Campus & Community

Class Day speakers touch all with spirit, humor

4 min read

Like the enthusiastic reviewer of the proverbial blockbuster novel, audience members of Wednesday’s Senior Class Day program might have come away exclaiming, “I laughed, I cried.”

From Jason Stevenson’s exhortation to stop and smell the flowers, to Brooke Ellison’s touching tribute to her mother, to Jacob Lentz’s hilariously deadpan send-up of Commencement oratory, the trio of speakers played on a wide gamut of emotions.

Class Day has traditionally been a time for seniors to celebrate their passage from college into the next phase of their lives in their own way, with an emphasis on emotion and fun. With sodden grass under their feet and a sky that had only hours before turned blue, the Class of 2000 upheld this tradition with exceptional spirit and verve.

Stevenson a social studies concentrator from Leverett House gave a talk titled “The Small Voice.” He spoke of the daily grind that makes students lose their awareness of the larger picture and of that small voice which occasionally reminds them, saying in an incredulous tone, “Hey, I’m at Harvard!”

This assertion does not reflect arrogance, but rather the opposite, Stevenson said. It is a reminder that “we are standing in a very special place,” surrounded by friends who have given it significance.

He expressed the hope that as he and his classmates progress through life, that small voice will “cut through the murkiness and continue to speak to us as we reach the milestones of life, as we become husbands, wives, parents. I hope it will always speak to us and say, ‘Hey, I’m who I want to be.’”

Ellison, a Currier House resident who has concentrated in cognitive neuroscience, spoke movingly about the special circumstances that have marked her Harvard career. A quadriplegic since she was severely injured in a car accident at age 11, Ellison arrived at Harvard with her mother, Jean, and the two have spent nearly every moment of the past four years in each other’s company.

The arrangement was necessary because of the level of care Ellison required, but being so conspicuous proved difficult at first.

“There were times I thought the statue of John Harvard was looking right at me and saying, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing here?’”

But as Ellison began to form relationships and to find acceptance, her attitude changed.

“I realized that some people’s differences were just more subtle than ours. The striking irony was that through the recognition of our difference came the realization that we’re all the same. We all share a basic desire to love and be loved.”

She paid tribute to her mother’s care and devotion, remarking that “none of us would be here if not for the caring of people who have helped us along the way.”

Lentz, a Lowell House resident, struck a pitch-perfect note of dazed irony with his Ivy Oration, which brought as many tears of laughter to the eyes of the audience as Ellison’s speech had brought tears of emotion.

Titled, “Hey, Did We Go to College Here or Something?” the talk began with a greeting to, among others, “overbearing parents, jealous siblings, and old but lovable grandparents,” then posed a series of rhetorical questions: “Why am I here? Where am I going? Why am I giving a speech to all these people?”

Recalling his first year at Harvard, Lentz confessed to a certain ambivalence. “But then, everything about that first year was an impossible contradiction, but that’s the way we liked it . . . because we were crazy . . . but also sane.”

A number of Harvard institutions were targets of Lentz’s satire. Harvard’s endowment allowed the school to buy “a lot of stuff,” including “gold-plated cars for President Rudenstine and fancy stationery for his secretary . . . and also lawn care.”

University Health Services came in for its share of irony as well. Lentz described going there with an earache and, after several pregnancy tests, being diagnosed with “some sort of infection in the general head area and given Prozac.”

He closed by giving the graduates one piece of advice: “Carpe diem. I’m not certain what it means, but I am reasonably certain that it’s in some other language.”