Senior Class Address
by Jessica Hall ’09 (Charleston, W.Va.)
And for Our Next Act ...
Well here we are. We did it. Today it seems as though those four years flew by. Other times it seemed as though we would never make it to graduation. Although we all had different experiences as students of Denison University, as graduates of Denison we leave here with some things in common. We leave with a common confidence in our abilities. With a common strength of character. We leave here with the common knowledge that we have received the best education from a fantastic institution. And yet, with all these common certainties we are about to enter a world of uncertainty. We are going to embark in life off the hill.
To illustrate this juxtaposition of knowledge and uncertainty I am going to tell a story, because, as you all know, what every senior wants on graduation day is to have the moment when they actually receive their diploma delayed as long as possible. I promise to make it brief, and hopefully memorable.
Born in France in 1824, Jean Francois Gravelot found his passion in tightrope walking. Orphaned at age nine, he would practice his stunts continuously until he could literally do them with his eyes closed. Calling himself The Great Blondin, he is best known as the first person to walk a tightrope across Niagra Falls. Five thousand people showed up to see his first try. He walked halfway across the rope and stopped. The uncertain crowd watched as the Great Blondin steadied himself then did a backflip before walking the rest of the length of the rope.
Throughout 1859 he crossed Niagra Falls again and again by tightrope. Yet each time he would try something new: he rode a bike, he carried a stove, he draped himself in chains, and he even walked blindfolded. Before he began another crossing while pushing a wheelbarrow, he turned to the crowd and shouted, “Who believes that I can cross pushing this wheelbarrow?” Each and every hand in the crowd shot up. Blondin surveyed the crowd and pointed at one man with his hand in the air.
“Do you believe that I can do it?”
“Yes, I believe you can,” answered the man.
“Are you certain?” asked Blondin.
“Yes, absolutely certain.”
Blondin thanked the man, then said, “Sir, get in the wheelbarrow.”
Like the man in the crowd, we know a lot of things. In fact, we are certain about a lot of things. And yet we are about to enter a world of uncertainty, where no matter how much knowledge you have there will still be times where what we know will fall short. In these times we will have to take a risk, and it is these times that a Denison education will be most valuable.
We have encountered uncertainty here at Denison, no doubt. We came here as the best and brightest of our high school classes. Some of us knew the path we wanted to take, but encountered stumbling blocks. Others of us were uncertain just what we wanted to do when we arrived at Denison. Yet, we met that uncertainty. We knew the risks, but we got into the wheelbarrow anyway. And with the support of our professors, family and friends, we have made it safely across one of life’s tightropes.
We are bio majors, and communication majors. We are athletes and artists. But we are not defined by that alone. Within the liberal arts curriculum of Denison we have gained the ability to reason, to multi-task, to research and to communicate. We are the future, because we are Denison’s class of 2009.
The most important thing we can take away as Denison students is our experience. As a member of the Denison community we have both shared and individual experiences. These are the moments that will define our future. Getting a poor grade on a political science paper doesn’t define us. Learning from our mistakes does. Scoring the winning touchdown doesn’t define us. Developing leadership through working with a team does. We all have different experiences, yet we also all share the common experience of being a member of the Denison community. So while we may not be defined by the diploma we are about to receive, we are defined by our experience as Denison University’s Class of 2009.
To close, I ask you all to reflect on your Denison experience as I quote author James Baldwin. In his book, “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin addresses his nephew, hoping to give him guidance for the future. And he states:
“Take no one’s word for anything, including mine — but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”
So my advice to you is this: let your experience guide you, through rocky ground, over troubled waters, and yes, even across the tightropes we may encounter. And always get in the wheelbarrow.
Thank you, Denison class of 2009.