Commencement Address 2017

The following commencement address was delivered by Dr. Rebecca Wheeler, US English Teacher, to the Class of 2017 at this year’s Commencement.


Thank you, Louise, my fellow twin, for that lovely introduction, and thank you, class of 2017, for selecting me as your graduation speaker. I will try to deserve that honor.

I’m sure it’s no great surprise that today’s speech is about words. After all, the class of 2017 and I spent a great deal of time together with words, reading them, analyzing their meaning, and learning new ones. Indeed, I think the core of my connection to this fine group of young people stems from an incident involving vocabulary enhancement. When I first taught the class of 2017 their sophomore year, I approached them with a rather no-nonsense and sober  temperment. This attitude stayed in place for several weeks that fall until one day when we were going over vocabulary slides and someone’s comment about a humorous GIF cracked–OK shattered–my facade. I started to laugh and the class thought “Oh, she has a sense of humor after all.” I kept on laughing and they got eerily quiet and stared at me, looking a bit disturbed. I kept on laughing and they got that “There must be something wrong with her”  look on their faces. And that’s where we’ve been ever since.

The 2 words I would  like to explore today are irony and awe, but I was equivocating a bit  when I said this speech is about words because what I want us to all to think about for a few minutes is the interaction with external reality that these words imply.

We need to clarify that I don’t mean awwwww (the sound one might makes when seeing a cute puppy), and I don’t mean the “aw” in “awwww yeahhh,” the sound one might make  in response to something which one desires. Both of those words imply power over the object in view.  The awe  I mean is A-W-E awe, which involves being confronted with something overwhelming, even a little scary.  Interestingly, researchers found that when awe generates sound, that sound is pretty consistent across many cultures, an open-mounted “wow” or [intake breathing] “ahhhh.” The face of awe is also consistent worldwide, a fact that Facebook used when generating the reaction emojis. Facebook worked with an artist from Pixar and tried out many variations to get a simple universal representation of awe. Some of the prototypes have muppet-like bugged-out eyes or look like they are in dire pain, but the simple “wow” emoji we now have is what efficiently and pan-culturally points to feelings of awe. So we’re thinking about what awe looks like and sounds like when we experience it, but let’s get to what really matters: what awe feels like. We can explore this with a blend of science and stories.

Physiologically, the overwhelming and scary part can generate goosebumps, chills, a racing heart–to quote the ghost of Hamlet’s father, it can

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand on end,

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:)

While they may not be quite Shakespearean, the following awe-filled stories involving members of the class of 2017 nevertheless provide evocative and powerful mental pictures. Some they told me about, some they wrote, some I witnessed or participated in. I hope they invite wonder into your mind.

  • Our sensory input kept saying “snow” and preparing us for crystalline cold. Yet our bare feet touched cool powdery gypsum. The huge bowl of blue mountains filled with sugary sculpted sand reverberated with the ecstatic laughter of a small herd of Prairie students as they jumped and flew from dune tops, airborne above the incomprehensible beauty of White Sands, New Mexico

  • The floating sound of  ethereal music swirled like incense smoke around elaborately carved pillars, lofty open spaces, and the color-infused light of antique stained glass windows.

  • The small class placed our unshod feet mindfully on the path, step after step, treading the same pattern as those who have walked the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral for 800 years, covering 4 city blocks of distance in a small curved interior space. Levitating in a twilight realm beyond language and logic as our deliberate paces traced sacred mathematical patterns across time.

  • Crawling from the tent for a late night “mission” during Manitowish sophomore year only to be transfixed by streams of greenish light shimmering in the northern sky. Calling forth the tent-mates to stand, mouths agape, sharing the beauty of the aurora borealis.

  • Atop the Great Wall of China, irregular and archaic steps and an uncomfortably vertiginous route guided me to the climax. Sweat beading down my face and back, the intense sun at its zenith, I scaled the edge of the Wall’s overlook, perched myself atop the boundary, and absorbed the history and circumstance. The physical gamble yielded an infinite return–I was atmospheric.

  • Playing soccer on the turf at night under the lights with the crowd cheering Feeling like you could run forever. All joy.

  • Plus, let’s be honest here:Game of Thrones Season 6 episode 10! Come ON!

  • And possibly the most amazing time in the lives of the class of 2017, although it’s one you don’t remember:  the moment you were born. I know you’ve probably heard the story a dozen times, but ask your parents to share it with you again soon. Nothing else intertwines fear, joy, and wonder to the same degree.

What do all these awe-struck moments share? Transport outside the self. A loss of cynicism. A feeling of surrender to something larger. Usually, wonder strengthened by sharing.

Remember, though, this is a two-topic speech: awe and irony.

We can approach irony as a sort of antithesis to the type of awe that drops jaws, pops eyes, and raises hair. I’m talking about the kind of irony that leads to rolling eyes, sour smirks, and  sarcastic sighs.

We live in an era in which an ironic outlook is considered by many to be not only hip and zeitgeisty, but also the easiest choice for navigating through a world full of stimuli which may evoke more emotion that we feel like emoting at the moment. Irony lets us keep our distance while also keeping our cool.

It allows the ironizer to communicate “I’m not really doing this/thinking this/saying this; I’m being ironic, my words are not tethered to fidelity. There’s a gap between the real me and what you see, a buffer zone, so that I do not make myself in the least vulnerable.” Irony can be a kevlar suit of armor. A get out-of-jail free cart for nasty remarks. Irony-laden communication is usually inauthentic and low stakes because we can always take it back, type “JK”, and get do-overs. It allows us to mock without repercussion. As an interface with the world, irony requires no commitment or investment.

Wearing the armor of irony keeps us disconnected and possibly miscommunicating while surrendering to the vulnerability of awe, on the other hand, opens a connection to things that inspire, scare, and stagger us, things that knock us back on our heels.

The urge to partake of of awe-inspiring situations–to generate that dopamine/adrenalin burst–is natural. Indeed, it’s one of the best things that we, as humans, have access to : art that makes viewers gasp, music that chases all logic from the brain to be replaced with vibrating response, words that elicit cascades of memory and wonder. In our contemporary quest to be perpetually stimulated, however, there’s a danger in seeking pseudo awe  just to get that neurochemical reward:  to say “I know I’m gonna cry at this!,” to pregame that burst of strong feeling when anticipating a  situation, a situation that was likely designed and curated to be monumental or profound (even a situation like  one we find ourselves in at this moment)  

And this  is what allows us to wend our way back to irony. Perhaps it’s the very onslaught of stimulation that is designed to  generate  strong emotional response that leads to the ironic reaction in aware, thinking people. We are inundated with performed and manufactured emotion, staged “real world”s, computer-generated romance, purchased experiences of wanna-be-authentic altruism. If we are constantly being programmed or targeted to feel a certain way, stepping away from that ongoing expectation for powerful emotional response can be a welcome escape. The sarcastic remark that kicks the legs out from under  fake, over-the-top sentiment puts the sarcastic remarker in the position of the coolest one and trivialities the emotions of the gullible. How easy it is to mock ersatz sincerity. In many ways this undercutting is safer but it is also less powerful, less alive.

So is there a middle path where we see the complexity of this interplay and feel the lure of both awe-filled emotional rushes and cool ironic distance?   Where we can be neither naive nor cynical?  

I suggest that to acknowledge and attend–pay attention–to this oscillation between irony and awe in order to be mindful of how we interface with the universe is a start. Perhaps to seek the blend of openness without naivete, to be present and immersed in stunning nature, or art, or music, or athleticism without needing to create a simulacrum of it to prove that it happened, because honestly, how present are we–how open to awe–when we are filming a phenomenal concert or instagramming an amazing meal to impress other people, to prove our presence by anticipating other people’s responses? Listen to childhood Wisconsinite, naturalist John Muir writing over 100 years ago; he was not taking a selfie as he gloried in how the Sierra Nevada mountains were “making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun…”

Can we, like Muir, become  more open to awe that has a surprise element, which is more primal and less premeditated? Can we ignore manufactured reality to embrace what’s real? Can we curb our cynicism and integrate with the universe?

Have you ever seen a cicada transitioning to the next stage, just after it has shed its brittle exoskeleton–its armor, as it were? The creature is at its most vulnerable then, but also its most beautiful, irridescent with blues and greens, almost otherworldly. There’s your metaphor and the image I leave you with. I don’t think I need to spell it out for you because you were such good students. Be beautiful in your open vulnerability as you grow into your wider lives.