Connecticut College seniors leave "Act One," into a complicated world

A graduate stands to applaud as Maurice Tiner makes his way to the stage to accept the Anna Lord Strauss Medal during the Connecticut College graduation ceremony on Tempel Green on the campus in New London, Sunday, May 21, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
A graduate stands to applaud as Maurice Tiner makes his way to the stage to accept the Anna Lord Strauss Medal during the Connecticut College graduation ceremony on Tempel Green on the campus in New London, Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Connecticut College’s class of 2017 has completed the first act in the stories of their lives, novelist Colson Whitehead told them Sunday.

Next, he said, come the complications. And the chocolate pudding.

Placing Sunday’s graduation as a pivotal event in the three-act drama, Whitehead’s speech — "inspiring and at times depressing," according to college president Katherine Bergeron — poked gentle fun at the optimism of Sunday’s pomp and circumstance.

"Any good story has three parts: act one, where we meet the protagonist, and establish the rules of the world."

That’s where the class of 2017 is, he told its 442 members Sunday.

Whitehead's latest novel, "The Underground Railroad," imagines the fantastical story of a 15-year-old slave who escapes north from a plantation in Georgia around 1850, on a literal train track. The book won a National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"You've just finished act one," Whitehead told the graduates. "You know some things about the world, have developed a few theories about how things work. ...You're ready to head out in the world, follow your star, find a soul mate, find yourself."

Act two is where the complications arise, Whitehead said.

"These are the unexpected, unforeseen events that upend the rules of act one. A meteor is on a collision course with earth. What do we do? There’s an accident, an attack that destroys the peaceful order … a demented con man takes control of the country."

"A new heroine is born out of the chaos of her struggle. The meteor collides — or it doesn't. Out of the rubble of the attack, a new city emerges. The con man is exposed for his swindles, and gets his just deserts. Or doesn't."

In more collegiate terms, the three acts could be framed as the time before, during and after a wild party. First, the decision to go. Second, "all sorts of crazy stuff is happening at the party — clowns, chocolate pudding."

Third, the morning after: "A new self wakes and says, 'after that whole chocolate pudding thing, I really have to reconsider some core assumptions about myself.'"

In act two — the chocolate pudding — the graduates might realize that finding a soul mate is improbable. Light pollution might get in the way of the path to their own personal star, if the star hasn't already become a supermassive black hole.

And even finding one's self could be tricky, he told them.

"By now you know the self is an ever-changing creature, a nebula of spinning gases, swirling and reforming, seeking a coherent shape," he said.

But act three — the ending — is "everything," he said.

"Here's the problem with every story. ... To make sense of the chaos, we gather all the plot strands ... to figure out the ending no matter what the plot throws at you."

The universe may seem like a lonely place sometimes," he concluded. "But there are as many 'you's as there are stars in the sky. And maybe one of them will step up at the right time and tell you what to make of it all."

The 442 people who received Bachelor of Arts degrees Sunday came to the college from 31 states and 14 countries. A total of 65 of them were the first in their families to graduate from college, according to the school's website.

Anique Ashraf, the 20 year-old member of the class of 2017 who was killed by a driver outside the campus entrance on Route 32 in December 2015, wasn't far from the minds of Sunday's speakers.

Ashraf's uncle, Asim Riaz, accepted his nephew's degree, and Ashraf's grandmother, Sarwar Akhtar, sat in the audience.

"Anique, we love you, and we miss you, and wish you could be here amongst us," Ramzi Marwan Kaiss, the president of the college’s student government, said in his address.

Kaiss, a native of Beirut, Lebanon, played down the significance of Sunday’s events in his address as the senior class speaker. He spoke to his classmates lovingly, addressing them using the affectionate Arabic word for family or loved ones, habibi.

"Today is not the true celebration of your past four years at Connecticut College," he said. "How does one come to process the end of four years of transformation, most beautiful friendships and unending relationships in a four-hour ceremony?”

 “Every day for the rest of your lives, and not just this day, will be a celebration of the lessons we’ve learned, the relationships we’ve built and the love that we’ve had and shared on this beautiful New London hilltop," he said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

 

During the processional a graduate and a faculty member greet each other as the graduates pass the faculty lined up on both sides of the walkway during the Connecticut College graduation ceremony on Tempel Green on the campus in New London, Sunday, May 21, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
During the processional a graduate and a faculty member greet each other as the graduates pass the faculty lined up on both sides of the walkway during the Connecticut College graduation ceremony on Tempel Green on the campus in New London, Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)


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