With an acclaimed poet delivering their Commencement address, the Class of 2016—the largest ever to graduate from Sidwell Friends—had the pleasure of basking in beautiful words and sentiments that complemented a spring day that was even lovelier than forecasted. (See photos and read the complete Commencement address.)
Elizabeth Alexander ’80, the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University who delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, offered “a basket of graduation wisdom” to the young men and women before they received their diplomas from Head of School Bryan Garman. Her advice ranged from the prosaic (“There should always be salad with dinner”) to the potent disguised as prosaic (“Share half of your sandwich because you always have enough, and never hoard resources of any kind”) to the straight-up powerful (“Always keep people older than you and younger than you in your intimate life. Therein lies wisdom, therein lies joy.”) She went on to speak of love and of dreams by stitching together reflections on Zora Neal Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God and life-changing lessons learned from her cherished, and groundbreaking, late grandmother.
The honor of introducing Elizabeth belonged to Board of Trustees Clerk Margaret Plank. She first congratulated the almost-alumni as well as their family members, teachers, coaches, and advisors, all of whom were devoted to helping the graduates throughout their formative years.
Elizabeth “once descended the stairs of Zartman House to sit where you now sit,” Margaret said. “I imagine that on that day, she was feeling much of what you now feel—pride in what she had accomplished, excitement over what was to come next, gratitude toward her teachers, and deep, deep love for her family and friends. And maybe, just maybe, a little apprehension, reflecting a sentiment she later articulated in a poem [“Praise Song”] for which she received some renown—that finding our way through life requires us bravely to ‘walk into that which we cannot yet see.’”
Elizabeth remembers other feelings as well. “When I sat where you sit,” she said, “what did I know? I knew most powerfully I wanted the world, and I wanted love.”
She went on to achieve large measures of both.
After leaving Sidwell Friends in 1980, Elizabeth earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, a master’s degree from Boston University, and a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Her distinguished career has included periods teaching undergraduates at the University of Chicago, teaching in the graduate creative writing program at NYU, and serving as the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet in Residence and Director of the Poetry Center at Smith College. She spent 15 years as a member of the faculty of Yale University, where she chaired the African-American Studies Department. Along the way, she has received many awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry and the inaugural Jackson Poetry Prize. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 2015, the Ford Foundation appointed her as Director of Creativity and Free Expression. In that role, she shapes and directs the Foundation’s grant programs on arts, media, and culture.
She is the author of six books of poetry, including American Sublime, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Elizabeth is also an essayist and the author of a deeply moving memoir of love and loss called The Light of the World.
Concluding her message, Elizabeth exhorted the Class of 2016 to “let love push you out into this fascinating world beyond what you know and where you are comfortable. Let love be a teacher. . . . Let love change you. And when you have it, share it.”
For more about her work, visit elizabethalexander.net.