Gifts from our teachers

An address to the graduates of 2021.

Peter Salovey ’86PhD is the president of Yale University. This speech was delivered online, with very slight variation, both to Yale College graduates and to the graduates of Yale’s 13 graduate and professional schools. Videos of each address, as well as songs, scenes of the graduations, and more, are at https://yale2021.yale.edu.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

President Peter Salovey ’86PhD celebrated Yale’s graduates for making it to the end of a year “like no other.” View full image

Graduates of the Class of 2021, family members, and friends: it is a privilege to speak with you as part of this remarkable moment.

You are probably feeling many emotions right now. I often tell graduates that commencement is a “field day” for me as a psychologist, and that has never been more true. For over a year, we have walked a strange and historic path together.

We are now at the end of an academic year like no other. But although our traditions may look different this year, they are just as meaningful as ever.

Commencement is a time of celebration. It is a chance for you, our graduates, to revel in your accomplishments. It is also an opportunity to reflect and say thank you. So many people have been part of your journey to this moment. I hope you will find time to tell them how much they have meant to you.

I also would like to say thank you—to you. You have studied and learned and made a community here under extraordinary conditions; others have studied remotely from around the world. Day after day for more than a year, you have made sacrifices for the greater good, helping keep our neighbors on campus and in New Haven safe. It has not been easy. Like people around the world, you have experienced loss, grief, and uncertainty. And yet, you have repaid our community’s trust and confidence in you many times over.

Today, as we look to the future, I would like to share a personal story about my past and my present. I share it because I hope it will shed some light on your future. It is a story about teachers and the gifts they give us.

In the early 1970s, I was a student at Williamsville High School North, outside of Buffalo, New York. It was a pretty typical large public high school; we had a popular football team and a marching band that played at the games. Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that I did not play on the football team, but I did march with the band! Now, you might wonder how I fit into a school like this; I actually earned a varsity letter—for the drama club.

I was part of another student organization as well: a poetry club hosted by two beloved English teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Blaisdell. A group of us would go to their home and share poems we had written or come across. We drank coffee; we talked about poetry. It was all very grown-up, especially for kids like us from Buffalo. Our teachers were only in their 20s, perhaps early 30s, but they were sophisticated adults and therefore seemed much older to us. They cared deeply about literature, writing, and poetry, but most of all, they cared about us, their students. (In fact, I am not the only student of the Blaisdells on the faculty here at Yale: they taught English to Chemistry Professor Scott Miller about a decade after me.)

Fast forward 46 years. The kids from that poetry club now have families and careers of their own. We have stayed in touch, but usually we only see each other every few years, at best. As a way of coping with the social isolation of the pandemic, we started meeting over Zoom. We shared poems; we drank coffee together again. Our former English teachers from Williamsville North—now retired—joined us! And we found, in the midst of so much grief and loneliness, a way to connect.

What does this mean for you, the graduates of 2021? First, my hope for each of you is that you have made a friend here at Yale, perhaps a few friends, who will be there for you in 46 years. That is no small thing.

Second, I hope you have found great teachers and developed interests that you will take with you for the rest of your lives. I don’t mean only your professional interests. Many of you, without question, have found important mentors who will continue to advise and guide you. But you have also found interests at Yale that have nothing to do with your careers.

For me, it was poetry, theater, and music, but for you, it may have been an economics class or history seminar that made you reexamine the world. It might have been a certain psychology class that helped you think about happiness in new ways. Or maybe you heard a lecture or attended an event that sparked an interest in the outdoors, or food, or dance. These moments of inspiration and learning can happen anywhere. We now know they can even happen on Zoom.

My friends from Williamsville North have gone into music, science, medicine, law, and theater. I am a psychology professor and university leader. My point is, none of us are professional poets, and yet our experiences in the poetry club were transformative.  

From wonderful teachers, I learned how to ask different questions, bigger questions. In high school, I was always trying to figure out what a poem was “about”; I wanted to unlock the secret meaning. But Mr. Blaisdell would tell me, “Peter, what the poem is about is not always the most interesting question.” He encouraged me to appreciate beauty and occasionally put aside analysis; he pushed me to use different parts of my mind and my emotions. Beyond poetry, my teachers inspired in me and my friends a deep and joyful love of learning. They introduced us to interests that made our lives richer and more rewarding.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing the poet Louise Glück, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature. Professor Glück has taught at Yale since 2004. She told me she thinks of teaching as a way of repaying her debts: “You can’t thank your teachers,” she said, “except by performing as they did for another generation.”

Soon, you will leave Yale and contribute to every field and profession, as generations of alumni have before you. You will leave here with gifts from your teachers—from Yale professors and from others throughout your lives. And, as Professor Glück says, you can repay your teachers by helping others discover the world.

Over the past year, we have learned so much about ourselves and about what we are capable of. And we have been reminded, again and again, that we must keep learning. There will always be new challenges to tackle, unexpected problems to solve. We will have to pivot and adapt. And if we love learning, if we are curious about the world and the people in it, then that task will be so much easier and more fulfilling.

What will you do with the gifts you have been given? What gifts will you give to the world? I think of Emi Mahmoud, a 2016 graduate of Yale College. Born in Darfur, Sudan, Emi won the International World Poetry Slam Championship, was honored by the BBC, and met with President Obama—all while still a student at Yale. Emi’s poems often deal with her experiences of war and displacement. Today, as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, she advocates for peace and human rights, particularly the rights of children. She is sharing her gifts with the world in a very powerful way.

In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, the sportswriter Mitch Albom describes reconnecting with his former professor, Morrie Schwartz. The elderly Morrie is suffering with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease. The book is an extended reflection on life and death, but it is also about the relationship between a student and his teacher.
At the end, Albom says, “Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back.” 1

I hope you find your way back—back to your teachers and back to Yale. I hope you will return to campus and walk down Chapel Street, and enjoy the sunshine, or the snow, on Old Campus or Science Hill. And I hope you will find ways of sharing the joy of discovery with others. I hope you share your curiosity with a world that needs questions as much as answers; that needs “light and truth” more than ever.

I usually conclude my addresses on Commencement Weekend with a few words of verse. Over the years, I have read from Rabindranath Tagore, Elizabeth Alexander [’84], Billy Collins, Marie Borroff [’56PhD], and Claudia Rankine. But most often, I have turned to the words of John Milton from Paradise Lost. You know, those verses about leaving the Garden of Eden “with wandering steps, and slow” and making one’s way into a world that is “all before” you? There are moments when those lines move me to tears. In this challenging year, paradise does not seem the right metaphor for our beloved campus. But I look ahead with great optimism, and I trust you do too. So perhaps these words of Emily Dickinson seem more appropriate at this moment:2

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

Graduates of the Class of 2021: you are ready to face the future with optimism and determination; you are ready to repay the gifts your teachers have given you and share the joy of discovery with others. You go with our best wishes and our admiration. Congratulations, and good luck!  

1 Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (New York: Broadway Book, 1997).
2 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314

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