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Dartmouth Commencement 2005

Posted 06/12/05

Address to the College by Valedictorian Sandeep C. Ramesh
Sandeep C. Ramesh
Sandeep C. Ramesh

Mr. President, Mrs. Wright, Members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages...I might add to that list: graduates. It is a supreme gift for me to stand here before you today.

I'd like to first extend not my congratulations, but my sincerest apologies.  I want you to excuse me for something.  You see, I've been suffering from a chronic condition for nearly 20 years now.  In non-medical lingo, this condition is often referred to as hat hair, so I apologize for that.  I see many of you out there are also similarly afflicted as well as some behind me, or just adjusting your toupees, which is, perhaps, the advanced form of this condition.

Members of the class of 2005 - true to the latter half of my first name, it gives me deep, deep delight to be maybe not the first, but certainly not the last to tell you, "Congratulations."  You can clap some more, c'mon.

If you are at all sad or disheartened by the supposed closure and finality associated with this culminating experience we call "Commencement," you can be content in the fact that - at least, at the very least - you will have successfully sweat off 10 pounds by the end of this ceremony in these lovely sweat suits we call gowns.

I was always troubled by the word "commencement."  Now, you often hear people saying that commencement is a sign for closure, finality, and ending like I've mentioned.  I don't know, but maybe somewhere along the way, with the passage of time between Ben and JLo and Brad and Jenn, we began to lose our commitment to Superman's motto: truth, justice, and the so-called American way.  But, we've also apparently lost our faith in the dictionary because commencement does not mean "end."  It means beginning.  Literally, a time of beginning.

And this - this notion of a new beginning - is what I find disturbing and problematic.  Several distinguished speakers and valedictorians have no doubt stood right here in this very spot to tell you something along the lines of  look ahead to the future, be open to the opportunities of the future, step out into the exciting new world or, dare I say again, step out into the future.  This is precisely what I will not do. 

Against today's social imperative to constantly seek a "new day," look forward to a "fresh beginning," a "new start" - not necessarily as the "greatest generation" a la Mr. Brokaw, but the next generation - what remains invariably lost is not merely the past experience we've all had at Dartmouth, but the primacy of a moment - THIS moment - the moment that is HERE; the moment that is NOW. 

Commencement is not a NEW beginning, it's an OLD beginning.  Commencement is not a beginning that looks to the future, but a beginning simultaneously caught in the past.  Therefore, to describe this experience today that we are all sharing here as "commencement" is a terrible, terrible misnomer.  There is strictly no "new beginning" to begin with.  Instead, what the ill-termed "commencement" stands for, is a future ineluctably tied to what came before: a future of dreams and imaginations tied to the memories of the past. 

Perhaps we can actually find some wisdom in the least expected place: Hollywood.  For as film director Robert Zemeckis knows all too well, it's not about going forward to the future, but precisely going back to the future. 

Now clearly, I'm not suggesting that we all go out, buy a silver DeLorean, build flux capacitors, and generate 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to power our time machines.  No, of course not...in fact that's what I'll be doing.  But, to the point, the lesson to be learned from the Back to the Future trilogy is that time is not linear, it's not always going forward; it's not always commencing.

Indeed, what you are experiencing today is something that does not even obey the logic of time; what you are experiencing today is a not a separable past; not a discrete present; not even an anticipation for a future.  What you are experiencing today is a MOMENT... a moment so thoroughly infused by a collision, a breakdown, a mixing of past, present, and future that it can only be described as beautiful. 

In fact, you are sitting in the very seats that hundreds - rather, tens of thousands - have sat in before you.  And you are warming the very seats of tens of thousands more who have yet to even arrive, who have yet to sit down where we sit today...in these elegantly constructed, hand-crafted, supremely comfortable folding chairs.  That, by the way, was the part of my speech where I was supposed to be ironic.

This is not a commencement; this is not a beginning.  This is not even an end.  All the students that sat in your seats before you...  All the students that have yet to sit on this same Green.

We're neither beginning, we're neither ending; we're already in medias res, which is to say we're already in the middle of things.

This is not a commencement - it is an inheritance.  Unfortunately, I'm not going to award you money or include you in my will.  That's not the kind of gift giving I'm referencing.  Rather, you are inheriting a unique legacy of all those who came before you, and you already are partaking - wittingly or not - in the passing of this legacy to all those who will follow you. 

You know, I was advised to talk about something personal from my life, but I really, I just couldn't put all four years into words for you today.  After all, I've been here for an unprecedented 14 terms!  Fourteen terms - it has to be some kind of record.  Of course, I didn't take classes all these 14 terms - I'm not a nerd.  A dork, maybe.  But, I'm not a nerd.

I just couldn't pour out my four years of deep, inner feelings for you today.  To give you a better sense of my predicament, you can probably compare my inner feelings to a bowl of EBA's clam chowder.  Now bear with me.  I promise you, this is going to go somewhere.  Because for anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced this culinary and gastric nightmare, you'll know that you just can't pour this soup out of the cup - it's literally thicker than glue.  Thicker even, perhaps, than the conscience of today's politicians. 

I'd actually like to take a moment, and I'm gonna go off script for a little bit. Before I was called up, I was thinking about something.  My mind right now is literally a mirror of reflections, memories going back and forth and it's quite an experience.  But I remembered before I was called up today of something that is dear to me, and that's, no joke, the Food Court cheese-steak. 

Now, back then, back sophomore year, I was really into getting huge, like eating a lot and getting big, getting all pumped.  Now, clearly you can see as I stand before you today that my hopes to become like Arnold has drastically and miserably failed, which is perhaps why I'm here with you today for better or worse.  But, I used to go to Food Court every day, literally, and after two hours I'd order something, something new, a cheese-steak for instance.  And I met someone there, and someone was waiting for me every time I went back, every two hours to the Food Court line.  And it was Al - I don't know if you guys remember Al, he used to work behind the Food Court line - the guy was amazing.  So I used to go there before, and there'd be like 50 people in front of me waiting for their orders and Al would just call out to me.  He'd be like, "Yo Deep, I have your cheese-steaks ready to go."  You know, cheese-steaks works, monster.  He had it ready for me to go. It's that that I remembered just now, and it's strange because I can't really explain to you why that came into my mind as I'm speaking to you today.  But it testifies to the way that seemingly mundane experiences, ordinary experiences we've had here become extraordinary in our minds.  Seemingly simple things become so trumped up in our minds, they become beautiful.

And as I said, I don't really know why I'm saying this right now, and I can't really express it to you, but I think that's testament to the fact that we're all in a moment.  This glue-like, chowder-esque inexpressibility is merely a symptom of being in the moment...this moment that is here...this moment that is now.  It's something you quite can't describe, something that just comes out of you, and yet it is this strange moment infused with memories and of ordinary things that become extraordinary that unites us all.  It unites not just those physically here now - sweating it out like true gladiators - it unites all those who have attended Dartmouth in the past, all those who have yet to arrive at this college.

I can only say that what I'm experiencing today is something akin to a near-death experience.  I'm not trying to dampen this occasion by bringing up the morose topic of death, but it's no surprise that people who have had near death experiences are often quoted as saying, "I saw my whole life flash before me in a split second, in a singular moment."  Speaking of near-death experiences, it only makes sense for me to mention that this Dartmouth moment, this unique, truly beautiful Dartmouth moment will haunt you.  Now, I'm not talking about some evil spirit or ghost like the child in The Exorcist or the Blair Witch or something like that.  This is the haunting of the Dartmouth moment that you cannot stop, and a haunting you cannot stop but loving.  After all, we are all familiar with Casper, the friendly ghost.   

But wait a second...or, to be cheesier, yet rhetorically effective, wait a moment!  What does one do with this haunting and beautiful moment of Dartmouth?  What does one do with this almost surreal experience you are implicated in right now?  You can do one of two things: you can experience this beautiful moment as a commentator, or you can experience this beautiful moment as a critic.  The commentator remains detached from his or her subject matter, merely conveying information and reporting facts.  The critic, however, engages his or her subject, calling into question both the information and the facts themselves.  To borrow an analogy from an important 20th century thinker, Walter Benjamin, I quote,

"The commentator can be likened to the chemist, its critic to an alchemist.  While the former is left with wood and ashes as the sole objects of analysis, the latter is concerned only with the enigma of the flame: the enigma of being alive."

You are not in commencement; you are not in conclusion.  You are in a moment.  Whether you take this exceptional Dartmouth moment and choose to become a commentator on the sidelines or a critic in the middle of things, constitutes the most socially and politically meaningful and important decision you can make.  And it's this decision that takes place in the enigma of this moment; the moment of here; the moment of now.

I was told that there is no annoying Oscar music to kick me off the podium, so I'd like to take - a moment, fittingly enough - to acknowledge my loving parents and family: truly the ideals of my mind.  Also, shout out to my grandmother, who turned 74 on Friday, "So, what up, Grandma?" Holler!

I'd like to give a special thanks to my fantastic professors.  Now I wasn't initially going to call them out, but I realize just now that I cherish the moment to embarrass them too much to let this opportunity go.  So, thank you Professor Kritzman, Professor Heschel, Professor Pease, Professor Palmer, Professor Gemunden sitting back there and all the other professors who have touched me whether or not I've had you in class.  It's been a truly memorable and joyful experience.  Truly these professors are the lifeblood of this college. 

And of course, my friends and fellow students: the heart of this place - and truly the heartbeat of me. 

So enjoy this moment...this genuinely beautiful moment that simply refuses to die with the passage of time. 

Thank you.  Congratulations.

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