Convocation 2020 Speeches
Text for the 2020 Convocation Podcast speeches by Manuel Gonzales, Tonya Strong, and Flo Gill '22.
Manuel Gonzales—Faculty Speaker
Hello, my name is Manuel Gonzales. I teach literature and creative writing here at Bennington, and I’m the one delivering this year’s convocation speech. As I began working on this speech, I bounced around quite a long, long time looking for any good way to start this speech, one good sentence, something that might try to capture the essence of this strange moment where everything feels like it’s balanced on a knife’s edge. Speak to not just our own health and safety, due the global pandemic still raging on around us, not just to the questions of democracy and free and fair elections and the peaceful transition of power that has existed in this country for over two hundred years and which has recently been vocally threatened by the people in power. But also to the potential, in this moment, for the country to tip in favor of justice and equity — racial, gender, sexual — or to be shoved back into the old, familiar, harmful ruts and patterns of disproportionate power structures that have fed systemic racism, sexism, and othering for what feels like time immemorial.
One. One good sentence. One good sentence that. That somehow encompasses and encapsulates all of this. But the closest I could come was Shiz be cray, y’all. Shiz be mad cray. Just look to who they’ve asked to deliver the 20/21 school year convocation speech if you need to give yourself any more demonstrable proof of how cray shiz really be, y’all. But even that, even that doesn’t do. There’s no one good sentence to handle everything that’s happening in even a good year, and we know this has not been a good year. It’s been a year of strife and challenge, unnecessary and untimely death, a year of grief and upheaval, a year of unprecedenteds. It opened with wildfires raging in Australia and we’re rounding it out with wildfires raging in California — nice symmetry, I suppose, if you’re going to write a narrative of the year — and so much cray shiz in between it’s unfathomable and time feels distorted, and world feels a shambles, and how can one sentence do service to all that has happened, all that is happening, all that is on our horizon? How can one speech? Books will be written about this year, entire works of nonfiction and fiction and poetry dedicated to what we are living through right now, and even these will not do our own individual experience of this moment full service. The moment is ours, yours and mine, it’s our moment, and we should treat it as special and extraordinary. Because it is.
In March, when everything turned inside out, I was caught flat-footed — we all were — but not by the shift in my daily routines and the new world order of remote learning, although those were disruptions, but by the way I suddenly existed or did not exist as a real person in space and time. I was a life put on pause. The world we were existing in was a temporary one, hardly the real one, and so my actions, my desires, my emotions, my thoughts, my gestures they were temporary and unreal, too. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, the only actions I could do with any amount of success were physical ones — cooking, moving piles of firewood from one corner of the yard to the other, unmaking and remaking bicycles. Stripping and repainting furniture. And yet, here we are. Exisiting specifically and definitively in space and time. In a landscape that requires us to reconcile ourselves to a moment. To understanding it and living through it. And we’re doing so at a great risk.
I don’t have a good answer to the question: what’s going to happen in the coming weeks, once we’re back in the thick of it all. I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen in the next few weeks, months, or even years, because who the hell does? Shiz be cray and I imagine it could continue to be cray for quite some time now, and what I do know is that I can’t afford to wait for life to stop being so crazy. I don’t have the time, I don’t have the patience, to wait however long it might take for shiz to be even a little less cray. Instead I’m going to push forward through all of this and stop treating this moment as out of time, as if I were on pause. And I’m here to tell you I am glad to know you are here with me — staff, faculty, students, new and returning — you’re all here with me, in person or remote, you’re here, you’re not waiting, you’re taking this moment, turning it into one more compelling moment in your singular and extraordinary life.
And I want to thank you for doing so. A student recently asked me what short story I find myself returning to again and again and I gotta say I don’t have one, not right now, but what I do have are poems I keep drifting back to, and I would like to share one with you now.
This poem is titled, "The Leash," and it was written by the poet, Ada Limón
After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what's
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine. How can
you not fear humanity, want to lick the creek
bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into
your own lungs, like venom? Reader, I want to
say, Don't die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn't there still
something singing? The truth is: I don't know.
But sometimes, I swear I hear it, the wound closing
like a rusted-over garage door, and I can still move
my living limbs into the world without too much
pain, can still marvel at how the dog runs straight
toward the pickup trucks break-necking down
the road, because she thinks she loves them,
because she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud
roaring things will love her back, her soft small self
alive with desire to share her goddamn enthusiasm,
until I yank the leash back to save her because
I want her to survive forever. Don't die, I say,
and we decide to walk for a bit longer, starlings
high and fevered above us, winter coming to lay
her cold corpse down upon this little plot of earth.
Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.
That was ”The Leash,” by Ada Limón, and now I want to end with a little bit of advice from my high school cross country coach. Back when I was in high school I ran cross country, and whenever we were right at the end of practice, twenty, twenty-five minutes left of drills or whatever torture we were running through, but we weren't sure we had enough left in the tank, or I, I wasn’t sure if I had enough left in the tank, my cross country coach would holler at me: "Keep going, Derek. 25 minutes isn't that long."
My cross country never really learned my name. Because I was never very good at cross country. But he was right, twenty-five minutes isn’t that long. A day, a week, four years, a life —it’s not that long, so I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad you refuse to sit and wait, I’m glad you strive to take this moment, and make it your own. Thank you and good luck and I look forward to seeing you, faculty, staff, new and returning students of Bennington College, as we jump feet first into the new school year.
Tonya Strong—Staff Speaker
Hi, I’m Tonya Strong, the director of admissions, and I’m pleased to be
the staff speaker for convocation.
This year, given the extraordinary moment we occupy, we’re not able to gather together physically and are instead challenged to figure out how to create community, how to make Bennington home, when we cannot gather together in the ways we are used to.
I’ve been asked to speak to you about what makes Bennington home, and I hesitate because we all have very different experiences with the word home, different ideas about what it means.
For me, first and foremost, home is not the place I come from, but the people I come from. To speak of home, I can’t start with Bennington. I have to start with my people. My father, a Black man from rural East Texas, was born in 1921. His grandfather was born into slavery in 1862, three years before chattel slavery ended in Texas. Many in the US think of slavery as something that happened a long time ago, but I don’t have to reach very far back in my family tree to touch it. And many of us don’t have to look very far out our windows and into our communities to witness the effects of this nation’s inability to fully accept that Black lives matter.
My mother, a white woman born in 1947, grew up in deep poverty in rural Maine. As an adult, living with my father in Connecticut in the early 1970s, she lived in perpetual fear of the police using the state’s cohabitation laws to harass them.
These are the people that I come from, they are my home, and I carry them with me everywhere, including to Bennington every day. We all have different backgrounds, different family relationships, but whether it’s the people you’re born to, or the family you choose—you carry your people here to us, too. I welcome them to Bennington as I welcome you.
And, of course, home is more than this. The writer Pico Iyer said that home is not just where we’re from, but where we become who we are. In high school the things that I was deeply curious about didn’t always line up with what my teachers wanted me to learn. (I think some of you are probably familiar with that feeling). College was much more interesting than high school, but at first I didn’t know how to be a good student. To complicate things, early in college I got pregnant and chose to have my child. All of a sudden there existed a real chance I might not finish my degree. I realized how much I wanted to keep learning and that motivation was matched by a deep desire to give my daughter the best life I could. So, she lived with me on campus, and I became very organized and very responsible very, very, quickly. I graduated when my daughter was three, received High Honors on my senior thesis and earned the award for excellence in my major. In college, I learned what I was made of. I became who I am.
The same thing will happen for you at Bennington, but obviously without the baby. You will discover that you are capable of creating more, learning more, and working harder than you realized you could. You will find yourself in the complicated, messy middle of wildly ambitious projects and you’ll get stuck; but you’ll dig deep, collaborate with friends, seek advice from faculty and you’ll do what Bennington students are good at doing. You’ll innovate and hustle and those ambitious projects will be completed. And because this is Bennington, so many people will be there anxiously waiting to celebrate your work and to learn from it.
There are truly magical people at Bennington. You will meet them and form great friendships. These people will make you feel like you belong. And this is important, especially at a time when this country and so many of its communities are grappling with questions of who belongs and who doesn’t. I cannot say emphatically enough to you that you belong here.
You will encounter so many wonderful people whose actions will underscore how deeply they’ve internalized this fact. But some of you will unfortunately might encounter people and situations that will make you feel otherwise. Whether it’s intentional or not, conscious or unconscious, their words or actions will send signals that you don’t quite fit in. **Resist those signals.**
You belong here. In the end, home is the space where we can most fully be ourselves. Every single one of you has a right to claim this space. And equally important, not only do you belong here, your classmates do, too. So remember to make space for them. You can do this by working to understand and control your own biases. And challenge others to do the same.
I look forward to the time when we can celebrate on campus together. Until that moment, I am grateful that we have the privilege to connect with each other in so many other ways.
I’m looking forward to connecting with you over the course of the year, but in the meantime, first year students, new transfer students, welcome to Bennington. Returning students, welcome back. Welcome home.
Flo Gill '22—Student Speaker
Hello, and welcome to Bennington College! I’m Florence Gill, Class of 2022 and President of SEPC (the Student Educational Policies Committee). I’m excited to welcome you into our community, and to share the next few years with you. This term isn’t going to be easy, but let’s face it, you came to Bennington, “easy” was never on your list of expectations. You came here because you wanted to make a difference, and you came to the right place. Our classmates protest for democracy and human rights, support local high school students who will be the first in their family to attend college, advocate and translate for immigrants, and create projects - in countless forms - that engage with the issues of our time. I am constantly inspired by the students, faculty, and staff who work tirelessly to make our college and our world a better place. But often this work is exhausting, and in Angela Davis’ words “anyone who is interested in making change in the world, also has to learn how to take care of himself, herself, themselves.”
Self-care means treating yourself with love when immersing yourself in your classes, your projects, and your community. This allows your lifestyle to be sustainable, encourages longevity in your work, and stimulates motivation through creative pursuit rather than feeling pressure to create. Recently taking care of yourself has become tantamount to self-indulgence. But in the past, marginalised communities and activists (such as Ericka Huggins and Audre Lorde) have used self-care as a political tool and as a form of activism. Audre Lorde expressed that “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is an act of self-preservation, and that is political warfare”. Taking time to look after ourselves in a society that teaches us that we don’t deserve care of any kind is radical.
At Bennington, we are immersed in our work: we eat, breathe, speak, and sleep it. Adjusting to this immersion can be quite a shock. Bennington’s style of education means self-care and positive wellbeing can be easy to overlook. However, this is counterintuitive. Our immense focus on reflection isn’t possible if we aren’t in tune with our mental, physical, and emotional health. In order to help others, we must also prioritise our own wellbeing. This will allow us to recognize what makes us feel good both apart from and within our community. In fact, when self-care goes beyond the individual, and allows for collective well-being, it provides the agency to protect and nurture ourselves and our communities.
That being said, I am not recommending self-care as a replacement for medical and mental health treatment. It is inexcusable to ask students anywhere to fend for themselves when it comes to mental health. I hope, like many others, to see the diversity of the student body reflected in the medical professionals at the college. I want the whole Bennington College community to have affordable healthcare, and to be safe and supported when seeking care. Until this goal is realised, we cannot truly thrive.
This term a further challenge is presented. The activities that we previously used to recuperate are difficult to access. Consequently, we need to be more conscious of how we take care of ourselves. The amount of time we are now expected to spend online can be exhausting. As our bedrooms become classrooms once again, I encourage you to create boundaries. The availability of smart phones means that we often seek to distract ourselves, rather than taking the opportunity to simply exist. We are encouraged to sacrifice our values in order to adhere to societal standards. At Bennington, we are in a unique position where our values are the centre of our work. Use this opportunity and allow the community here to inspire you. And over the next few weeks, spend time outside while it’s still warm, because trust me, very soon it won’t be.
As the seasons continue to change, I encourage you all to recognise self-care as a tool for agency, and to practice it as such. Over the past few months, the Black Lives Matter movement has spread globally. I encourage you to support Black-owned businesses, to engross yourself with work created by non-white artists, to hold yourselves and others accountable for tokenisation and microaggressions, and to engage in conversations about race. In order to make a positive difference, we need to sustain these efforts. So take care of yourself, and nurture an appreciation of self-care within others. Focus on who you are and what you value: your commitments, your passions, your purpose, and your community. Most importantly, in the face of adversity, love yourself and those who surround you.
Flo Gill would also like to offer the following resources on wellbeing.