Anna Quindlen admitted she barely remembered the words spoken by acclaimed anthropologist Margaret Mead at her own commencement from Barnard College in 1974.
“Everyone is here for the sake of just a few words: the name of someone they love, or their own name,” Quindlen told the Washington University in St. Louis Class of 2017. “I remember these three words: ‘Anna Marie Quindlen,’ and the look on my father’s face.”
But it could well have been that look that propelled the best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and social critic to a life of audacity and fearlessness, two messages from Quindlen that rang loud and true to the more than 3,000 degree-candidates seated in academic regalia inside Brookings Quadrangle at the university’s 156th Commencement.
“You are the lucky ones,” Quindlen said. She was addressing the graduating class, but “lucky” also could have applied to the day itself. The ceremony took place outside in the Quad despite a line of severe thunderstorms that moved through the St. Louis area just hours earlier — blowing down about 20 percent of the chairs and threatening relocation of the ceremony indoors.
But the chairs were quickly reassembled and the threat of rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the class or the more than 12,000 parents and friends gathered in celebration. The sun peeked out from clouds over Brookings Hall as the graduates proceeded in to “Pomp and Circumstance” and music played by the Mighty Mississippi Concert Band of St. Louis.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton welcomed the class and introduced Quindlen, calling her “one of the most insightful and influential writers and political and social commentators of her generation.”
“Most Americans will never get the kind of education you’ve earned here,” Quindlen told the graduates. “In a culture in which knowledge seems to be moving at the speed of sound, the one thing that’s never obsolete is a world-class university education.”
But that education, Quindlen said, comes with a price and a challenge.
“Being the lucky ones confers great responsibility, and even a moral obligation: It is to model a particular kind of life — a life of audacity,” she said.
Important for these “nervous” times, Quindlen said, because “America is greatest when it is audacious.
“Never forget that this is a nation built on noncompliance, begun with righteous resistance against the despotism of the privileged class,” she said. “It is audacious to come here from another country without language or means and add to the fabric of this polyglot place.
“It is audacious to send your child off to college when no one in your family has ever been before.
“It is audacious to work to overturn laws and customs that for centuries have held fellow citizens as less than. It is audacious to invent, and it is audacious to dare, and it is audacious to care, and to live that caring conspicuously.”
She acknowledged to the class that they’re going to need more than brains for this audacity. “Smart is good,” she said. “Smart and hardworking is really good. Smart, hardworking and fearless, that’s the hat trick.”
Quindlen challenged the graduates to pick up their academic credentials and then use them fearlessly. “We seek what is correct because we are afraid,” she said. “Caution is nothing but fear dressed up as common sense. Coloring books have come back into vogue for adults because there’s nothing quite so soothing as coloring inside the lines.”
She said the most terrifying choices she has made in her own life were the ones that brought the most reward. “I’m not afraid of success,” she said. “I’m afraid of living a life that seems more like a resume than an adventure story.
“None of you want to have that sort of life, so you can’t let fear rule you. For your own sake and for the sake of this great nation, fear is what has poisoned our culture, our community and our character. The very worst things in this country are done out of fear: Homophobia, sexism, racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, the embrace of demagogues — they all arise out of fear of that which is unknown or different.”
Quindlen also brought a message of hope to those who think the current generation is destined to do worse than their parents.
“Many of my generation fear that doing better is not in the cards for you,” she said. “We feel chagrined that you won’t inherit the SUV or the McMansion or the corner office, that you won’t do better than we did.
“But you are going to define what doing better means, and do that better than we did.”
Quindlen offered examples: “Because if you are people who see race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity as attributes instead of stereotypes, you will have done better than us.
“If those of you who are male recognize in every way that those of us who are female are capable, equal and human and live that in the way you behave every day, you will have done better than us.
“If you as a group ditch what has somehow become the 80‑hour work week and return us to a sane investment in our personal and professional lives, you will have done better than us.”
Quindlen told the group to get on the skateboard instead of playing it safe: “The status quo, business as usual, the way things have always been done, even, if you will, the ‘right answer’ has failed us in nearly every area of life.
“Be brave. Take the leap. Do it. Dare it. Courage.”