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Diverging Roads and September Mornings: Making the Most of Your Time at Dartmouth

Posted 09/23/03

Convocation Address by Susan Dentzer '77

Susan Dentzer '77 (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

President Wright and Mrs. Wright; celebrated faculty; talented administrators and staff; intelligent and eager students; loyal alumni; and other devoted members of the Dartmouth community:

It's a great pleasure to be with you here at convocation, the start of Dartmouth's 234th academic year. It was to me an unbelievable thirty years ago tomorrow -- September 24, 1973, to be exact -- that I was here as a freshman, attending my first Dartmouth convocation.

I was a member of the second class of women to be admitted as first year students to Dartmouth. Back in those days, coeducation had that same freshness and newness that you get on fall mornings when you wake up and sense the first frost still hanging in the air. I remember the cheers that went up from the women students in the audience when our then President, John Kemeny, uttered in his faint Hungarian accent: "Men...and WOMEN...of Dartmouth." You have no idea how happy I am that this phrase has become routine and no longer elicits much notice, because it signals that coeducation has been woven so completely into the fabric of this institution.

Believe me, the last thing I ever expected as a freshman is that I would one day become a Dartmouth trustee and eventually lead the Board as chair. But often life leads us in directions that we're not expecting to take. And many of these journeys begin with choices that we make to take one road or another - often, on September days such as this.

Those are my subjects today: diverging roads, September mornings, and choices.

About 27 years ago, on another autumn day, I sat on a hillside in Thetford, Vermont, along with about 12 other Dartmouth seniors. All of us were English majors enrolled in our senior seminar, "The Poetry of Robert Frost," taught by then-professor Ned Perrin. Professor Perrin would always take his Frost students up for at least one session of reading and discussing the poet's work right there on Perrin's own farm in Thetford. How perfect is that? Sitting on a farm in Vermont, that happens to be the farm of your Dartmouth professor, reading the poetry of one of Vermont and New Hampshire's most famous poets, Robert Frost, who having spent just one semester at Dartmouth as a freshman also happens to be arguably the most famous Dartmouth dropout in all of history? It doesn't get much better than this.

One of the poems that you'd read when studying Frost was of course the famous one entitled "The Road Not Taken." Everybody knows this poem, or at least, everybody thinks he or she knows this poem. It's the one that closes with the lines, "I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference."

Usually just those last lines are quoted by people who want to read this poem as a hymn of self-congratulation or rugged individualism. "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." When those lines are read in isolation, the poem sounds like a precursor to that old Frank Sinatra song, "I Did It My Way" - or maybe Jon Bon Jovi's "It's My Life." Meanwhile the phrase, "the road less traveled," has become part of the American vernacular. If you type those words into Google, you'll turn up everything from a rock band in Southern California to advertisements for mutual funds.

Back all those years ago on that Vermont hillside, Professor Perrin would have instructed us not to just focus on those few last lines, but rather to do what all good students of poetry must do: Read the whole poem. And if you read the entire poem - something which, thankfully, you have time to do in college -- you find that it goes like this:

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

"Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though, as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

"And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

When the narrator of the poem first encounters the two roads diverging in the wood, the roads look about the same: "Both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black." But some day, years later, the narrator says, he'll be telling people with a sigh, "I took the one less traveled by." So what was Frost really trying to say there? Professor Perrin would have asked us.

Well, we would have replied, maybe Frost is trying to say that when we all look back on our lives, we construct patterns to organize our experience in a way that really wasn't evident as we lived it. Or maybe Frost is saying that we all have a tendency to self-aggrandizement: To viewing the choices we made in our lives in retrospect as more imbued with a sense of purpose or grandeur or historical inevitability than they really were at the time we made them. After all, in reality, most of us live our lives like the narrator of Frost's poem. You can take organic chemistry or philosophy in the time slot of your choosing, so you pick one or the other. You can go to the library or the absolute best party on campus on Friday night, so you go to the library. When two roads diverge in a yellow wood, we look down one as far as we can, and then pick one, put one foot ahead of another, and move on.

There's another feature of the poem that Professor Perrin would certainly have called to our attention. Note that the poem is not called "The Road Less Traveled." It's called, "The Road Not Taken." In other words, the road Frost chose to emphasize in the title isn't the one the narrator predicts he will get all moony about someday. It was the road that he didn't pick all those years before, when he came upon the two roads diverging in the wood. So maybe Frost was saying something important here: That the roads we don't choose to go down in life have as much of a role in shaping the course of our lives as the ones that we do pick.

It just might be that Frost's poem is an important reminder for all of us - and especially for those of you are just starting out your Dartmouth careers. We seldom have the chance to come back and revisit choices we made -- especially choices that sweep by us rapidly, as in the four brief years that we're in college. The choices are hard to make, since the roads often look so similar, yet they're critical.

What's more, here at Dartmouth, we don't exactly make choosing easy for you. We serve up a lavish banquet of the liberal arts: a treasure trove of centuries of human thought and reflection and knowledge and experience. How can you choose from among the abundant choices at this table?

I'd like to give you two pieces of advice from someone who was lucky enough to sample this banquet in an earlier era. First, I hope you will test yourselves by taking one or more courses in a completely unfamiliar field, and especially one that you're not certain you'll be proficient in. I hope you'll do this even at the risk of blowing your grade point average, simply for the sheer joy and stimulus of plunging into something new.

I did this myself as an undergraduate, although believe me, to my regret I did not do so often enough. Although I knew from the time I entered Dartmouth that I would probably major in English, in the middle of freshman year I decided in a moment of bravery to take what was then the introductory Economics course in macroeconomics, Economics 1. To use a very technical term to describe my performance in that course, I would say that I fried. For several weeks I had no idea what was going on. Judging by the final grade I got in the course, apparently by the end I still had not much better idea what was going on.

But you know what? I learned that the way my brain works, to understand something that I didn't understand innately, like economics, I had to turn it into a story I could explain to myself. If there are more expensive designer handbags in the store than there are women who want to buy them, the price of those handbags will probably fall at some point, because they will be put on sale. When the price falls low enough so that women can't pass up, because those handbags are too good a deal, the handbags will all be bought up, and the market will clear. Voilá -supply and demand. Frankly, this story made far more sense to me than any equation. So I learned that once I had a story, a narrative that I could explain to myself about economics the light bulb would go on and burn reasonably brightly. As a journalist, I got pretty good at turning business and economics into stories that I and other people could understand. And that's one reason I went on to spend several years as the Wall Street correspondent for Newsweek, and then a decade as the chief economics correspondent of U.S. News & World Report.

The second piece of advice I would like to give you is to make certain that, whatever your major or field of concentration, that you spend as much time as you can taking courses in the humanities. I don't say this because of an undue favoritism toward the humanities. Believe me, we trustees are enormously proud of the strength of our faculty and our course offerings across all disciplines - science, social science and humanities alike. And we could hardly tell you that majoring in one of these areas versus the other is going to be more valuable for you during the rest of your life.

Even though I was an English major, I have spent almost all my professional life engaged years in aspects of journalism that relate to the social sciences and sciences - specifically, economics and medicine. And even in my extracurricular life, as a trustee at Dartmouth, I'm usually mulling over things like endowment distribution formulas more so than Robert Frost's poetry.

Most of what I report on day to day did not exist in quite the same way 30 years ago - from genomics to the workings of global financial markets. And by the same token, thirty years from now, you who sit here today will be dealing with things in your professional and personal lives that you could never study today as an undergraduate, because they don't exist yet. After all, way leads onto way. The knowledge of today will be supplanted in many instances by the knowledge of tomorrow.

But there is one set of things you can study today at Dartmouth that will not change in the most fundamental way in the future. These are the humanities: languages, literatures, religious, philosophy and all the other ways we struggle to express and understand and organize into some coherent whole the complexity of what it is to be a human being.

Some of you may feel that many of these fields are irrelevant to contemporary experience or to your own experience or your own future. We trustees can see by looking at course enrollment statistics that more of you prefer to spend more of your time taking courses in the social sciences and the sciences. However, over the course of your lives, the humanities may be more relevant to the largest questions you encounter than almost anything else you study while you are here at Dartmouth.

Let me illustrate this by telling you about another September morning --September 11th 2001.

My office at the NewsHour is just over a mile from the Pentagon. So after watching the smoke rise from that attack site on 9/11, I spent the day at nearby Virginia Hospital Center, as horribly injured victims from that attack being brought in for treatment. The next day I began work on a piece for the NewsHour on identifying remains of the people who were killed at the Pentagon and in New York. My scientific knowledge came in handy as I reported on DNA analysis and its use in identifying the tiny shreds of charred bone that had once been people. However, that same knowledge was not especially helpful as I interviewed one widow, Madeline Moy, as she waited for rescue crews to recover the remains of her husband, Ted, age 48, from the wreckage at the Pentagon.

In the weeks that followed, I went to New York - first to attend the memorial service of my friend Peter Wallace who was on the 77th floor of One World Trade Center. At around 8:30 AM on 9/11 he sent an email to a friend about the kayaking trip they were hoping to take the following weekend. By 8:47 that same morning, he was gone.

As I continued working on stories for the NewsHour, I interviewed patients who had been horrendously burned in the flames at the World Trade Center and had undergone excruciating operations to shave off their burned skin and replace it with skin transplants from elsewhere on their bodies. I interviewed the families of firefighters milling around about Manhattan firehouses desperately hoping that the bodies of their loved ones would be found.

I talked to psychologists about treating witnesses to 9/11 for post-traumatic stress disorder - a psychiatric diagnosis that did not exist all those years ago when I was at Dartmouth. I waited for several hours in the office of New York City's health commissioner to talk about the city's massive effort to provide post 9-11 mental health counseling to residents. The commissioner was several hours late for the interview. A few days later, I found out why. He had been meeting with other city officials to try to understand why a nine-month-old baby was deadly ill in the hospital. The baby had been exposed to anthrax because someone had stuffed enough aerosolized anthrax spores to kill 1 million people into an envelope and mailed it to the offices of NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Soon I was started down a new road. For the next few months, I went on to add to my knowledge of bacterial disease vectors and expand into what, for me, was a whole new area of reporting something I never thought I would have to report about: bioterrorism.

The background I've accumulated over the years in the sciences and social sciences helped me immeasurably in performing at a high professional level during this period. But you know what? It wasn't enough. Nearly 3,000 people dead from 9/11....and then anthrax spores deliberately stuffed into envelopes to kill people. At last I fully understood what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet: "The time is out of joint." And even that seemed like a hopeless understatement.

What did help me get through this period - what helped me gradually come to feel grounded again as a human being - was poetry. For the most part, it was poetry that I had studied at Dartmouth. It was poetry from Frost, like the first lines of his poem "Directive:" "Back out of all this now too much for us, /Back in a time made simple by the loss/Of detail, burned, dissolved and broken off/Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather."

It was the poetry of Blake, in his poem "Prologue, Intended for a Dramatic piece of King Edward the Fourth." It came to mind after the attack, as I gazed upon what was left at Ground Zero.

"When the senses
Are shaken, and the soul is
Driven to madness,
Who can stand?
...When the whirlwind of fury
comes from the
Throne of God, when the
frowns of his countenance
Drive the nations together,
Who can stand?
...When souls are torn to
Everlasting fire,
Hell rejoice
Upon the slain,
O who can stand? O who
Hath caused this?
O who can answer at the
Throne of God?

I read the poetry of Auden, from his poem, "September 1, 1939," written as the German tanks rolled into Poland just before the outbreak of World War II:

"Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night."

I read the poetry of Adrienne Rich:

"In those years, people will
Say, we lost track
Of the meaning of we, of you
We found ourselves
Reduced to I
And the whole thing became
Silly, ironic, terrible:
We were trying to live a
Personal life
And yes, that was the only
We could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of
History screamed and
Into our personal weather
They were headed
Somewhere else but their
Beaks and pinions drove
Along the shore, through
Rages of fog
Where we stood, saying I

This poetry was meaningful to me on many levels, but mostly because it bespoke an obvious but important truth. Human beings like us have been down similar roads and in similar situations before that shattered the senses. They struggled to make sense of the experience, and have somehow lived on. Passing along this struggle is in large part what liberal education is all about.

You students here today are all so intelligent that cognitively, you already know this. But in the coming years, I can assure you, you will not only know this cognitively, you will feel also this as if it were in your bones. You will know that, as the poet William Carlos Williams wrote,

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Likewise, it is sometimes difficult to get the latest research or the latest news about the human condition from humanities courses. Yet these are precisely the places in which to conduct one's search for the lasting truths. And people do die spiritually every day for lack of what can be found there.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. Way leads on to way; I doubt if you should ever come back. The roads not taken and the roads you do take will together help to shape the course of your lives. On this September morning, as on every morning of your years here in Hanover, many wonderful choices will await you. Make them wisely and well. Good luck and Godspeed.

Back to Convocation Speeches 2003

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