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Nancy Tavelli

…there's more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line.
      — Source: Indigo Girls

By Nancy Tavelli
Associate Dean of Students: Campus Life

May 17, 2008

Good afternoon, I am extremely pleased to speak to you today representing the staff of Whitman College. The staff at Whitman is 285 strong and I know that all of us have engaged in the educational mission of the college. I have both taught and learned from a tremendous Residence Life staff, my pre-major advisees and all the students I have had the pleasure to interact with on so many different levels throughout the past few years. In the letter from President Bridges asking me to speak to you this afternoon he suggested that my talk be celebratory and with a message that reflects my personal experiences at Whitman and my professional interests.

I have to say that this request seemed a bit daunting. Summing up my experiences at Whitman and also having something meaningful to say to all of the parents, seniors and other friends in attendance is a very tall order. I do think, however, that this request has sent me on a personal journey and it has caused me to think about my own college graduation (many years ago); my daughter’s graduation from college just about a year ago today and my younger daughter’s graduation from high school which will take place in a few weeks. I graduated from college in the rebellious 70’s as maybe some of you other baby boomer parents did and there was much talk at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine about not attending graduation. Many of my classmates maintained that it was not important to celebrate these rituals. A senior meeting was called and our President asked us to attend graduation.

He pointed out that we might or might not have other graduations in our futures and he admitted that he had not attended his own graduate degree ceremonies, but he assured us that he would always remember graduating from his undergraduate institution. He asked us to honor Bates’ long standing graduation rites and ceremonies by participating and engaging fully in the process. We all did –thankfully, in retrospect. We will all have many more life events both happy and bittersweet to add to these graduation memories. I know that the parents and grandparents who are seated in this hall will never forget this week-end. And for the students just about to graduate this memory will be interfused with other meaningful events such as making a commitment to a life partner, getting a first job, attending graduate school, traveling, making community connections and perhaps one day and oh what a day that will be! - becoming a parent. Suddenly you realize that you’re the grown up.

I have spent some time thinking about this talk while walking up at Bennington Lake which is one of my favorite places in Walla Walla. It was on one of these walks that I thought about this time in each of your lives and the Indigo Girls’ song, Closer to Fine came to mind.

This has been one of my favorite songs and it is also about college, so it relates to all of you students here. My daughter, like the Indigo Girls, graduated from Emory University in Atlanta ( in fact the liner notes for the CD that Closer to Fine appears on are based on the messages left on their Residence Hall door at Emory).

In our family we have always laughed at the line about the doctor of philosophy. When our daughters were young they were always confused when Whitman students called my spouse, Keith Farrington Dr. They would ask why he couldn’t cure their ear infections and where his stethoscope was. He would answer that he is not that kind of a Dr., but rather a Doctor of Philosophy. Our daughters would laugh and say that made no sense. So, when I first heard that line from the Indigo Girls’ song, I can remember laughing out loud and starting to fall in love with the song. I thought about playing one of the verses from the CD this afternoon or perhaps showing a slide of the words, but finally I decided that I would like to show my love of this song by singing it. So after I have spoken for a bit I am going to be joined by two friends and we are going to sing Closer to Fine

On the bulletin board in my office I have posted an article entitled “Building a Memorial to a Lost Son, One Child at a Time”. The article is about a typical family in a small town in the USA who lost their son suddenly to a heart ailment. Their lives were obviously transformed by this terrible tragedy. Pam Cope, about whom this article was written, works with local charities in Ghana, Vietnam and Cambodia. Her foundation (created in memory of her son and for which she tirelessly raises funds) finances shelters for families with Aids and has rescued children as young as 6 who were living lives as indentured servants.

I think the reason I keep coming back to this article in my own life is that Pam has been able to transform a personal tragedy into making the world a better place one child at a time. What continues to linger in my thoughts about Pam’s life story is that Pam has said that she wanted to make sure that her world did not become too small. My own children and all of you students in the audience have worlds that are very big. One piece of advice I have for all of you is to make sure that whatever path you take in life, you see this world as a large and interconnected place.

When I was contemplating writing this talk a line from an Ani DiFranco song popped into my mind and the line reads, “If you don’t ask the right questions, every answer seems wrong.” I then asked my colleagues in Student Services if they had to give advice to the senior class about asking the right questions, what would these questions be?

My friend and colleague in the Career Center responded by telling me that many find the question “tell me about yourself” to be very challenging because without a good deal of personal reflection and self knowledge it is difficult to answer that fundamentally important question. Every job interviewer knows from your resume what your skills and accomplishments are, but how you reflect on these skills and accomplishments is likely to be just as important. Another reply I received is to ask yourselves how do we find value in every experience we have, whether that experience has initially been good or difficult, and how can these experiences be allowed to change our lives?

Like the Indigo Girls in “Closer to Fine,” I am trying to help you realize there is more than one answer to life’s questions and that sometimes the journeys in our lives are going to be very crooked.

Before I sing Closer to Fine I want to mention that I went on-line to see what this song means to other people and it was quite a revelation. I quickly realized just how many interpretations this one song has and how vehemently people have disagreed with one another. Emily Saliers who wrote the song has said “There’s no panacea, that in order to be balanced or feel closer to fine it’s okay to draw from a lot of different sources. So, it’s about being confused, but looking for the answers and in the end knowing that you’re going to be fine.”

The message for me has always been that you have to find out what your life means for you, yourself, and that in the long run we must all do what brings us joy even it if means following a path that is not always approved of or understood by those who would judge us, or even those who love us.

I am now going to sing “Closer to Fine” with my friends Rich Monacelli and Jenny Miles and then I will say a few words in conclusion.

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper
And I was free.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.
    — from “Closer to Fine” ©1989 Indigo Girls (Full lyrics here.)

My daughter Katharine said I should not say this until I had finished singing, but that was really scary. It was scarier than going through class IV and V rapids while white water rafting.

Thank you for listening. Singing in front of an audience (but not as part of a large choir) is something I had done only once before. We all have our own comfort levels and I, quite frankly, just pushed mine.

I have appreciated being able to sing this song I love and to take a risk.

Anais Nin wrote:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” I very much hope that you graduating seniors will all take emotional risks in life.

On behalf of the staff at Whitman College, I want to thank all of you for allowing us to help you blossom in so many ways during your time here. Best of luck to all of you as you find your own answers to the important life questions you will encounter pointing you in a crooked line.

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