Commencement Address Transcript

Remarks of Sidney Poitier
Commencement Speaker
And Recipient of
The CMC Distinguished Public Service Award
Sunday, May 19, 2002
Claremont, California

Thank you. Good afternoon all. Here at the outset I am pressed by conscience to admit that when I first received your most generous invitation to come and speak I was troubled by the thought of what would I possibly have of interest to say to an educated, well-rounded, awesomely cool audience like you.

I have not been to my satisfaction fully able to put that thought to rest. In fact while waiting to be introduced a few minutes ago, the grounds for my earlier concern intensified as it gradually became clear that your presence here indeed speaks of quick minds, keen interest, vibrant curiosities, and expectations that threaten to keep me on my toes and make me reach beyond my grasp.

All of which give rise to more than a little nervousness. Because if you are in fact all those things–quick and curious and expectant–it means that I will have to struggle to measure up so that you won’t have to measure down. I would hate that.

Talking to people that much smarter than me is first risky because my ignorance will have no place to hide from your computer-fast minds. Listening for philosophical truths, historical gems, political insights, spiritual resonances, and errors of grammar. Errors of grammar are about all you are likely to get.

Second. It flies in the face of logic because, Class of 2002, you at your present level of knowledge know at least 50 times more than I knew when I was at your present level of age. So what could I say? What should I say? Well, I have decided whatever I say, I will speak it only to you. Parents, faculty, and friends can listen in if they want, but my remarks will be from me directly to you, Class of 2002.

Pride in this institution’s long and honored tradition of nurturing the development and growth of civilized society is never more exemplified than on days like this, when the labor of teachers and students, faculty and parent is harvested and made ready to lend itself to the process of continuance, to the widening, deepening, and extending of both civilized society and the opportunities this university believes will be waiting for you, the Class of 2002.

In each of the generations of graduates who have gone before you there were those who came with visions so unique as to set new standards in their time. No need in these brief remarks to identify them by name or profession or by contribution, since their bodies of work have been preserved and stand in witness to their history, fact by fact. It is therefore undeniable that your ambition and mine were stirred and shaped by impressions left on each of us by the power of their gifts. Today, Class of 2002, if by chance you feel obliged by your creative passion to reach beyond them, to raise the level of the bar yet another notch in your time through your life’s work, let me tell you, that’s a good sign.

Class of 2002, if restless expectations are thrashing about inside you in anticipation of what the future holds, that’s a good sign. If you are already searching and listening for hints as to when and where you might cross paths with that defining moment, that window of opportunity through which you and your education and talent will burst upon the world, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next month, that’s a good sign.

Class of 2002, you are poised at the edge of new beginnings, your journey ready to take wing, precisely as the clouds of my journey’s end are gathering up ahead. Because the time has come when the age and weakened wings of my generation’s journey can no longer hold their own against the wind. If you see that as fact and that fact as one of life’s unending processes, that’s a good sign.

Class of 2002, this is the day the decks are cleared. This is the day you position yourselves for what tomorrow brings. There can be no better time than now, filled as you are with the satisfaction that always comes after a giant. No better moment to take one last look back across the many books you’ve cracked, the many hours you’ve logged, the many lessons you’ve learned, the many lectures you’ve internalized, the many facts you have unearthed, the many tiny bits of knowledge that you have captured and have captured your imagination. I advise you to look closely and if you spot genuine moments of clarity, flashes of insight, and pearls of wisdom, that’s a good sign. Make note of them and chances are they will return to warm your heart at 75.

Now be forewarned and not mislead by what you have heard me say. I have not come to stroke you. I have come to challenge you. And if I am successful, you will recognize glimpses of yourselves somewhere in the remarks to follow. None of which is gospel. Most of which even I have somehow managed to survive, but not without the hands of unseen forces being somewhere in the details. However, since serendipity, providence, luck, karma, and other such intangibles can never be directed by our hands and must forever lie outside of our control, you must yourselves be responsible for setting the goals, choosing the route, and staying the course. Only you can articulate the distance you are willing to travel to become the you you want to be at 75. And me, the me I’d like to be at 103.

If you agree that for each of us, our journey’s distance from where we are to where we want to be can best be measured by the size of our will and the passion of our intent, that’s a good sign.

I now invite you to join me in an objective look at the moment at hand. If you see fact of my standing here and you sitting there as being pregnant with implications, imageries, obligations, possibilities, and promise, that’s a good sign. There are differences between us, you and I. Certainly, more than meet the eye. There is a space between us, a distance, a divide. After all I am 75 and you are in your golden 20s and 30s, which obliges me to suggest you be ever mindful of the fact that life is tough. Damn right.

Especially for those of us who tend to sit or stand on one of life’s corners too long. However hard we look we will never see as far as we should. However long we watch we will seldom comprehend as clearly as we could. However much talk we hear of wonder, we will seldom experience her touch. The narrowest view life will ever offer of itself is reserve for those of us who never venture forth, who never travel those unknown roads.

Life knows who we are. She also knows where we are. But she rarely comes looking for those of us who are at the heart of ourselves, spectators. Her engines are not fired by us. She instead waits anxiously for the coming of the curious traveler to whom she offers no guarantee that one road will lead to another. No promise that we won’t get lost as surely we will from time to time. No promise that we won’t find ourselves abandoned where disaster of some unimaginable kind waits and there be left to stand our ground with only instinct for guidance and trial and error for judgment. Left to perish or prosper alone, deserted, life is tough. Damn right.

She knows curiosity sharpens instinct. Instinct invites trial and error. Trial and error produces experiences. And experiences are the only armor, the only protection she provides for those travelers who will spend their days on beckoning unknown roads that pull at their curiosity. If you feel you can summon the resolve necessary to stand firm and face of all life’s challenges with no guarantees, that’s a good sign.

Class of 2002, on the reasonable chance that there may be those among you who might well be wondering, who is this 75-year-old Sidney Poitier guy from a time we never knew? Well, in the time you never knew, I earned my living these past years as an actor, director, writer in theater and films. I am approaching the glow of a distant sunset, accompanied by the shadow of my accumulated years in which a reasonable number of unknown roads have pulled at such curiosity as I have had. I have come to see where you are and to tell you where I have been and what I have seen, in case your journey takes you over ground I have covered. And it too can be said that I have come to learn what you can teach me. When we are done with each other this day I hope it will have been for good and sound reasons that we came together at this particular point in our lives, coming as we have from different times, from different places, on different journeys, in different directions. While we each, you and I, have arrived at this moment burdened with the complexities of generational differences, I sincerely hope that we discover a small patch of common ground on which we may stand and share in this short time we have as we pass each other by, my generation heading towards its final years and your generation towards the arena where the game of life is played. Whomever you are, however old you are, 20 years old at the threshold, seasoned traveler deep in the journey, or the curious traveler seeking out along some unknown road the mysteries hidden in himself, know that I come with the weight of such accumulations as my spent years have left me. Experiences, burdens, victories, flaws, failure, inadequacies, disappointments, accomplishments, obligations, regrets, success, mistakes, and worst of all, a heart that has been broken more then a few times.

Yes, as you can clearly see, the shadows of my deeds are etched upon my face along with the other requisite scars of survival. Indeed, I stand as proof positive that the wear and tear on the body, the mind, the spirit, and the soul is inescapable after such a long time in the arena of life. No matter what you are thinking, trust me, you are not going to look any better than us when time one day finally delivers you where we once stood, facing as you must the distant sunset of your own years. This is how one comes to be as one’s journey winds down.

If you have had glimpses of yourselves in the foregoing scenario, that’s a good sign. In a time you never knew, standards were set, planted deep in the discipline you have chosen where roots took hold and left markers of excellence. And now as your journey begins, they are waiting to test your measure, to see your stuff, observe your style, looking to see how well you do at keeping instinct and intuition out of the abusive reach of convenience.

As you come with decades yet unspent with which to deal, challenges you haven’t dreamed of are waiting for you. If you feel that it is in your nature to rise to each of them, show them your stuff and declare that, driven by will and intent, you’ve come to leave your mark, plant your vision and set new standards. If that be the ground you intend to cover over the distance of your journey let me tell you, Class of 2002, that’s one hell of a good sign.

Good luck and Godspeed.