Kyle Berlin ’18 delivers Princeton’s Valedictory address

Kyle Berlin ’18 delivers Princeton’s Valedictory address

October 25, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


The faculty elects the valedictorian
each year, taking into account special qualifications as well as scholastic
ranking. This year’s valedictorian is Kyle Berlin, a senior, a senior from
Arroyo Grande, California. Is my hair all right? Alright, well thank you. I want to begin in gratitude to, to everyone here and not
here who made everything possible from as President Eisgruber said, the facilities
staff who set up the thousands and thousands and thousands of chairs, to the
faculty who set up the classrooms, and of course the family and friends who set up
the love. There’s a poem by Mark Doty about a whale that swims around a harbor.
He writes, “I expected the worst: shallow water confusion, some accident to
bring the young humpback to grief.” But he was wrong. The whale was not doomed, it
was merely playing in the shallow water. Doty goes on: “And though grief has seemed
to me itself a dim salt suspension in which I’ve moved blind thing, day by day
through the wreckage, barely aware of what I stumbled toward, even I couldn’t
help but look at the way this immense figure graces the dark medium, and shines
so: heaviness which is no burden to itself.
What did you think, that joy was some slight thing?” Doty’s poem is called
“Visitation.” My fellow graduates, our short visit at Princeton University, at least
in this period of our short lives, has come to an end. It is my task now to say
goodbye, to lend a few words of farewell for our own visitation. I did not ask for
this task or strive for it, but it’s been given to me. I am to deliver the
valedictory address, which quite literally means the farewell address. So
the question before me now is what I could possibly say that may function as
a proper farewell for all of us? How do I honor our togetherness and also our
apartness, our joy and our sorrow, and our sorrow? Our position in time, our
contradictory and coexisting emotions floating through the air,
our heaviness and our lightness? What is it that I wish you to know and to do as
we all walk out those gates in a few short minutes from now? I do not know the
answer. This is a deliberate statement against self certainty, which this
university tends to exude, but it’s also quite simply true. I do not know what to
say. And I have to be honest, in true Princeton fashion, I was sitting right
over there last night sort of frantically writing this speech because
I really, I’m serious, I did not know what to say in farewell, and, and I did not
think that I could speak to the feeling of the moment before the arrival of the
moment, if you know what I mean. So here we are now, though, in the heart of the
farewell, or the belly of the whale, so to speak, and just let’s just breathe in for
a second with, with the sort of rhythm of the giant cetacean lungs,
if you will, with the rhythm of the rustling trees around us on this
beautiful day. Because I genuinely did not know what to say, and I do not think
myself particularly qualified to say it, not least because I reject the
individuating effects of award culture. I’ve spent the last many weeks asking
everyone I encounter, what it is that they would say, that they wish everyone
would hear or know or do in farewell. And it’s, it’s really been a wonderful
opportunity to listen to what you all had to say and, and representative of the
best part of my time here: simply hanging out with with other people and
informally talking about things that matter. And I wish there were time to
share all of the voices that I heard. There are the people who told me to make
you laugh. And I’m, I’m sorry on that one. I recommend you just google the word
jokes. I don’t have time. There are those who would draw attention to the white
supremacy and class oppression of Princeton and the country beyond. There are those who told me to call out
rankings, elitism, hierarchy, and notions of a false meritocracy to speak for the
people who did not like Princeton, to warn against pride or pride in excess.
There are those who would have me ask you to give up some of your economic
privilege and those who would draw attention to the climate catastrophe in
which we find ourselves that threatens the very existence of the most
vulnerable as well as our own lives. The list goes on and on and on and I really
really wish I had time or that those people could come up here and talk as
well but I don’t so I’m just my own addition to this long list is simply
this. It is my parting wish that we find it within us or outside of us – I don’t
really care where you find it – to be able to truly listen to others and
develop a compassionate stance towards the world that moves beyond the tiny and
tenuous borders of the self, that silences the egoistic monologue assuredly
running in your head this very moment. I mean this on small scales but also on
large ones, as we work to undo systemic frameworks of oppression and equality
and injustice found everywhere, including here. I mean it not simply or glibly or
romantically, not only to be nice but as a challenge, to approach a radical sort
of compassion that is awake and aware and attuned to our own position in the
world and how we are inextricably, achingly, necessarily entangled with,
entangled with others near and far. Particularly in this moment, where
meanness is mistaken for power, I wish for us to enact a compassionate
togetherness. The real work of our education and really our lives is to
figure out how we can better be alive together in the short and fragile space of
our visitation on earth. But, but we cannot do this on our own as individuals.
And, and my voice and, and that of people like me, with historically loud voices,
cannot be the only ones we hear. I mean it: this has to be a conversation, a
search, that we all commit to. And so I turn the question around to you. What
is it that that that you would would say to everyone? What is it that you think
everyone should know or do in this moment of farewell, this very
rare and special moment. And this may make the beloved trustees
uncomfortable, but I’m just gonna literally ask you to turn to the people
around you and try to answer that question for one or two minutes. So the
question to review is, what would you say to everyone, what do you think everyone
should know or do before heading out. Two minutes: talk to people, introduce
yourself, look around. Okay I’m gonna jump down. I’ll be right back. Don’t worry, I
timed this. It’s fine. We’ll be fine all right. [APPLAUSE, CHEERS] They’re probably getting stressed up
here, so I better bring it back. And and sorry to cut off your conversations. I
hope that they’re productive, awkward or uncomfortable in good ways. So, I had
some great conversations, so thank you to my conversational partners who I’d never
met before. Um anyway, by way of conclusion, by final
farewell, let me just say that well, we want things to end and we want them not
to end. We want change and we want everything to stay the same, termination
and germination. Sitting here on graduation day, we are ready to leave and
we are sorry to leave. We are thrilled to leave and loathe to leave, to wave our
hands tenderly or raise our middle fingers at this hallowed hall behind me,
to give our hugs and shed our tears for different reasons, to say goodbye, to
never look back or to come running back. Look around. Look at us. The shape of our
faces, the depth of our eyes, the delicacy of our skin, the pattern on the bark on
the trees, the clouds in the sky. Remember who is not here,
who’s been lost along the way. Sense this sudden and temporary us.
In us, in this moment. In us, right here, right now, on graduation day, in this space
between, surrounded by people we love and who love us. This is sacred. The Class of
2018, what if we gave up greatness for quiet compassion? What if we were number
one not in excellence, with all its disciplinarian and utilitarian and
egoistic undertones but in compassionate listening or repeated forgiveness or
radical love? I do not have a prescription to make
this happen only in imagination. And, and if we can’t figure it out together, if if
we can’t ask the right questions, can’t forgive each other again and again, can’t
practice kindness as a deliberate ethos and a knowledge, then who can? What else
matters? There are concrete things we can do. Let’s do them. Let’s let’s walk out
those gates before going our separate ways resolved to working towards a more
compassionate, more just world. I have a feeling this may be the way towards the
richest sort of joy, a shared joy. Parabéns felicitaciones, congratulations
to the compassionate Class of 2018!