To the Class of 2015

The day of my life…A.B. is really mine.

– Mary Elizabeth Johnston, Oberlin, 1937

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To the Class of 2015: Congratulations! For all the millions of words in the dictionaries of the world, there isn’t a single one that can accurately describe what you mean to me. In the same way that your parents cry over pictures of you in diapers, my eyes fill with tears when I think of you, walking across the stage to receive your diplomas. I can’t help it! I have known many of you since the beginning, and I’ve watched you grow! You don’t know it, but you are so much more than you were when you were first years…

But, here’s the thing: what I’m feeling isn’t the same thing that your parents are feeling. I would never be so presumptuous as to claim I’ve played a major role in guiding any of your lives these past four years. What makes you so precious is not seeing all the ways I’ve shaped you, but, rather, feeling so deeply all the ways you have shaped me. You are the last class of freshmen I saw matriculate as a student. You helped me write my thesis by bringing flowers into the library, reminding me that a world still existed outside my ever-growing manuscript. You held my hand as I struggled to eat, and again through numerous relapses. You hugged me through heartbreak, and you listened patiently as I used you as a sounding board for sorting through the troubles of adulthood.

Looking back, if I’ve given you anything in your four years at Oberlin, it is a somewhat bleak preview into what the world can be.

So, I want to give you something else. It’s not advice; there’s enough of that going around this time of year. What I want to give you is an introduction into the club you joined when you completed your final credits at Oberlin College. They’re a rag-tag bunch of scholars who took on a world full of impossibility, who refused to let their poverty, gender, and race decide their futures. Centuries of history have inflated these names. Because their images are preserved as daguerreotypes instead of data bytes, we err in thinking they their stories are past. The truth is: when they graduated, they were just like all of us. Doubt and urgency gnawed ravenously at the fringe of their consciences. A vast, unknowable world swallowed their sense of accomplishment, and everywhere society was telling them “no.” Here’s what happened…

When Lucy Stone graduated from Oberlin College in 1847, she had already begun taking an ax to the system. She refused to wear her bonnet in church, and had successfully convinced a conservative institution to pay its female student teachers the same as their male peers. When she was denied the opportunity to practice debate and oration in her classes, she created a secret debate society for young women in the woods surrounding the campus. However, just like many of you, after four years spent battling an unsupportive administration, her final protest came during Commencement, where she refused to write a speech if her words were to be presented by a man (as was standard practice at the time).

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When Lucy Stone left Oberlin College, the struggle was still fresh in her mind. She wrote constantly to her best friend, Antoinette Brown, who had stayed behind to continue the fight, expressing her resentment of an institution that had supported neither of them. “Nette I am so sorry you are at Oberlin,” she wrote in 1850. “They trampled your womanhood, and you did not spurn it…O Nette, I am sorry you returned, but for all this you KNOW I love you dearly, and will say no more about it…I shant ever take a second degree and regret, deeply regret, that I ever took any.”

When Lucy Stone left Oberlin College, there was no guarantee that she would achieve her dreams of becoming an orator and speaking out for justice. When Antoinette Brown completed her coursework in theology, there was no guarantee she would find a minister brave enough ordain her. The press mocked them ruthlessly. The public pelted them with rotten fruit. Their strong words were often overpowered by heckling. Theirs was not an easy road. They put on a brave face, and, eventually, they found their way.

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Despite fears that their convictions would leave them alone in the world, both women married supportive husbands and raised the next generation of crusaders. After years of battle, Oberlin finally recognized their achievements. In 1883, Oberlin College invited Lucy Stone back to give a speech celebrating its 50th anniversary. Her speech, Oberiln & Woman, acknowledged the gifts Oberlin had given the women of her generation, but warned against inertia as she urged the town and college to take the next steps towards equality. In 1878, Oberlin College finally awarded Antoinette Brown the theology degree she had earned in 1850. Brown was also honored in 2014 with a ceremony and an Ohio Historical Marker outside of First Church. As she wrote in 1848, “The cause of woman is moveing along finely here…so this ball is rolling steadily steadily steadily.”  Their stories aren’t over. The ball’s in our court now, and we must keep it rolling…

I know their lives better than I know my own, so I apologize if you’ve heard this all before. Even Michelle Obama mentioned Lucy Stone in her Commencement speech, but a woman you may not know is Mary Elizabeth Johnston, who graduated from Oberlin College in 1937 after 25 years of hard work. She was born to a middle-class family in Sandusky, Ohio, whose fortunes turned when her father died. They moved back to Oberlin to be near her mother’s family, and Mary Johnston entered college near the turn of the century. Finding it impossible to pay for her education, she eventually split her time between college and teaching at an all-black school in North Carolina. Having never personally encountered Jim Crow laws and segregation, the South was a shock at first, but her experience instilled her with a renewed sense of purpose. When she finally completed her coursework, her mother had died. Her aunt had died. The only people who knew her in the audience were her niece and an old college friend, but she had done it. She would later describe walking across the stage as “the day of my life.”  After another twenty years of work, Johnston also received her master’s from Kent State University. She continued to teach around the United States, donating what money she could to an Oberlin fund to support underprivileged students like herself. When she retired, nearly a quarter of her yearly pension was given to Oberlin to expand the library’s collection of African American literature, and she encouraged the art museum to increase the presence of non-Western art. Despite having almost nothing, she gave almost everything so that others like her might have the privilege of an education. She died in 1981, before you were born, but you have taken up her sword, and the fight for affordable, accessible higher education will continue in your capable hands…

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Or, how about John Mercer Langston? Do you know his story? He was born in 1829 in Virginia to a black woman who had been freed by his white father. With funds set aside for their education, he and his brothers attended Oberlin College, one of the only institutions in the United States to accept students of color. He received his B.A. in 1849, and his theology degree in 1852. When he completed his education at Oberlin, he intended to enter law school, but no school would accept him because of the color of his skin. (Note: he was applying in New York and Ohio, just in case you needed a reminder that de facto segregation was a thing.) Instead, Langston taught himself, shadowing a Republican lawmaker until he was able to pass the Ohio bar exam in 1854. His drive and ambition led him to become one of the first black lawyers in the United States, and he used his accomplishment for the good of others. In 1862, he successfully argued in defense of Edmonia Lewis, a black student who was charged with poisoning her female classmates and had been brutally beaten by vigilantes. He tirelessly petitioned the Governor of Ohio to create a black regiment during the Civil War. Despite countless rejections, he won the day in 1863 with the establishment of the 5th U.S. Colored Troops. After the War, he was one of five black men to be elected to Congress, but he spent the first 18 months of his term defending his right to be there, as opponents tried to steal his seat away from him and tarnish his name. By the end of his life, he had been a lawyer, a crusader, president of a college, and a diplomat, and was one of the most prominent black men in the country. But it all started when he was sixteen years old, following his older brothers to Oberlin College. As you come into this world, preparing to enter a society that violently ignores racism and inequality, remember that you share a story–that you share a struggle–with this remarkable man…

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I could go on, but let’s not beat a dead horse, shall we? I’m telling you all these stories, because this is what I have to give. I am just as terrified and lost as you are. I am chomping at the bit, impatient for my work to make a difference in this cruel world, but unsure where to start. To offer advice would be a bit like the blind leading the blind, so, instead, I’m offering you stories. Near the turn of the century, Mary Elizabeth Johnston heard a sermon in Oberlin: “We are the inheritors of the past, the possessors of the present, and the makers of the future.” You have just joined a group of remarkable humans, but they started right where you are right now. You are a new face in a long line of strong, determined graduates who changed their communities for the better. You are still growing, but the world is already a more just and equal place for having you in it, and I just wanted you to know that.

So, Class of 2015 (and all you other recent graduates), sit back, take a breath, and let the present wash over you. Cry if you need to. Have a laugh. Hug your family. Find a quite place and reflect. And, as you move towards a future that will undoubtedly be a tough struggle, never, ever forget your roots.

I love you, and you will do great things.

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