? No more struggling with college life, no more enduring the dorms and the drudgery, no more being thrown onto the ropes by hard-hitting professors!

Let's be honest: the relationship between students and faculty is a face-off, a wrestling match. You, the students — with your cutesy email nicknames and Saturday hangovers — play a role as familiar as the bald guy with the testosterone muscles and the industrial jackboots. I, the professor — with my inflexible deadlines and lists of common ions to be memorized — am as cartoonish as the black leather babe with peroxide hair and the unicorn tattoo. We have been actors for the last four years, playing our roles like WWF characters, except that we have no audience besides ourselves.

So what has been the purpose of our battle, if not to entertain spectators? Ajax and Odysseus were locking for victory, locked for that burnished tripod; in other words, they desired glory, honor and prizes. Being a hero means persevering in a titanic battle with a worthy adversary. And yet there is more to be won than the laurel wreath.

In Genesis of the Hebrew Torah, the herdsman Jacob duped his brother Esau, the hunter, out of his birthright and his father's blessing. The name Jacob signifies "the Supplanter." Jacob then spent decades away from an angry Esau, contending with a sneaky father-in-law, two jealous wives and many young sons. Although Jacob wished to return home, he feared his brother would kill the entire family. One evening, full of anxiety, Jacob sent his wives, children and flocks away.

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When [the man] saw that he had not prevailed against [Jacob], he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then [the man] said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But [Jacob] answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Said the other, "What is your name?" He replied, "Jacob." Said [the man], "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed."

Jacob asked, "Pray tell me your name." But he said, "You must not ask my name!" And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (Genesis 32:25-31)

Then, at first light, Jacob looked up to see Esau. Instead of rushing in with drawn sword, Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

The violence of this story is striking — the divine being inflicted great bodily pain upon Jacob. Jacob was also confused: "Pray tell me your name" was a cry for understanding. Nevertheless, Jacob did not let go. Jacob's aim was not to vanquish an enemy; it was simply to persevere. His reward was a blessing and the name "Israel," which means "one who strives with God," a name worthy of the founder of a great kingdom. Finally, Jacob reconciled with Esau after realizing that God alone merits fear, and that this powerful God is also gracious, allowing Jacob to live after such an intimate embrace.

You who have persevered for four years, never yielding, have striven with the divine. I don't mean the faculty; I mean ideas that are bigger and deeper than all of us. You have had your intellectual and emotional capacities stretched, wrenched out of their comfortable sockets like Jacob's thighbone yanked from the hip. And it has probably hurt. Like Jacob, you are now worthy of a blessing and a new name: "Bachelor of Arts" signifies that you have wrestled with mighty ideas and difficult skills. Like Jacob, you are ready to make peace with your fears.

Most importantly, you've earned the right to build your own kingdom, to say, "this is who I am" by thousands of small and large decisions. The divine wrestler will come again and again, in the guise of searches — for creative work, for people to love, for a place to call home — and in the guise of struggles — against the degradation of natural resources, against global poverty, against assaults on human dignity.

Hold to the challenges as fast as Jacob held the angel. Clutch them as tightly as Odysseus clutched Ajax, locked like rafters a master builder bolts together. And you will fare well, Class of 2000!

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