At one point in her Class Day speech, ABC News correspondent Barbara Walters urged the graduating seniors to look around at their fellow classmates.
“The people you see may be the most important take-away of your years here,” she told the students. “The friends you have made here at Yale may be the best experience you have, and they will continue to be a part of your life long after you may — heaven forbid! — forget the name of your professor and whatever he taught you.”
The journalist’s talk was among the highlights of the Class Day ceremony, held May 20 on Old Campus. In addition to Walters’ address, the day included reflections by members of the Class of 2012, the Class History and Ivy Ode, and the presentation of special student prizes.
In keeping with tradition, many of the robed seniors sported headgear ranging from the fanciful to the homemade — from Carmen Miranda-like concoctions to intricate balloon hats, gladiator helmets, sombreros, tiaras, and king’s crowns. A trio of students wore gigantic Easter Bunny heads, while other toppings included a fluffy-tailed squirrel, complex molecular structures, a snarling dragon, a foam whale, an oversized cheerleader’s trophy, and a tassel-adorned lampshade. There were flowers and sequins aplenty — the latter made all the more sparkling by the bright sunshine that continued throughout the afternoon,
Walters herself was wearing a blossom-bedecked straw garden hat. As the journalist stepped up to the podium and surveyed the sea of seniors, she declared, “You look absolutely marvelous!” Walters then offered her congratulations to the students and their families, and flourished her broad brimmed headwear, saying:
“My hat’s off to you!”
Walters noted that a professor at her alma mater Sarah Lawrence College, Joseph Campbell, used to exhort his students to “follow your bliss; follow what you love,” and admitted that as a new graduate, “I hadn’t a clue as to what I loved. I had no bliss to follow.”
She asked for a show of hands: how many members of the graduating class truly knew what their bliss was, versus those who didn’t. Addressing the vast majority who fell into the latter category, Walters said, “Don’t be afraid; most of us don’t,” and noted that she didn’t find her bliss until she was in her 30s, and then “only by luck.” Never fear, she told the students, “your bliss will find you.”
Walters told the graduating seniors: “Much of what I have to talk to you about are choices, and much of what you’ll have to face tomorrow and the years ahead are choices.” She went on to share “the wisdom and the stories of some of the most thoughtful people I’ve had the privilege to interview.” These included:
President Barack Obama: Career choices. Asked what he wanted to do as a young man, Obama told Walters that he at different times wanted to be an architect, a basketball player, and a judge, adding: “The one thing I know I didn’t expect, was that I’d be president of the United States.” When Walters pointed out that, with everything else ruled out, being president was all that was left, he said: “I suppose you’ve got to find some use for yourself, and this isn’t a bad way of doing it.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: Personal choices. Walters once asked Clinton to describe the biggest choice she ever had to make. The former first lady replied: “Staying married to my husband” after the scandal of his affair with a White House intern. Clinton told Walters that at the heart of her decision was the fact that her husband, Bill, was the “most interesting, energizing, and fully alive person that I’ve ever met.”
To Walter’s question, “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?” Clinton replied: “Life is a gift, and we learn as we go that hope and faith are truly the most important gifts that we have. … When something difficult happens, we have to decide ‘What’s most important to you?’ … And you have to listen to your own heart.”
The Dalai Lama: The secret of happiness. Walters interviewed the Tibetan spiritual leader as part of a special program on heaven and how to get there. While most of the religious leaders she spoke with said the purpose of life was to go to heaven, Walters told the audience, the Dalai Lama replied: “The purpose of life is to be happy.” He added that to be happy, one must embrace “compassion and warm-heartedness” and abandon “all negative thoughts and feelings of competition.”
“So simple; so hard to do,” Walter mused.
Margaret Thatcher: Failure. Walters met with the former prime minister of England shortly after the politician’s own party “kicked her out,” recalled the journalist, noting that what she learned from Thatcher was “how do deal with failure.” The politician advised Walters that, should she ever experience a catastrophic failure, “go on, have a good life, have an interesting time.”
Walters noted that she had, indeed, faced failure when she became the first female news co-anchor on a major network. “I was a total flop,” she recalled, adding that her lack of success in that venture inspired her to work all the harder in her other endeavors. To the seniors, she said: “If you have a failure, you will rise; you will be fine; you will work your way back. Do not sink into ‘Why? Woe is me! It’s not my fault!’”
Christopher Reeve: Facing life’s hardest challenges. The actor, who was paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from his horse, told Walters that he was lying helpless in his hospital bed, contemplating whether to ask his family to “pull the plug,” when a physician with a heavy accent came in and insisted, repeatedly, that the immobile Reeve roll over for a proctology exam. When Reeve realized that the “doctor” was really fellow actor and comedian Robin Williams, he burst into laughter and said, “If I can laugh, I can live.”
Reeve told Walters: “You gradually discover, as I did, that your body is not you, and the mind and spirit must take over.” He went on to say that, whatever the future held, life “is like a game of cards, and if you think the game is worthwhile, then you just play the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes you get a lot of face cards, and sometimes you don’t, but I think the game is worthwhile.”
Walters also told the soon-to-be graduates about her Grandma Lily, who on her deathbed told her seven children that she was a virgin. When her offspring protested that, given their existence, she surely must have done something with Grandpa, Lily replied, “Yes I did, but I never participated.”
Don’t be like her grandmother in your approach to life, Walters urged the seniors, “Participate!”
Also on Class Day
Other highlights of Class Day 2012 included:
• A welcoming address by Kevin Adkisson, secretary of the Class of 2012, who asked his classmates to rise; turn to face the families, friends and mentors seated behind them; and show their appreciation to those who had “nurtured and encouraged” the students before and during their years at Yale.
• The presentation of Yale College Student Awards honoring seniors for their academic skills, leadership, and athleticism. (See related story.) Among those honored was Brett Smith, a former starting quarterback for the football team who received life-threatening injuries during a car crash in 2003. Smith, whose parents were once told that he might never return to Yale, came back to complete his education. Smith was honored with two awards: the Yale Athletic Department’s Amanda Walton Award for his spirit and courage in overcoming great obstacles, and the David Everett Chantler Award for the senior who best exemplifies qualities of course, strength of character, and high moral purpose.
• A Reflection titled “Comfort and Fear” by Phillip Kaplan about the “people, places, and stories” that have combined to make Yale a home to the graduating seniors. He noted that the latter especially help “crystallize our homes as homes. They make concrete and solid the impossibly liquid, elusive flow of time,” and pointed out that, very often, “Our homes truly become real to us after we leave them.”
• “Calm Down, You Guys,” an often tongue-in-cheek Class Reflection by Lauren Oyler, who noted that, as an English major, “I’ve read the first 75 pages of a lot of books.” She told her classmates: “The future is undoubtedly scary, and it lacks any 36-course-credit to guide us,” but added that Yale had done much to prepare them for uncertainty. “I’m probably, definitely sure that we’ll all be just fine,” she concluded.
• The Ivy Ode, “Note to Self,” written and read by Caroline Chang, which began with the lines “It won’t be so bad this time around —/you’ve grown very skilled at packing boxes,” and concluded with “Before all this you could not dance a rumba./After all this, you still cannot speak German./Reread Proust. Revisit Merrill. Pack your things./There is no such thing as loving too much.”
• The Class History video, “The Ideal Yale Experience,” a faculty-star-studded takeoff on disaster movies. In this instance, Yale is threatened by the crash of a giant asteroid, while panicked administrators try to determine who to send to “Moon Yale,” originally meant to be a “satellite campus.” The video, complete with a happy ending, also included a spoof of the musical admissions video “Why I Chose Yale” — appropriately titled “Why I Chose Moon Yale.”
• The singing of the alma mater, “Bright College Years,” and the waving of white handkerchiefs as students symbolically bid farewell to their home for the past four years.