Now it’s Time to Sink the Houseboat

Commencement address by Rebecca Schuh, Class of 2013

TO THE CLASS OF 2013,

Four years ago, we were given an ongoing assignment, an assignment that we were given four years to complete.

Build a house.

We were all given the same materials: the wood, the tools, the varnish. The glass for windows, the paneling, the paint, or wallpaper if we so chose.

Of course, as life goes, we all had access to the same materials, but some had far greater accessibility than others. Access to the nearby friends to invite to our house for get togethers. Jobs to help us pay the rent: library assistant, tutor, ad host, desk sitter, research assistant. Could all of us get those jobs? Of course not. But they were there.

We had landlords, and you were lucky if you got one who was lenient. The Johnston landlords, they were notoriously lenient.

And then we had the mayors. The mayors, all three of them, were the root of much of our strife. But perhaps you will see that as we go along.

But what I am here to tell you is why we built a houseboat, and what it took to build it.

As I said before, we all had access to the same materials, some easier access than others. Thus you could build a shed. You could build a beach house, leaving campus every weekend and driving the arduous miles to Santa Monica. You could use the make-your-own-frat-house-kit, notoriously effective although too easy to mean much. There were duplexes and ranches, there were cottages and tudors. Regardless, they all had to be destroyed in the end.

Which is why we built the houseboat.

I will try to define for you who ‘we’ is, but we is a nebulous, ever changing group. We gained and lost elders, ‘we’ integrated some who left and never came back. We is who we were, who we are, who we will be.

So we tore away from the port, thrust off the bowlines, and refused to build a modest two bedroom townhouse with granite countertops. We knew we would lose it in the end, by our own hands, but we chose to squeeze every last drop out of those damn materials, so build on we did.

We had a beautiful study, and rooms for parties. Our kitchen was less than opulent, but who can care about food when time is so precious? The bedrooms in the boat were all mixed together. In the beginning we slept alone, then we brought ‘guests,’ if you catch my drift, but towards the end we just all slept together, just slept, in the same beds, every night.

Things were beautiful in the boat. If you notice the details, life always is. Talking to the old man on the street because he likes that you aren’t wearing shoes. An acquaintance inviting you in because you say you like their dog. The sunlight coming through a fuchsia tapestry. That is how things were on the houseboat. We wrote quotes on our arms that we wanted to remember, or each others phone numbers in case we got lost. We exchanged possessions and alcohol like they were money, paying each other back for debts in raspberries and leftovers and beers at Hangar and love, always in love.

Am I idealizing it all? Yes. But I also remember the bad parts.

The threats outside began and we noticed them, but as young people we thought we would never see the consequences. I knew when Dorsey called that meeting that he was resigning, and nobody I talked to believed me, but then as we sat there and watched him cry over the alma mater lyrics, things began to become clear. We patted ourselves on the back for Johnston’s role in calling out the administration and moved on, never believing never imagining how it could one day affect us.

And we cheered when Appleton came back, but it didn’t really change anything.

We fought for May, because we still believed that fighting would have an affect. It’s a neat trick, making people feel like they have input and then making the decisions anyway.

And then something happened that should have rocked the school, something that should have made us see every flaw, something that should have been dealt with and spoken about and reconciled, but instead, we went on break and when we came back there was nothing. Not a whisper. And then there were the parties again, and nobody said a word.

Our houses had libraries, and as we took classes those libraries began to fill with knowledge from the esteemed professors that some of us came to care so much for. If we cared, if we engaged with our studies, those libraries flourished. We grew manuscripts, cultivated experiments, composed music. All with the help and support of the professors, the benefactors of our libraries. But as time went on, professors began to be cut. Professors who were the strongest in their department, professors who students loved. Of course, the economy was part of it all, but that didn’t ease the blow for those of us on the ground attempting to make a life.

We took extended trips away from our houses, left them in the care of friends left behind or of no one, hoping that they wouldn’t be ransacked upon our return. We tried to avoid it, but we knew in the end that we’d love the house more if we left it for a semester.

We changed for the better, but while we were gone things began to change for us, for the class of 2013, in ways that seemed to be only for the worse.

We knew the changes to May Term were happening, but we thought that the forums, all the legitimate points we’d made, every fight we’d fought, had made a difference. But of course none of it did, because it was announced without prelude that our graduation date was moving to April 20th, a part of the plan that had never been on the docket in the first place. Our input wasn’t asked for, our complaints weren’t registered. We were graduating a month early and it was posed that we would not be able to stay for May. A month may seem like nothing, but to the person who is being asked to destroy the home they’ve spent four years building, a month means everything.

But we didn’t stop constructing. As we grew older, instead of going to other people’s houses to party, we used our deck, added a pool and games, to host the parties ourselves. We took youngins under our wing just as the seniors and juniors had before us. We became our professors’ favorite students, and got the jobs we’d been waiting for. Well, some of us.

Perhaps things continued to change, or perhaps we just got more observant, but incidents and policies began to make it difficult to continue to build and love.

A strange correlation in disciplinary cases appeared. In some cases, students who paid full tuition were not expelled – not for sexual assault, not for repeated alcohol abuse that resulted in sexual harassment.

A student saved someones life and instead of being lauded was put on probation for their job.

A new common eating area was built, and instead of having more food options and fewer lines, students were so crammed that they stopped eating there all together.

It took longer for help to come to a student in need than to break-up a party in Brockton.

As the school expanded, it got harder and harder to build new houses. As more and more people came in, there wasn’t enough material support for everybody. Students were forced to squish into outdated houses without air conditioning, and more students were forced off campus. The small class sizes that had been so touted as a virtue of the school began to get larger. Individual attention was forsaken for financial padding and professors were forced to clean up the damage.

The houseboat got harder to steer as the waters grew rougher, but we persevered. We took in refugees from lifeboats and burned homes, we tried to save everyone we could.

In preparation to leave the house, we were told we’d be given job opportunities. Turned out the job opportunities were for business majors and those who wanted to work at Target. The rest of us deleted email after email as we were set adrift in lifeboats out onto the open sea.

These things were all icebergs, torpedoes, and pirates, which we narrowly avoided, although our boat garnered damage. But through it all we had so many advocates fighting for us, in every corner of campus. There were those who gave us chances when we didn’t deserve them at all, and those who taught us that with compassion we could find an ally. To the younger classes: let them help you.

Regardless, we knew we’d need to sink our boat in the end, so we sank it with pomp and circumstance. We sank it with kegs and cross dress parties, with chapel runs and other assorted nudity. We wanted to leave the houseboat behind for those who were younger, but we knew they had to create their own house. It might be another houseboat, it might be a castle or a duplex or a village. It was theirs to build and theirs to sink.

We didn’t worry about their ability, we only worried that their access to materials would be so much more restricted than ours. That they would not be able to build a houseboat, let alone a lifeboat, with what remained.

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