The following is excerpted from Robert Saenz de Viteri’s Commencement address to the Class of 2004.
As a double major in English and Theatre, I’ve spent a large portion of my time at Muhlenberg reading. At this point I should probably apologize to all of the people who voted for me for “Class Clown” – an award I was amused to receive but am not sure I deserve. The thing is, believe it or not, I love my experiences in the classroom and I take learning seriously – for me, learning, reading and discussion have been the best highs in college; it only seems right for me to honor them.
Of the many ground-shaking learning experiences that occurred in college, reading Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” may have rocked my scope of human experience the most. For those who are unfamiliar with this play, the plot is simple. Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, nicknamed Didi and Gogo, spend two acts on a country road, by a tree waiting for a mysterious “Godot.” Not to ruin the ending for you, but Godot never comes. Throughout the course of the play, Didi and Gogo contemplate leaving, but in the end always decide that they cannot go: they are waiting for Godot. The struggle of the characters is simultaneously laughable and profoundly sad. Perhaps the last three lines best capture this paradox. Didi looks at Gogo and asks, “Well? Shall we go?” To which Gogo replies, “Yes let’s go.” The final stage direction simply reads, They do not move. Curtain.
Recently, I have thought often about the end of this play. The dilemma Beckett has staged – the desperate desire to leave and the complete inability to do so – paralyzes the characters as the curtain falls. I find myself looking at that dilemma in my own life and asking, what is it about Muhlenberg that compels me to stay? I think it is safe to say that most everyone has felt “ready to go” at one point or another in the course of the four years here. This is a good feeling; we have all worked and played hard. Now we are supposed to take our education out into the “real world” (a troubling term on many levels) where we will lead successful and full lives.
I am not sure if this “real world” that people keep reminding us of has room for a group of people to talk about contemporary Irish literature around the dining room table, attend a party where people discuss the value of art within a community, or sit on a pool table until the wee hours of the morning questioning the stability of all definitions and meanings. This is where our college has succeeded: Muhlenberg has provided a space in which intellectual and social life are not an unyielding binary. The two are virtually inseparable for me, as I am sure they are for many others as well – others who have taken the threads that our college has provided and woven them into their daily lives.
I am sure many of us have spent time recently reflecting on memories, retelling the stories of our pasts here in order to preserve our place in history. Ask anyone what the infamous snowball fight on Taylor Mall was like our freshmen year and you will probably hear stories that sound more like war reports – campus safety charging against a barrage of slush, donning their riot gear and plastic shields. Preserving our history is important to us, as it is a way in which we are able to let our narratives live on. It is also a way to keep us safe from the possibilities of the future. Many of us are unsure of the next step and may find ourselves for the first time in our lives not sure how to succeed, how to make progress happen, or even questioning the very ideas of success and progress. We have lived our lives according to narratives that are coming to a close; now it is time to begin new ones.
Like Didi and Gogo, we have reached a point when it is time to go, but unlike those characters in Beckett’s play, we will eventually move when the curtain closes. This place is not big enough for us anymore; we have dreams, goals, things to accomplish, lives to live that we simply have to leave here to do. Ironically, by allowing us to learn and grow in this environment that might make us wish to stay, Muhlenberg has helped us grow enough to know that it is time to move on.
Thinking about graduation reminds me of the lyrics to one of my favorite rock n’ roll songs – it is called “Given To Fly” and is written by the survivors of the Seattle grunge rock scene, Pearl Jam. In it, Eddie Vedder sings, “A wave came crashing like a fist to his jaw, delivered him wings, hey look at me now!” Graduation feels a bit like that wave, crashing like a fist to the jaw. That hurts at first; it’s a bit wounding. But just as in the song, the fist to the jaw can deliver us to new heights. In “Waiting for Godot,” Didi and Gogo say that there’s “nothing to be done.” For all of us graduates, there is nothing to be done about the necessity of moving on. On behalf of the student body and the class of 2004, I am privileged to thank this college – the administrators, the staff and the faculty – for all that you have given us. We are forever in your debt. You have delivered us wings; now it is time for us to fly.