Nigel Poor Addresses the Class of 2020
Ear Hustle podcast co-host, multimedia artist, and Pulitzer Prize finalist Nigel Poor '86 addressed the Class of 2020 as the Commencement Speaker at Bennington College's 85th Commencement and first-ever virtual ceremony.
When I received the invitation to give the commencement speech at Bennington all these thoughts ticked through my mind, I’m going back to a place I love, a place full of memories, a place that shaped so much of who I am now and on top of that I’m not going back as a tourist, I’m going back to meet and celebrate with the class of 2020. I was like hell yeah I’m doing that- what an honor.
I started fantasizing about seeing all the old places, and about how great it was going to be hanging out with other like-minded creative people, people who are on the cusp of putting all their educational experience to use in the world. I started thinking about all the things I wanted to share with you- the important things like how your Bennington education really does prepare you to go out in to the world and solve problems, the funny things, like stories about the infamous and incredibly inappropriate yearly Bennington student event called the dressed to get laid party – which believe it or not in the 80’s we didn’t think that was a bad idea. I also wanted to tell you about how naïve I was about future technology. In 1982 I think there was ONE computer class offered on campus and I thought, why would I take that class? Computers? They’ll never catch on.
All this to say I was thrilled about giving the commencement speech and was counting the weeks until my visit to campus. And then COVID 19 hit- like a lot of other people I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, I thought ok a few weeks at home and we’ll be back to normal – but as we all now know that isn’t what happened. As the virus spread and more people got sick and many people died, we all saw our world shrink. There was only one conversation going on, it was all about the world wide pandemic- everything else about our lives, our expectations, our dreams, our work, our community got pushed to the side. People started to fill their personal grievance buckets with fear, disappointment, anger, sadness and loss. Of course, there is good reason for that, everything we knew about life and how we functioned in the world got snatched away. Like that- gone.
I wanted so much for this day to be a day of celebration, a time for you all to revel in what you have accomplished, the memories you have made, the knowledge you gained about your chosen field, insights you had in to yourself, the friendships you made with fellow students and teachers, the late nights of work, the fears you couldn’t make it through, the sunrises you saw because you were up all night doing whatever. With my words I wanted to honor the life you made as a college student and not just a college student, a Bennington College student- the beauty, the pain, the wonder, the hard work, the exquisiteness of it all- Bennington is a special place and right now all of that might feel a bit vague, a bit thin but I am here to remind you that if you aren’t feeling celebratory, if this occasion you looked forward to for so long, feels less than, I implore you to see it in a different way- and if you cannot do that right now, I promise you in the future you will look back at how extraordinary your college experience was and you will be grateful for what Bennington gave you and equally proud of what you gave Bennington.
Ok let’s move forward and get to the celebration! As we do that I want us all to take a few beats to imagine we’re on campus, co-mingling in front of commons, we turn to face the end of the world and it is one of those perfect late spring evenings, everything is green, a slight breeze, it’s a little early in the season but the fireflies are actually out, seems they know something special is happening and they want to join in. As we look around, everyone is there: the graduating class of 2020, friends, family, teachers, administrators, people who work on campus to keep it going-I’m there too, it is an incredible group of people all brought there for one purpose, to celebrate and bear witness to the community of Bennington.
Bennington is what it is because of the community it fosters, and that community includes all those people we just saw in our mind’s eye gathered in front of commons: the professors, the administration, the people who work on campus, the land Bennington sits on and you, you are all an integral part of that, without you, it cannot be, it cannot grow and continue to be the place we love. Being a Bennington graduate means something, it means you are a creative problem solver, you are deeply engaged in your area of study, you don’t care to follow the status quo, you value conversation and because you have spent the last several years as part of this intimate community you understand the effects your actions have on those around you. All of that signals that you understand the importance and transformative possibilities of collaboration.
We all got to Bennington in different ways but I suspect my story will sound familiar to a lot of you. I was a pretty unhappy person in high school- I just didn’t fit in, I was bored, depressed, people were unkind- there was such a premium put on being like everyone else, - but in my heart I knew it didn’t have to be that way.
I dreamed of being somewhere else, a place that cared and understood that people learn in different ways, that difference is power, that learning is experimenting which means failure is part of the process, that information is best taken in through conversation, not just lectures. I longed so much to be in a place that felt inclusive, where I could let down my guard and when I finally got to Bennington it was like I stepped into the fantasy that had lived in my head for years- because here was a place filled with people who wanted that same thing, a place where individuality within a community was where it’s at.
I think about this a lot, the traits I most value in myself and in others are those traits that are nurtured, encouraged and respected at Bennington. And no matter what the current climate those traits will serve you well.
I want to share just a little bit about what I do, and not because I want to make this about me but because I want to give you a concrete example of how I put those Bennington traits to use in a way that I feel really good about. And if I can do that, so can you-
For many years I’ve worked as a visual artist and educator- my art career is successful and I am a tenured professor – basically I had achieved most of the goals I set out for myself- but I’m not one to rest, I like new endeavors that challenge my assumptions, and I like to solve problems using my specific way of being in the world. Some years ago, I got curious about life inside prison, specifically how one can make a life inside a place that feels so anti life. In 2011 I heard about an educational program called the Prison University Project based inside San Quentin State Prison in California- they were looking for volunteer professors and I signed up to teach the very first history of photography class inside San Quentin. I did that for several semesters and through that experience I met many interesting people and I wanted to figure out how to work on a collaborative project about life inside. It’s a long story so I’m cutting to the chase- after several more years of volunteering and trying to figure out the best way to tell stories I settled on the idea of audio. I had no background in audio production but I have always been interested in the power of the voice and sound to tell compelling stories. I started talking about this idea with Earlonne Woods, one of the incarcerated men I worked with inside SQ. And together we hatched a plan to do something seemingly impossible – we wanted to create a podcast from inside a prison.
We had so many obstacles to overcome but we never faltered – we never told ourselves no we cannot do this, and believe me there were many reasons we could have failed but we gave ourselves permission to dream big – we have a few mottos we lived by, there’s always a workaround, and we always practiced: patience, politeness and persistence, basically we had tenacity and we believed in us and didn’t listen to all those telling us, “no way, you’re never gonna do this”. But we did, we produced the first ever prison-based podcast- and to our further delight and surprise it quickly became a success. Ear Hustle has gotten so many voices and stories out into the world, voices and stories that aren’t often heard and it has changed lives in serious ways. Including mine and Earlonne’s.
I’m telling you about this because I get that you are graduating in to a world that feels unwelcoming, it might feel like everything you thought you could count on has slipped out of your fingers- you are graduating into a lock down and it is natural to be afraid, angry, frustrated – yes, you have to acknowledge those feelings and then you have to dig deep and see the person you are and make a list of the talents you have and the things you care about and put them to use. Yes it’s going to be hard, and yes it will take time and hell yeah it isn’t fair but you’ve got one life and you have to take the time you have and make it mean something to you.
I wish I could spend a bit of time with each one of you, look you in the eye and let you know I believe in you but I cannot, so instead I will leave you with a few final thoughts.
Your time at Bennington has prepared you for this, just like it prepared me, just like it prepared classes before me and just like it will prepare classes after you, because the success of a Bennington education isn’t just about one class ~again it is about a community and that community goes back to 1932 and will continue on in to the future- you are a Bennington graduate and nothing will ever take that away from you- it is something to be proud of.
And believe it or not this time of isolation is also preparing you, because it is requiring you to find your tenacity- I know that isn’t easy, but I also know you can do it.
In times like this we have to look for inspiration outside ourselves and sometimes it comes from unlikely places- I want to end by playing a short clip of audio that continues to inspire me and pushes me on when things seem too dark- it’s from an Ear Hustle story we did about life on death row, which is an ultimate form of sheltering in place—this is Steve Champion, he’s been on the row for 38 years now— we couldn’t get permission to talk to him in person, so we figured out how to do it over the phone- Earlonne & I are in the media lab at SQ on speaker phone with Lt Robinson supervising the call and Steve’s in the Sargent’s office on death row handcuffed to a chair-
so please take a listen
[Audio: Steve Champion clip]
“As long as you are alive there is hope, when you are dead that struggle is over, you cannot look in terms of the future, the future is not yet here, so what do you have left? You have right now, so that is where you have to live at, right here right now, that’s eternity.”
Let’s agree to remember the words of Steven Champion and together go out into the world and find our eternity in the present moment.
I send my most heartfelt congratulations to you all, I am proud to be part of your community and I do hope to meet you in person someday, somewhere.