Commencement 2017

Student Commencement Speaker

Jackson Adams ’17
May 28, 2017

We begin at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 27, 1962, with the USA and USSR on the brink of war, Soviet submarine B-59 gets spotted in the Sargasso Sea. It dives to escape with only six hours of charge left in its batteries. On board, a broken A/C unit means temperatures have been over 110 degrees Fahrenheit for days. Water is rationed. Just one glass per sailor every 24 hours. In the stifling heat, the submarine reeks of diesel fuel and battery acid. (Those of you who lived in Battell freshman year can probably sympathize.) Then, to make matters worse, the American fleet chasing B-59 tries to force it to surface with sonar blasts and practice depth charges.

Thinking they’re under attack, the captain of B-59 orders a torpedo, armed with a nuclear warhead, to be loaded into a torpedo tube. The chief political officer assents to the launch, knowing full well it portends all-out nuclear war. They insert their keys into the firing system and prepare to press the button. Humanity teeters on a precipice.

Then, in a deus ex machina moment, someone arrives just in the nick of time and orders them to halt.

Vasili Arkhipov, the fleet commander, had veto power. By pure dumb luck he had been placed aboard B-59 and not one of the other three subs. Arkhipov, the lone dissenter, facing down an irate captain, coolly insists they surface and surrender.

Only a few hours earlier, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had mused while looking out a window of the White House, “Look. The sun is setting. It might be the last sunset we ever see.” (He had no idea how close that was to coming true.)

I think about this story all the time. What gets me is that Arkhipov, the person who saved the world, wasn’t some sort of stoic demigod. He wrote later that, at the time, he had been gripped with fear. But he saw an opportunity to prevent needless human suffering, and he did not succumb to the hysteria of the moment. Ultimately, he did what was right.

What I see in this story is that greatness does not require preplanning. People are not born to be great, nor must one be a peerless and fearless superhuman to achieve greatness. Greatness requires accepting fear and doubt and isolation, and making the right decision anyway.

This can be depressing at times. Watching the news nowadays I get the sense that great people are few and far between. Powerful public figures are rarely the role models they ought to be.

But all of us can and should achieve greatness in our lifetimes. For better or worse, the world is run by those who show up. And to be great, you just need to be good.

For the record, if you look hard enough, stories of greatness happen all the time. Generally, without shadowy, pensive, Soviet naval commanders as their protagonists.

I volunteered for a day at a small elementary school in Baltimore City during spring break, and I asked the principal, “What are you going to do, given the current administration and budgetary restrictions?”

She said, “I’m not an accountant, but I balanced next year’s budget without letting go of a single educator. After that we’ll see. I’m going to keep showing up and holding this place together just as long as I can.” That, to me, is greatness. Doing what’s right when times are tough.

Like it or not, we will all face decisive moments, Robert Frostian points where two roads diverge. And we will not have the luxury of going back to try the other one. We will face moments when time is short and our energy is low. Times when we feel the world is at war with us, and we are sinking. Suffocating alone under an ocean. But we are (soon to be) Middlebury alumni. We can endure.

Part of what makes a Middlebury education valuable is the fact that our campus can sometimes be a pressure capsule. Four years at Midd has been, in part, an education in navigating the harsh realities of adulthood. We as a student body have confronted hardship, feelings of powerlessness, racism, sexism, homophobia, and mortality. We’ve lost faculty, staff, and family members. Most poignantly, we as a class have lost friends. The absence of Nathan Alexander and Murphy Roberts is stark here at Commencement.

But hardships, alongside moments of joy and exultation, are part of a critical nonacademic education etched into the Middlebury experience.

The College seal on your diplomas today has been around since Middlebury’s founding. On it, you’ll find the college motto: Scientia et virtus. Knowledge and virtue.

For those who make the most of a Middlebury education, half of the learning comes outside of the classroom. There is no textbook on how to be virtuous. Only practical experience. Middlebury, our elite liberal arts institution, was never designed to shelter us from the “real world.”

Your tuition paid for professors, equipment, and educational spaces, but it also paid for despair and ecstasy, triumph and failure. All so that as we stumble down life’s unpredictable path, we’re prepared for those forks in the road.

Scientia et virtus. Knowledge gives us power. Virtue dictates how we wield it.          

In our time, greatness will mean remaining steadfast in the face of ignorance. It will mean not letting the voice of reason be drowned out by those who negate the fundamental principle of human equality.

Middlebury did not just make us smarter (at least, we hope); it made us better people.

If you worked hard here, the diploma you get today entitles you to a seat at the grownups’ table. Middlebury grads become top scientists, authors, artists, executives, lawyers, educators, and so much more.

Know that even though people may not always want to listen, your voice matters.

Your knowledge and your virtue matter. Your decisions will make a difference.

So, as you leave and forge your life around the country and around the world, remember that no matter what troubling times come to pass, you are all capable of doing what’s right.

You are capable of greatness.

Who knows. Maybe one of you will save the world.