Cum Laude Speaker Ann Sonnenfeld

OK, so it has only been 42 years since I have been on campus. Seems like yesterday.  The last time I was here was graduation day, 1975.  As luck always had it in the days before hair straighteners, it was a humid hot day, I was 15, dressed in an ivory peasant dress with a high waist that, according to my mother, made me look fat, and my hair was frizzy.  I brought the picture with me and yes, mom, you were right, the dress made me look fat. The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead were wafting out from dorm room windows at Ford Hall and students who were not graduating were wearing plaid shirts, jeans and clogs.  Remarkably enough, I am still wearing plaid shirts, jeans and clogs much of the time. But no more peasant dresses and no kinky hair.

When Eric Yates asked me to give this Cum Laude address, I was pleased to learn I am a member of the Cum Laude Society, a fact I had forgotten completely if I ever knew it. Anyway, this will be the 70s Cum Laude Address—recalling many people, things and events you have never heard of and most likely don’t care about much.

So what do I remember of my short two years at Williston? Oddly, I recall more from my two years here from August of 1973 to June of 1975 than from the ten years before that. Perhaps as a segue into the rest of this talk, the word for my time here would be RISK. And by that I mean positive and negative. I came from a very conventional background on what is called the Main Line in Philadelphia where people mostly went to private single sex schools, wore uniforms, played tennis at the Club and followed lots of rules. Parents also played tennis and drank martinis. At the Club. Even the Club had lots of rules. At least that is what it seemed like to me. I did not want to go to single sex school, follow rules, play tennis, field hockey or golf. I abhorred the Club and I desperately wanted to be a hippie, learn about interesting things, and meet different people. Williston attracted me because there seemed to be almost no rules, lots interesting people, none of whom wore uniforms and interesting things to learn and do. While Williston satisfied most of my wishes, I managed to break even the few rules there were, yet nevertheless graduated and went to a good college! That was certainly a miracle and I really give the credit to Williston.

I recall laughing, laughing a lot, laughing even more. I recall boys, freedom, boys (did I mention those already). I recall trying things that never would have occurred to me before coming here, such as calligraphy, modern dance and Hamlet. I recall reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, of which you may have heard, and Ram Dass of whom you may not have heard. (By the way Ram Dass, a.k.a., Richard Alpert, was an early experimenter with psychedelic drugs at Harvard and a spiritual guru of some note in the 70s, who graduated from Williston and was in the Cum Laude Society according to Wikipedia—who knew?)

So I have broken this talk into smaller bits, with numbered paragraphs:

  1. Much is forgiven of those who achieve academically. As observed in the seminal work of my 70s youth that was somehow robbed of the Oscar, yes Love Story, “School came easily to me.” I was an annoyingly good student. I was diligent and worked hard, but academic success came relatively easily to me, all the way through law school. I was an early academic achiever, unhappy at home, and socially precocious. I had been put ahead in most of my classes beginning in middle school and then somehow I skipped 10th and 11th grade here at Williston and graduated at the ridiculous age of 15. There were and are lots of things wrong with that picture. However, when other things went wrong (which they often did), or I went off track (which I did in so many interesting and risky ways), academic achievement helped. Things were forgiven. Perhaps not the best lesson for an adolescent, but an advantage you will have. Remember though, it can be also be a curse because you may never learn anything from your mistakes until you are really old, like me. So even if you can maintain an A average while staying out all night every night and crashing your car or treating people like dirt, it really doesn’t matter—you have made mistakes and you need to learn from them and become a better person. The chickens will come home to roost.
  2. Figure out who you are, and try to like yourself. So, I am a lawyer. I graduated from Williston, went to college, became a paralegal, then went to law school and became a partner at a big shot firm in Philadelphia. Funny thing, though, I never wanted to be a lawyer. I became a lawyer because I wanted to be able to support myself even if I never had the rich husband I deserved, or even if I got divorced like my mom. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else. And people with good grades who are good at school are good at law school. What did I really want? I wanted things that took talent, not analytical skills, hard work, long hours, and the ability to argue. Beginning in about 1970 when I was 11, I wanted to be a folk singer. I came to Williston with my stereo and my record collection and I wanted to be Joni Mitchell. I still want to be Joni Mitchell, or at least the Joni Mitchell as she was in the 1970s. I still practice being Joni Mitchell by singing loudly where no one can hear me. I wanted to be poetic and mystical and thin with straight blonde hair and an amazing voice—that was my aspiration. I also wanted to be a ballet dancer. Graceful, winsome, or a modern dancer like Martha Graham. You get the picture. But what is the use when one cannot play the guitar, cannot really even point one’s toes, when one has a deep alto voice and was not and would never be thin. I suggest, forget it and realize that you CAN be something amazing and successful and that you, yourself may be good at math or science or be able to write essays, win arguments or tell jokes, or make robots or pottery or calligraphy or be the best friend there ever was.  For me, not feeling good in my own skin was the hardest thing about high school. I did not achieve feeling good about myself or liking myself at all until I was in my mid-30s. I am sure you can achieve this much earlier than I did and it will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.
  3. Reading can save your sanity and even your life. I suspect all of you Cum Laudes understand the power of reading. For me, it began in 5th grade when I realized I could escape from just about anything with a book.  Who cares about a distasteful unhappy family when there is a library within walking distance and a congenial librarian (I know, I know, there are no such things as libraries or cosy librarians anymore). Who cares that one is not thin and has been rejected by a boy (or many boys) when you will never run out of books with happy endings? Who cares if one has two children under age 3 and a full time job that includes lots of travel and decides to get divorced—there is always something good to read! (Maybe self-help books would be in order.) I had and have feminine old fashioned taste in books. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Daphne DuMurier, Georgette Heyer, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell. I know for a fact I was the only student at the University of Pennsylvania law school whiling away the exam period reading the entire works of Anthony Trollope while on the bus to exercise class. By the way, it helped. I never skipped studying or ceased writing detailed outlines of my courses in impeccable calligraphy (learned here at Williston in 1974), but I spent an equal number of hours escaping harsh, boring, and unromantic reality into books. My reading has evolved over time and now I listen to audiobooks while doing just about everything—laundry, driving, needlepoint, walking, running, walking the dogs, rowing, bicycling, grocery shopping, waiting for trains, waiting for planes, watching children’s sporting. Reading saved my life and I think it could at least improve yours.  And if you don’t have a life, it can be a wonderful substitute!
  4. Aerobic exertion cures many bad things. Along with my record player and Joni Mitchell albums, I arrived at Williston in 1973 with my 10-speed bike. I think the term “10 speed” was a product of the 1970s also. My current bike has dozens of gears and is vastly easier, but the same idea. Some things never change, like not being able to change a tire in the 70s and not being able to change a tire now! I was miserably homesick for the first month or so at boarding school. It was inexplicable to me. I hated my home, hated my parents, hated my siblings, hated my old school, yet I was terribly homesick. Mostly for my dog I think. But my bike was there for me. I lived in a house on the edge of campus with a roommate from Mill Valley California (a place of which I had never heard and never wanted to hear about again afterwards). To escape school and my loathsome roommate, I rode my bike. Long distances. I rode to Northampton and rode to Amherst and took long aimless rides. I explored the hippie stores in those towns and the country roads. I sang and rode. I daydreamed. So what is the moral of this self-indulgent story? I never participated in organized team sports—just never wanted to. But we learned in the 70s and 80s that physical exertion releases endorphins, undefinable things that make you feel good but are not drugs or alcohol. That theory has probably been roundly debunked a million times over, but the general life lesson for those prone to depression or sadness or anxiety or boredom or fear or self-loathing or alcoholism or drug addiction is that physical exertion will make it better. Jim Fixx. Another icon of the 1970s. He wrote this book called The Complete Book of Running. It was a completely new idea that ordinary people could run long distances and it would be good for them. Before that, only crazy people who wanted to run in the Olympics would run. I bought the book and began to run in 1978. I ran and ran and ran and ran. I ran about 10 marathons, dozens of half marathons, many country roads and city streets in unknown boring towns in the Midwest during horrible business trips, over the course of 35 years until my knee gave out. But at least it was just my knee. Jim Fixx – the father of running – dropped dead of a heart attack at age 52! I read another book called Long Slow Distance, which argued that mental illness and addiction and many other ills could be cured by running long and slow. Since I was a long slow runner and I knew it cured my insomnia, improved my anxiety, helped me over alcoholism and improved just about everything, I decided this was correct. That leads to another point.
  5. Drugs and Alcohol – or Inhibitions Are Good. Unfortunately for me and tragically for many others, the 70s were experienced through, a haze of drugs and alcohol, and with very little supervision, filled with unbridled risk-taking activities leaving me in shock and awe that I survived. Remember that it wasn’t the 60s, where people protested and believed in causes and seemed to want a better world. Vietnam was over and in the past. It was just experimentation and risk. Fortunately for parents, brain science has progressed and now we know why adolescents act in the stupid-idiot ways they do. Their brains are underdeveloped and cannot send the correct signals. Teenagers require rules and framework not just because we adults are annoying (but of course we are) but because taking ridiculous risks causes death and injury and disease and can ruin your future. The world is so much harsher now and does not forgive. It certainly does not forget, even if you get straight As, great SAT scores and are a three-sport varsity athlete. Ok, so that is my parental speech. I do not drink or take drugs now. I gave up drugs long long ago and I stopped drinking alcohol in 1992 after I had my first child. I realized I could not do “life” and have children and dogs and a job and drink too. I have no moderation in me, about anything.  I never wanted to wake up again not remembering exactly what happened the night before. I wanted to be the same lame, fallible, ridiculous and flawed human that I am every hour of every day.  For me it is all or nothing. I thank God that I was able to change and move on. I hope you all have more maturity than we had in the 70s (you certainly cannot have less) and I know you have more information than we had. We didn’t even have the Internet for God’s sake. How did we find anything out???
  6. Consider the different paths your life can take—not just one. Now we are all best friends and you know everything about me. You know that I took a linear, determined path in life. I did not realize or consider that there were different paths or other options. We didn’t have the Internet and people just never went to Machu Pichu, or hiked the Appalachian Trail or took a gap year. We didn’t even know these things existed! I thought you had to do one thing FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER and it had to be for money. I was so busy doing what I thought I should do, I didn’t consider what I wanted to do.  Part of my problem is I suffer from a condition my husband and I call Attention Surplus Disorder. Once I am doing something, I have superhuman sustained concentration to the exclusion of all else. (The funny thing is many persons in my family seem to have Attention Deficit Disorder, including our dogs and parrot—I got all the concentration.) So for me, starting in the 70s I just worked and worked and worked and it wasn’t until I was 50 that I figured out what was really important to me. My family, including my husband, three children, two dogs, and yes even the parrot, spending less time at work and more time exercising, needle pointing, gardening, and living in a house on this tiny island in Maine, Little Deer Isle, that looks out onto Penobscot Bay and the sunset. I am as happy as nature permits me to be (but super annoyed by so many things anyway!)

It took me a long time to find this level of happiness, perhaps longer because I am so single minded. There are, of course, many paths. There is travel when you are young, writing books, being a full-time mom or dad, taking care of your parents, working with underserved populations in foreign countries, taking a chance with Teach for America and so many other possibilities. Life is long and you can change careers and change your life and be a different person in each decade. You can take risks with new careers or years off or just decide that money and success are not important. Happiness comes in so many flavors. I envy you your unbounded futures. It will be great. I wish you all the best of luck and I hope we meet again someday. I will be the one singing Joni Mitchell songs.