Editor’s note: The following is the prepared text of the address delivered by Associate Provost Ivonne García at Kenyon’s Baccalaureate ceremony on May 19, 2017, celebrating the Class of 2017. Video of her speech is available here.
Thank you, President Decatur, Provost Klesner, faculty and staff colleagues, and thank you, Class of 2017, for inviting me here today to share a few words before you graduate tomorrow.
It is a great honor and a great pleasure to be here. I checked with Kenyon Historian Tom Stamp [’73], and I’m the first Latina, and the first Puerto Rican, certainly, to address a graduating class at Kenyon. Class of 2017, you’ve made history in this, too.
Every year at Baccalaureate, a speaker chosen by the graduating class speaks about what they have learned to help them achieve the successes that have brought them to this moment.
I’m going to take a slightly different approach.
First, I promise to follow my husband’s advice, which was that no one ever complained that a speech was too short.
(Though Lincoln did catch some flak for his Gettysburg Address.)
And while this won’t be 10 minutes long, and no Gettysburg Address, it also won’t (I hope) make you feel like the minutes of your life are dropping away like flies.
Second, I’m going to talk about struggling: about how believing that you’ve failed, being scared about the possibility of failing or even failing itself are necessary to how and why we prevail.
What I am going to talk about is what I want to call “the poetics of failure.”
But don’t be afraid that this will be depressing.
Or, as my sister said when I told her this was my topic, “You’re not going to stand in front of more than 1,000 people and tell them you’re a loser, right?”
No, never fear. That’s not the point.
The point is that those moments when I didn’t feel like I’d succeeded have been as, or even more, important in bringing me here, to this moment, than the times when I felt I had nailed it.
Indeed, some of the most important lessons I have learned in more than a half century of life are from the moments when I failed.
What I want to propose to you is that there is a poetics, or a structure of meaning — and those of you who have been my students will recognize the phrase — to those times when we struggle, think we’ve failed or fail.
The first lesson in the poetics of failure I want to share is that there are, indeed, moments in our lives when we’ll be underwater, when the shoes we fill will be too big, when we won’t have enough knowledge or training, whether professionally or emotionally, to handle what we’re served.
I’m sure that’s not an unfamiliar feeling to most of us, but when we graduate from College this is worth remembering.
Actually, for me, one of the first times of what I want to call the “What the What?” moments — setting them apart from those more renowned “Aha!” moments — came when I started college a few months before turning 17.
I had attended a public school in Puerto Rico and planned to go to the University of Puerto Rico. But a friend had gotten some applications to Harvard, and he brought me one and said: “You should apply, too.” And so I did. And I got in. And he did not — which was rather awkward.
But when the time came to leave for college, my parents couldn’t take me to Boston, because it was too expensive, so they put me on a plane and a family acquaintance picked me up at Logan Airport.
I stayed overnight with them, and they dropped me off alone in front of the Harvard gates the next morning. And thus my college career began.
There were many “What the What?” moments, which “followed fast and followed faster”* at Harvard. But few are as memorable as my first-year science class.
I had to take science, and since that was not my forte, I didn’t know what to choose.
But since my dad loved the stars and would stop the car at night on lonely roads and get us all out so we could see the constellations, I thought: of course, I’ll take astronomy! I love the stars!
What can go wrong?
Someone paying attention might have said: “Hey, Ivonne, you haven’t taken physics, and astronomy is all about orbits, and mass, and gravitational pulls, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and you don’t know anything about that.”
But no one raised an objection. So I took astronomy.
One night early in the semester, the class had a field trip on the roof of the Harvard observatory, and the professor told everyone: “Your job tonight is to trace the path of the moon in the sky.”
And I froze.
I was like: “WHAT?!”
Of course, this freakout was all happening inside my head because, as a Latina non-native English speaker from a public school in Puerto Rico, I didn’t want everyone else to find out that I had no idea what the professor was talking about.
Now I know that what I was feeling is called stereotype threat, but then I didn’t, so I just had a silent meltdown.
I sure didn’t want anyone else to know that I didn’t know that the moon moved.
So I began desperately trying to figure out, “How does the moon move?”
I had to try to remember my elementary school education to, say, Copernicus? The idea that the planets move around the sun, and so on.
I eventually figured it out, but that moment is seared in my memory because it was one of those “What the What?” moments in my life when I felt painfully aware that I had gotten myself into something I was not prepared for, and that this might mean I would fail.
That was a very strong wake up and smell the café moment for me, and it was not the last.
The next one I want to share came my first semester of my senior year.
Again, without much guidance, I had picked an honors-only concentration: history and literature of Latin America. Junior year, when I realized that I not only had to write a thesis, but I also had to take a sit-down and an oral exam to fulfill my concentration, I decided I should try to find something easier. But it was too late.
Thus, as required, in the fall of my senior year, I wrote the first draft of my 100-page honors thesis and turned it in to the famous professor who was my thesis advisor. He grumpily returned it to me scrawled with a big fat C in red ink.
In an honors-only major, that was a failing grade.
So I was: “WHAT?!” (Now you see the pattern in my life.)
I went to see him, and he grumpily explained that the thesis was “written in Spanish.”
I argued that, no, it was written in English.
But he said, no, I was writing in English but thinking in Spanish.
He grumpily recommended that I get a tutor or I would not graduate.
Finding out that you can’t write good English in the first semester of your senior year is scary, and it gave me yet another bitter taste of what failure might mean.
In any case, I had underestimated the challenge, and the challenge was ready to best me.
But I determined that I wasn’t going to be the Puerto Rican student about whom anyone could say: “We bring in those (Latinxs/minorities/underrepresented students, pick your term here) but they can’t hack it.”
I wasn’t going to be that statistic. My family had made a lot of sacrifices to put me through Harvard, so I wasn’t going to do that to them.
So I worked harder than I had ever worked in my life, and I wrote my thesis, in English, and I graduated with honors.
And I will never forget that feeling, the sense that I was so close, so close, and yet the finish line was still so far, far away.
What that taught me was that, at those times when I felt like I was in over my head, I had to remember that it’s up to us to determine whether we believe in ourselves. That it’s up to us (with the support of those who truly love and care for us) to determine whether we are going to let the moment define us, or we are going to define the moment.
Speaking of definitions, the last lesson I want to share is that we should never let someone else define us — who we are, who we’re not, what’s negotiable, what is not.
As long as the sun rises tomorrow, we can change.
The only time it’s too late to change is when we’re dead.
But if there’s a tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, then we can change ourselves — a bad relationship, a bad job, a bad situation. We can just change.
One of the moments in my life when I let someone else define me was after leaving Harvard, once I had also completed a master’s in education, and gotten into a respected law school in Washington, D.C. I also had gotten a full-time job as a legal assistant at one of the major law firms in the city.
And I did all right; I was pulling B’s, which was fine with me since I was working full time during the day and going to school at night in order to afford law school. I had helped do some legal research and had really enjoyed that work, and was looking forward to a promotion to law clerk based on keeping a good GPA.
Then I enrolled in a property course that sounded really exciting. It was about those who didn’t have access to the dominant concept of property, or who were property themselves, including indigenous groups and slaves. Since I was interested in issues of social justice, I thought it was the perfect class for me.
I took the course and the grade was determined by the final. I studied for two weeks — every day — for the exam, and I got a big fat C scrawled on the blue book. So I went: WHAT?!
It was a huge disappointment, especially because it meant I wasn’t going to be promoted to law clerk, and I had lost that opportunity. I didn’t know where I’d gone wrong, so I went to the professor, hoping that he would explain and I could use it as a learning experience.
I asked the professor for more feedback, noting that I had graduated with honors from Harvard, had a master’s degree and had been doing OK in law school.
He looked at me, and this is what he grumpily said:
“What happens when you pour beer into a glass?”
Inside myself I was going: “What? I don’t even drink beer!”
But he was the professor, and I wanted to be respectful, so I answered:
“The foam rises to the top?”
And he grumpily said: “Right. Perhaps you were the foam at Harvard, but you are at the bottom of the glass here.”
And that was that. That was his grumpy explanation for why I had done poorly on that exam. To this day, I have no idea why I did so badly.
(And now you also know why I don’t like beer.)
But what happened then was that I believed him.
That man, whose name I don’t even remember, persuaded me that I was the bottom of the glass.
I was immensely upset and beyond disappointed in myself. Those feelings and the stress that came with them contributed to my developing a serious illness. I had to drop out of law school. I left my job, I left my life in D.C., and I went back to Puerto Rico in a wheelchair and spent a couple of years recovering.
I had to learn to walk again. I had to learn to drive again.
I was 27 years old and starting over. From scratch.
What I learned from that moment was that we can’t let other people define us.
Obviously, that law professor got me at a really weak point in my life. I allowed him to define who I was, what I could or couldn’t do. And empowering him to do so came at a very high price.
Of course, abandoning the law school path put me on the path of journalism, and that put me on the path of teaching, which I started as a high school teacher, and then (following in my mother’s footsteps) I decided at age 40 to get a Ph.D.
Then I came to Kenyon. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But if you had told that scared girl on that rooftop at Harvard, “You’re going to be OK, you’re going to end up with a Ph.D. in literature and as an associate provost at Kenyon College, and you’re going to love your work and your students,” I wouldn’t have believed you.
Or if you had told that terrified young woman who had to face dropping out of law school and had to confront a life-altering disease: “You’re going to be OK. You’re going to be speaking at Baccalaureate on May 19, 2017,” I would’ve been, like, “What are you talking about?”
Sometimes it’s funny how life turns out, because those moments that felt like failures or the times when I felt like a failure actually became course correctors. They put me back on the path I was meant to be on.
Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author/philosopher, says that the universe conspires in our favor when we are doing things that are good for us, that bring out the best in us. And that it will conspire against us when the opposite is true, when we’re doing things that aren’t good for us and aren’t what we’re meant to do in the world.
We won’t always know which one is which. We may think we’re on the right path, and we’re not, and only life, the long stretch, will show us whether it’s one or the other.
If I could talk to myself back then, I would say: “What feels like the end is really the beginning.”
These are my lessons in the poetics of failure.
Don’t be afraid that you might fail, because that failure may be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Thanks to my failures, just as much as my successes, I am here, before you, having the time of my life, with the universe conspiring in my favor, having had the privilege to teach you, to get to know you, to speak with you today.
In his glorious novel “The Kingdom of this World,” the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, architect of the real marvelous, has his protagonist, the former slave Ti Noel, realize that he “had squandered his birthright, and … was leaving the same inheritance he had received: a body of flesh to which things had happened.”
It is not what happens to us that matters, Carpentier tells us, but rather (and paraphrasing his words): “[our] greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than [we are]. In laying duties upon [ourselves].”
For this reason, Ti Noel realizes that “bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of our misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, [we] find [our] greatness, our fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of this World.”
If you remember one thing, remember this: Let’s not just be “a body of flesh to which things happen.”
And, when you struggle, don’t despair. Instead, as Carpentier teaches us, this is what makes us beautiful, this is what gives us a chance to aspire to some measure of greatness.
Ultimately, you are luminous. Full of promise and life. The future awaits and needs you. So take good care of yourself, of each other, and of this Earth (that really needs it!).
With that in mind, I wish to leave you with a blessing, quoting the maestra, Gloria Anzaldúa, a queer Latina theorist who passed away from illness, but whose words remain to inspire us:
“Though we tremble before uncertain futures,
may we meet illness, death, and adversity with strength.
may we dance in the face of our fears.”
Congratulations, Class of 2017!
Let’s dance some salsa!
Muchas gracias. Thank you very much.
*Edgar Allan Poe,“The Raven”