Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the address that Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod ’81 P’15 ’17, the James Michael Playwright-in-Residence, gave to the Class of 2016 at a dinner in February 2016. A video of her speech is available here.
What is it about Kenyon that makes our alumni make movies about it? Why is it that so many of us marry each other? Why is it that, after you graduate, you will chase after someone wearing a Kenyon T-shirt, or race after someone whose car bears a Kenyon bumper sticker?
When I was looking at colleges back in the day, the local public library had an ancient copy of The Underground Guide to Colleges. It dated from the 1960s, and it referred to Kenyon as “an oasis of turned-on freaks in the American Midwest.” My boyfriend’s brother told me that everyone he’d ever met who had gone to Kenyon was an interesting person. And that turned out to be true — although it wasn’t always the good kind of interesting.
My first year here, I lived in Norton, and there was a Viking-looking guy who lived in Lewis and played his flute in the quad and proudly drove a hearse. There was a hippie girl we called Raccoon Eyes, because of the excessive use of eyeliner, who chose to live nearby in a yurt. And she smelled like someone who lived in a yurt; that timeless mix of Patchouli and body odor. Kathy something, who lived down the hall, was a chain-smoker who allowed her cigarettes to burn out while they stood upright on the floor, so her room was both an obstacle course and a carcinogenic sculpture garden. There were the two best friends we called the fish sisters, whose names really were Breezy Salmon and Claire Bass. They were Southern belles who had met at Miss Porter’s School for Girls, which struck us as something out of Tennessee Williams. There was a belly dancer and a Nigerian punk rocker and an arsonist who dressed like he was living in Paris in the ’20s. (We didn’t find out about the arson until our 10th reunion.)
We were sometimes charmed and sometimes embarrassed by these people, but what my friends and I really cared about was not eccentricity but talent, and we spent a lot of time thinking about which of us would make it big.
I was here with a cresting wave of talented people, many of whom were my friends. One was Allison Janney ’82, and she has, by any measure, made it big. Another ended up a successful television writer and screenwriter, whose credits include Mall Cop. One became an AIDS activist, who stormed the evening news in the early ’90s with a group called ACT UP. One is a public relations consultant who advises politicians through scandals and crises. One became a fundraiser for the Joyce Foundation, married a lawyer and lives in Winnetka. One died young of a heart attack. One miraculously survived brain cancer. A few, including me, became writers and professors.
So it’s not as simple as making it big or failing outright. Perhaps you make it but in a way you didn’t expect. Or you make it artistically but not financially, or financially but not artistically. Or perhaps you make it but in a way that only the people in your field will know your name. Or you might decide that you don’t really want to do that thing that brought you applause at Kenyon. It’s one thing to get cast in Bolton shows — it’s another to weather the ups and downs of an actor’s life.
But when we talk about what we choose to do with our lives, don’t we have to talk about what the end goal is? As it turns out, the goals we set for ourselves at 21, which often involve money and success, end up being beside the point, if what we’re after is happiness. You only have to look to the Grant Study, which followed 268 Harvard graduates over 75 years. They were a group of men that included John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee from the Washington Post. I’m quoting from the Atlantic magazine when I say: In an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing, the study measured an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological and physical traits — from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of …” let’s just say genitalia.
As it turns out, what matters is the warmth of your relationships and a sense of connection. It matters more than fame, more than money and more than success. And one of the things Kenyon can offer you, over the course of a lifetime, is the opportunity for connection.
Perhaps your fellow students don’t all seem interesting to you now, but you will soon realize that everyone in this room is interesting, largely because they are interested. When you return for reunions, the divides that now seem so important, between one team and another, between independents and fraternity brothers, between the artsy-fartsy people and the pre-meds, will have melted away. And you’ll realize that what you have in common is a certain important chunk of your lives, a set of values, and this place, that means so much to all of us.
The first time you walk into a dormitory where you once lived, the smell will be like the taste of Proust’s madeleine. You’ll suddenly remember ecstatic couplings, regrettable one-night stands and being in bed with nothing but the Kenyon Krud. After I graduated, I missed the certainty of the weekend’s parties. I missed the encouragement of my professors. I missed the best parts of myself being used.
But mostly I missed my friends and the wit over dinner in the dining hall. Those of you who were forced to read my play Sin in “Baby Drama” may have guessed that’s where “salt and pepper theater” began. Porgy and Bess was performed by two peppershakers. Waiting for Godot was performed by two saltshakers. And those are the highbrow examples. Because of those many meals together, Kenyon alums learn the art of conversation — and how to make someone laugh so hard that milk comes out their nose.
Although we now live in different places, my Kenyon friends and I continue to make each other laugh. Indeed, we rejoice in every egregious Facebook post from a certain fellow alum who shall remain nameless, who seems to be simultaneously writing a novel, duck hunting, sleeping with models, advising Congress, playing basketball with monks, staving off pleas to run for various offices and drinking with rock stars. He is invariably frying fish with famous chefs and sending out shoutouts to his homeys, the Beat poets. We’ve made a virtual dining-hall game of coming up with titles for this man’s autobiography should he ever find time to write it. Some possibilities: No Thought Too Small, Thoughts I Am Thinking, Me Me and Did I Mention Me.
When we were students, the thought of attending a 10th or 25th or 50th reunion was beyond the pale. The eager-to-please, drunken alum makes regular appearances in the plays students write for my classes. That guy, and it usually is a guy, is anxious to prove that he’s still young, still cool and can still hold his liquor. He can’t, but cut him some slack; he really was you not so very long ago. But you don’t have to be that kind of sad, backward-looking alum. Be the kind who comes back and shares what you’ve learned about life in the real world. Come back and tell the students what you wished you’d known when you were college seniors.
I wish I’d known that becoming “big” is a process — that life is a marathon, not a race. I wish I’d known that other people don’t “let you” enter a profession — you decide what you’re going to be. Somebody’s going to do it; why shouldn’t it be you? I wish I’d known not to move back home after graduation, because living with your parents will feel like treading water. I wish I’d known to be happy with the body God gave me and to introduce myself to people. I wish I’d known to go to my friends’ weddings even when I couldn’t afford to. It wasn’t until my friend got cancer, that I realized that I couldn’t let years pass between visits. I wish I’d known to make time for my parents. Because they had always been there, I assumed they’d always be there.
If I were going to recommend one book for you to put on your first Ikea bedside table, it would be an out-of-print book called Flow, which puts forth a simple equation. What you get back from anything is equal to the effort you put into it. You want to be a great writer? Write. You want to maintain lifelong friendships? Find the time to see each other. You want to be an interesting person? Keep your mind alive. As A.O. Scott recently wrote in the New York Times:
The incentives not to think — to be one of the many available varieties of stupid — are powerful. But there is also genius around us, and within us. There is Hamilton and To Pimp a Butterfly, Transparent and the novels of Elena Ferrante. Take your pick! ... We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.
Don’t stop reading. Don’t stop looking at art. Don’t stop having real conversations. Don’t stop going to the theater, especially when they’re producing one of my plays. The Kenyon people I know, both my contemporaries and my former students, have kept the best parts of who they were in college — they are as curious, as well-read and as funny. This is a club you will be happy to be a member of.