When I ask people to name a memorable speech, they seem to have a brain hiccup. The most common response is to talk about the most recent speech they’ve experienced.
If I had to answer the question at this moment I’d say I remember the talk Richard Brodhead gave at the Convocation of the Class of 2006 at Yale University.
Brodhead was Dean of Yale College at the time. He has since become President of Duke University.
His convocation address was a memorable speech delivered in Woolsey Hall to the Freshmen and their parents. He built his talk around two powerful images in the parents’ generation–the space program and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
He brought to mind the images of NASA’s space crafts blasting up from Florida through the earth’s atmosphere, the release of the booster rockets when the fuel was spent, and then the spacecraft–flung into orbit.
“Parents,” he said, looking out into the audience, “Your job is over. You have raised your child. It is time for you to drop away, and let them travel where they may,”–or words to that effect.
Under certain circumstances, I might not enjoy being compared to an empty fuel tank, condemned to being space debris. But I was proud of my daughter, and of my role in helping her arrive at a new frontier.
Dean Brodhead then went on to tell the story of Maya Lin, the Yale undergraduate who won the commission to design the Vietnam War Memorial.
Maya Lin had arrived at Yale with plans to study zoology, but had by accident of circumstance taken a sculpture class for fun.
She had also walked through the doors of Woolsey Hall for four years, where the names of Yale graduates who had died in service to the country are carved into the wall.
But the final happy accident was Maya Lin lingering over dinner in the Commons dining room and idly sculpting a mound of mashed potatoes. She was dreaming about entering the contest and winning the commission.
And so, to wrap up his talk, Dean Brodhead suggested we stay out of our childrens’ way. Let them blast off into orbit, change majors, and linger over dinner.
Better to wander where your heart takes you, then slavishly follow the demands of an anxious parent.
Learning and inspiration come from accident and circumstance as much as they come from planning and dogged persistence.
The power of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial can be traced to a so-called gut course, a plate of mashed potatoes, and a wall with the names of fallen soldiers carved into it, passed on the way to dinner.
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