Commencement Orators Look Back
Commencement morning dawns. In Cambridge and its environs, expectancy and relief, wistfulness and joy tug on many hearts. The myriad threads of 7,000 Harvardians’ experiences are about to be woven into a grand tapestry of celebration and praise, of conclusion and sendoff.
As black robes emerge from closets and champagne glasses are drained in house dining halls, final preparations are taking place in Harvard Yard. For some, like the commencement director, Grace Scheibner ’90, these are the culminating moments of the past 12 months’ work. Most of the parents lining up at the gates, most of the students converging on the Yard, will never know her, but Grace has spent the past year corresponding, coordinating, and cross-checking so that everything will run smoothly and pleasantly today.
As Grace shepherds honorands to their seats on the stage, we three orators snatch our last pre-performance moments at the microphone and retreat to Boylston Hall with our coaches, Richard J. Tarrant and Rebekah Maggor, to await the procession into the Yard. For us, too, this day has been long in the making. Months ago, the first glimmerings of an oration idea appeared on the horizon. The ensuing intensity of composition, revision, submission, and multiple deliveries before the judges ended in a congratulatory e-mail; little did we know what a journey was about to begin.
Our first meeting took place in the Bok Center on the third floor of the Science Center. For Chiamaka, a veteran of Rebekah’s public speaking class, it was familiar ground, and she excitedly anticipated the new techniques she would learn. Jimmy and Mary Anne feigned composure as Rebekah proposed beginning with jumping jacks and several thoroughly embarrassing vocal exercises. Jimmy later declared that, in all his career as a professional stand-up comic he had never before prepared for a gig with calisthenics and a verbal shot-put, attempting to “throw his voice” out the window, across the Yard, and into a steeple window with a decrescendo of “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, laaaaaa!”
As the weeks passed, we three musketeers and our two mentors formed a strong bond. When impromptu practice sessions found their way into our evenings, Rebekah’s little daughter Raya joined us; sometimes bashful, sometimes gregarious, she was always a most welcome audience member. Together, we applauded each orator’s moment of unmooring from the printed text and cheered to see the speeches’ gestures and inflections take shape. Professor Tarrant and Rebekah attentively watched delivery after delivery, providing observations and advice on the spot and by e-mail between practices.
Self-consciousness had to be brushed aside as we prepared to entertain and enlighten an audience of 30,000. Mary Anne rehearsed anywhere and everywhere she could, several times co-opting groups of unsuspecting friends into listening. On a brief trip to Florida, she commandeered an empty glassed-in waiting area in the airport as a practice room and returned smiles for the inquiring glances of passersby. On her third run-through, however, she almost ground to a halt mid-gesticulation as she heard the announcement, “If you see any suspicious package or activity, do not keep it to yourself...”
Jimmy returned to his roots, practicing at the Comedy Studio above the Hong Kong Restaurant, in the Passim Folk Club in Harvard Square, and at 1:30 a.m. in the morning as the last act of the open mic night at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square. With several patrons in the late stages of intoxication and one heckling from the bar, Jimmy implored the five remaining conscious people to “pretend that we are all graduating from Harvard this coming Thursday and that I am one of the commencement speakers.” He then launched into, “I’m truly honored to be here,” and, remembering the instructions of his two mentors, proceeded to “throw his voice” over the heads of the inebriates, past the slurring heckler, and beyond the band members-turned-Harvard graduates to the back wall of Bud Light mirrors and restrooms. As his voice echoed through the bar room, he felt instinctively for the first time that the speech was finally ready: those intoxicated appeared to be contemplating sobriety, the heckler had been stilled, and the band had turned their thoughts to academia.
All this to say: when you watch the orators ascend the steps to the microphone on commencement day, know that behind each word and each gesture are a multitude of stories and a plenitude of generous people whose efforts have made the occasion possible. As we descended the steps, mission accomplished, the gratitude swelling our hearts found expression in the hymn that followed, set to the stirring music of Gustav T. Holst: “For this place and for these people, we give you thanks, O God.”
Jimmy Tingle MPA ‘10, Chiamaka Nwakeze ’10, and Mary Anne Marks ’10 were all orators at the 2010 Commencement ceremony.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: SEPTEMBER 16, 2010
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the Sept. 2 article “Commencement Orators Look Back” incorrectly listed Grace Scheibner as a member of the Class of 1969. In fact, she is a member of the Class of 1990. The Crimson regrets the error.