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Convocation Speech - Provost

September 5, 2013

Provost Katie Conboy delivered the following address during the Undergraduate Honors Convocation, Sept. 4.

Good afternoon. It’s such a privilege to be able to address you, the Class of 2017, Dix scholars, transfer students who have chosen to join the Simmons community after beginning their educational journeys elsewhere, members of the senior class as you prepare for the next life transition, faculty and staff, President Drinan, Board Chair Lauren Brisky.

This morning I addressed the college community at the all-college convocation, and I used one approach to the Convocation theme of “branching out while staying rooted” with them. For that purpose, I was interested in exploring the image of the tree on our college seal, which you’ll see everywhere on campus, including right here on stage. I told them that I thought of the tree as a symbol of our commitment to our roots and of our recognition that we need to keep reaching higher. In an academic institution, there’s a particular imperative that such work--which is really about both preservation and renovation--be done in a spirit of collaboration and good will.

But my message here this afternoon, while sharing a theme with the one this morning, is really intended for the students. And I have a different message for you today because we share a common experience—and we share it with a few faculty members as well--that is unique to this academic year. You see, like the new students, I am also a recent transplant to Simmons College. I started in July after 26 years at Stonehill College, and in saying farewell to my colleagues and friends there, I actually described the feeling of leaving one place and starting at another as one of pulling up deep roots. And seniors, you probably remember clearly what it felt like to be new, yet here you are, getting ready to branch out and enlarge the scope of your world. So I identify with you too.

New students may be unsettled as you leave the comfort of a home, a school, a group of friends, a work environment where—even if things weren’t perfect, at least you knew what to expect. Seniors are probably still in denial for a few more months. As for me, since this will be the only year that’s a true beginning at the college, you will be the only group of students with whom I ever share this particular experience of searching at Simmons for community, for family, for home. We’re all going to feel a little bit adventurous and a little bit scared. The butterflies in our stomachs are part excitement and part homesickness.

Like you, I read Toni Morrison’s beautiful novel Home this summer, and I think it offers us some ways to explore the theme of branching out while staying rooted. I’m not going to examine all the ways in which the novel might be relevant—I know first-year students will be discussing it in their Simmons 101 classes. But when I read it, I found myself reflecting especially on the ideas of memory-making and home-making. How we can make our memories and make ourselves at home by sheer acts of will. My wish for you is that while you are at Simmons, you will cultivate those acts of will.

Two of the central characters, Cee and her big brother Frank, have trouble with memories and trouble with the idea of home. With early recollections of being run out of Texas and walking to Louisiana, then on to Georgia, Frank knows his early life is characterized by a violent displacement. Instead of growing bitter because no one cared for him during that period of suffering, Frank puts all his energies into nurturing his sister, who can’t remember being born somewhere along that long march.

Frank’s brief first-person narratives, appearing in italics and interpolated throughout the novel, appear to be crystalline memories, frozen in time. But as the novel progresses, we recognize that some of them are false memories and self-deceptions. He harbors memories of “the horses, a man’s foot, Ycidra trembling under his arm.” He refuses to remember the little Korean girl and his own act of shameful violence. He’s a man running from his memories.

Now, science tells us a lot about memory. In fact, as I was thinking about this novel last week, I happened to catch a segment of National Public Radio’s Science Friday with Ira Flato. Ira had the Nobel-prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel as his guest. And though it wasn’t the main point of the program, I tuned in to a discovery Kandel mentioned he had made much earlier in his career. He said that he wanted to understand how nerve cells talk to each other in a process called synaptic transmission—and whether that process affected memory. He found two things: first, that the ways one cell talks to another is strengthened in some forms of learning and weakened in others. And second, that the difference between short-term memory and long-term memory is the growth of these synaptic connections. Hang in here with me.

I’m no neuroscientist—in fact, I’m an English professor by training, and I’m about to scare the neuroscientists among us—but the idea that connections, even on a cellular level, strengthen memory made a kind of perfect sense to me. When we make the leap—and it is a leap—to consider our conscious efforts to remember, we usually find that it is easier to remember three connected things, for example, than just one. Connections strengthen memories, in more ways than one. In the novel, the horses, the dogs, the men—they have something in common. But Frank can’t make the connections.

Obviously, the novel resolves Frank’s incomplete, partial, and false memories in an ethically satisfying way. But I wanted to use this theme to make a point about your own memory making. Make your college experience as conscious as possible. Look for the connections across your coursework and your other experiences. Make memories with your friends, your professors, and other mentors and members of the Simmons community. How you ultimately look back on your college experience, and the retrospective pleasure you take in that, will be of your own making.

And that brings me to the idea of making a home. Although she has no memory of being born on the long march out of Texas, Cee does know that the home her parents bring them to is not a home at all. She knows that “A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have.” Both Frank and Cee plant shallow roots in Lotus, Georgia--as soon as they are adolescents, they are ready to grow new shoots, seek new adventures. When Frank and his buddies enlist for the Korean war, Cee runs off with the first boy who looks at her. Both Frank and Cee think they will never look back.

But after several false starts and false homes, and after Cee’s near-death experience, they find themselves back in Lotus, in their parents’ shuttered house, seeing their hometown with new eyes. The same bossy meddlers who ordered Cee around as a child--“Come here girl, didn’t nobody teach you to sew? Yes Ma’am. Then why’s your hem hanging like that? . . . Wipe your mouth. Come down from that tree, you hear me? Tie your shoes put down that rag doll and pick up a broom uncross your legs go weed that garden stand up straight don’t you talk back to me”—those same women become redemptive guardian angels when Lotus, Georgia gets a second chance. Cee recognizes that these women “took responsibility for their lives and for whatever, whoever else needed them. . . . Sleep was not for dreaming, it was for gathering strength for the coming day. Conversation was accompanied by tasks: ironing, peeling, shucking, sorting, sewing, mending, washing, or nursing. You couldn’t learn age, but adulthood was there for all.”

You will find--as Dean White said in her welcome remarks on Saturday and as any of the seniors here today can tell you--that your relationship to home will be complicated by going to college. That’s true regardless of whether you are a traditional age student or a Dix scholar, an undergraduate or a graduate student—and regardless of whether or not you are a vegetarian by Thanksgiving. But don’t let the pull of home prevent you from putting down new roots in this community. Part of the project of education is self-knowledge, and as you branch out through your time here, you will find that your root system is capacious enough to accommodate two homes.

Perhaps we always have multiple homes, those we are given and those we choose. Cee learns that her roots are deeper and wider than she suspected. Miss Ethel tells her: “Seed your own land. . . . Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.” And Cee replies, “I ain’t going nowhere Miss Ethel. This is where I belong.” Cee discovers, the hard way, that she can only become more rooted by first branching out. She chooses Lotus as her home, and the choice makes all the difference. She is “home free,” as it were.

You are probably not feeling “home free” yet, and neither am I. But we read this book as our first act of community, and we’re all feeling a little more connected through it. Let’s choose our next acts of community and start extending our limbs and branches. We all came here because Simmons promised something to us—something we could both receive from and give to. I, for one, intend to make it home and to make memories. I hope you’ll join me.