I did not plan on attending the Convocation. I happened to notice the flyer hanging in the doorway of Bates—the tape so fresh it seemed to still be taking to the glass—which welcomed all members of the community to the South Lawn at 1:30 p.m.
On a Tuesday, how could it be that we’re just now opening the college and academic year? Does this confirm that registration week is a sort of limbo where we drift as tumbleweeds unto our first-choice dreams?
A glance at my watch knitted worry that I would have little time for eating lunch before a haul up to the gathering, yet a feeling as natural as hunger urged me not to miss this event.
I arrived, short of breath, and collapsed into a folding chair. Some minutes passed. I looked around in a fluster. The stage was empty, cameras on standby. People dressed for the occasion were in bloom about the lawn, closing in like a hug on the empty rows. I moved to the front where I was bound to miss nothing. President Karen Lawrence, whom I’ve never had the chance to see, approached the microphone to announce that we would “begin momentarily… that means in a minute.” It wasn’t long before faces grew like a vine around me.
Lawrence opened with an etymological breakdown of “convocation.” The Latin vocare meaning “to call” or “to summon” was the purpose of our present togetherness. The tradition hasn’t occurred at SLC in almost fifteen years. Why now? she answered in two ways.
Firstly: “to embody that sense of community, not only at the end of the year with a brilliant Commencement, but at the year’s beginning.” Since graduation has been the only annual large-scale gathering, and is designed for the departing, she encouraged us to be present “in this place, at this time, together, acknowledging one another.”
Secondly, she reminded us: “Our community has been, and will continue to be, involved in necessary and difficult dialogues.” Regarding our way of coexistence, she said, “It’s not perfect.”
I suspected she was referencing the recent case of sexual assault that occurred between two students on Sept. 3, only two days after move-in. Lawrence validated my inkling, calling the matter a “grave concern…that will receive our serious, collective attention.”
She asked us to embrace a basic tenet of a progressive education: “Our connectedness to the world.” As we strive for understanding, this collaborative mission “implies an obligation to something beyond personal enrichment,” which by all means should “entail a commitment to make society a less inequitable place.”
When Vijay Seshadri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and esteemed writing professor, took the podium, he collapsed the space between two seemingly uneven parts of existence: those all-too-opposing poles of past and future.
We weigh our lifetimes with this lopsided beam—the center of which we call the now— often without realizing its unsteadiness. We cannot see the future; we must measure our moment against the past, yet the idea of past seems to flirt with fiction. Seshadri experienced an undoing of the deceptive fabric of time, or so he shared anecdotally.
Upon reuniting with a former student from many years ago, he had “one of the strangest conversational experiences of [his] life.” He explained, “The years fell away and it was as if she and I had picked up where we left off almost a decade ago without a missed beat, as if she had just gone out of my office for a moment to get a drink of water and had come back with the next thought in her mind.” His theme unravels as “the great theme of time itself and as time fashions our community.” As he continued, the hairs on my neck grew to Oaks in an instant: “Our roots as a college, as a constituted body of thinkers and scholars, aren’t secular. They aren’t concerned with a specific period or age but are something else… something we used to be happy calling eternity.”
I slumped there, very much aware of the fact that I am at last a senior. Aware that my time at Sarah Lawrence, for which I am grateful, is extremely limited. I felt at once uneasy, similar to Seshadri’s description of the “downward slope of time getting more and more steep.”
I was reminded that the spectacularly slippery moment—as do all remaining moments I should spend here—needed seizing like a gavel. Here I was fixated on no particular blade of grass quivering when faculty member Sungrai Sohn began to play Schumann on the violin. The song, hauntingly slow, spurred a sense of memorialization. It symbolized an echo of the passing. His facial muscles melted with the music. He seemed passive on the journey, some traveler on the tune of the temporary like the susceptible passengers probably sleeping in the airplane overhead. The sky was so dark I was certain Sohn’s playing would make it rain.
Mo Gallagher recited the newfound Principles for Mutual Respect with William Horn (‘15), who, coincidentally having sat next to me in the front row, allowed me the privilege of overhearing the case that a certain British accent was earlier being practiced so as to make it sound “not ironic.”
Deeply-revered literature professor, Ilya Wachs, closed with concision. He wished us all a “year of deep and meaningful study; of personal growth; and tender, caring, lasting friendships.” He hoped that we could “put aside our smartphones and have relations with people who we can touch.”
Touch, mutual respect, irony, the oh-so-perverse smoke and mirrors of eternity. My head was swimming inequitably as I wandered for the first time over to the children’s playground and climbed the tower-like structure. Atop, two telescopes were fixed on either side. I peered in both, trying to raise my vision to the sky, but the cylindrical bodies were soldered in place. I tried again in vain. That which was frozen could not be freed. The views remained: one aimed toward a building (the library) and the other toward a tree I could not name. I was not sure what to think.
by Dina Peone '15