Goodwin Commencement Prize winner Jared Littlejohn ’15 delivered the address “Lost & Found” at Bowdoin’s 210th Commencement ceremony, held Saturday, May 23, 2015.
President Mills, Members of the College, and Guests,
Good Afternoon, everyone. It is an honor to stand before all of you on this momentous day. It seems unbelievable that we are no longer students at Bowdoin, but I start work in one week, and *looks at watches* I’m pretty sure we’ve been locked out of our dorms, so things have become quite believable. However, up until about three weeks ago, I was genuinely okay with this. I had spent the last four years somehow fitting in as the kid who said hello to literally anything that moved on campus, and the thought of graduation made me realize: What if people hate me when I leave here? What If my happiness is perceived as disingenuous, and I spend each day trying to fit in at club tennis? Or what if I become Toby from the office? I was stressed, but then I did some thinking, and if you’ve had any of the anxieties I’ve shared, hopefully my words will provide you with some piece of mind.
In my Sociology class here at Bowdoin, we learned about W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of “Double Consciousness.” Du Bois states that, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This theory is meant to explain the divide between Blacks and Whites, but as we leave this “Bowdoin Bubble,” I believe this theory explains something much deeper in all of us. Whether it’s family, friends, or love interests, we all see ourselves through the eyes of those around us. As much as some might vehemently deny it, everyone wants to fit in and to be accepted; therefore we often value ourselves through the eyes of other people.
There is something so scary about being alone, and being misunderstood, that sometimes a part of you gets lost as you try to fit in. As scary as it may be, you are entering into a world full of people who may be less caring, and less understanding of who you are. However, beware of changing yourself so that they accept you. Virginia Woolf once called “the eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages,” because more often than not, people are usually looking for ways to drag you down in order to be better. You cannot thrive with the limitations others put on you, because if you allow them to tell you that you cannot, or that you are not good enough, you believe it too, leaving you are trapped within their criticisms. As we set out to start fresh and grow, know that it is okay if you don’t become everyone’s friend at work. In the infamous words of Eleanor Moore, my grandmother, “Not everyone is going to like you.” If you have to alter who you are to befriend someone, they aren’t your real friend. It’s not worth it. It seems to me that the people you want in your lives gravitate towards you. They recognize you. This won’t be possible if you change yourself to please everyone.
As you could tell by my introduction, I’ve begun reminiscing on life in the workforce, causing me to reminisce on my first workplace experience. I was miserable. During the summer of my sophomore year in high school, I began working as an assistant teacher at a summer camp in Newark, N.J. Many of my co-workers had been a part of this program for years, either as students or teachers, so I was the outsider and I had to shoehorn my way in. I introduced myself with the typical Littlejohn “How are you?” and worked my way from there, but after a few minutes, I felt a shift in the conversation. A few of my co-workers began peppering me with questions like “Why are you smiling so much?”,“Why are you so happy?” and ,“Is there something wrong with you?” All of a sudden I began questioning myself. Why was I doing all of these things? It was something I had not noticed before, and all of a sudden I felt like this weird, lost outcast who needed his behavior checked. Even my students ridiculed me for smiling so much. For the next three summers that I worked at this job, I did my best to stifle my laughter, suppress my smiling, and avoid looking happy all the time. I wanted to be accepted and respected, and I wanted everyone to like me, so this was the best way to fit in. For three years, I lost myself.
I usually try not to let my emotions slip too much, but one day I got home from work looking particularly distraught, and (as usual), my mom read me like a children’s book. I explained that a few of the people on staff were commenting on pictures of me on vacation. No reason in particular, just them wanting to look for ways to belittle me. After sitting down with my parents and my grandmother, I was able to walk away with some of the greatest advice possible: Do not let people define who you are as a person. I was spending all of my time at work letting others control my happiness because I wanted to be accepted, and it had to stop. I internalized this advice and for the first time in three years, I felt whole again. I went back to work and finished out the rest of the summer with booming laughter and a smile on my face, and of course there were comments. Whatever, I can’t live my life unhappy. After three years, I found myself again. It’s simple: I am a nonconformist when it comes to being happy. I smile a lot. I smile at stranger, and I hug people that I know… or pretty much everybody, given half a chance. This is who I am, and I had to accept that. I encourage all of your to think a bit about who you are, and bring that true self with you into your new jobs and new lives.
I hope that none of you spend any time whatsoever hiding whatever makes you you in order to fit in with new friends or with others in your new jobs. Since 2011, we’ve spent four years at Bowdoin trying to navigate through failures, learn from our mistakes, and figure ourselves out. Why throw all of this progress away? Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” so as we all make the next step in our lives, remember that we have the ability to dictate whether people can make us feel inadequate. Bowdoin has allowed us to be whatever we want to be, whoever we are, and that does not have to change once we leave here.
The moment that inspired this speech arrived during the last day of that summer program. It was time to say goodbye to my students, and one of them came up to me with her arms wide open as she broke down crying. This student always commented on me being goofy, and smiling too much, so I didn’t think much of the hug. But as she stepped back she began to thank me for the wonderful summer. She said she appreciated that I was goofy because she was goofy, and she loved that I always smiled. Since she was graduating from the program, she asked if she could refer to me as her older brother: I was caught off guard. For six weeks, I had spent every day trying not to be myself. I had no clue this student just wanted me to be me.
So now, as I put myself in the shoes of that student, I just want all of you to keep being you. I’ve had the honor of getting to know some of the greatest, most talented people on the planet here at Bowdoin, and there’s just no way people outside of this college should miss out on that. There are people in this audience who mean the world to me, and I bet they have no clue how much I care. You all will leave this campus, and you might not have a single clue who you are impacting, but you all are going to affect a lot of people just because they love you for you. Look around you. Whether it’s friends, family, faculty, staff, or students, at least one person here thinks that—just the way you are—you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Hold onto that. Do not spend a day trying to conform, because it may turn into weeks, then months, then years. Be as weird as you want to be, cry if you want to, dance if you want to, sing if you want, laugh if you want to, smile if you want to, and frown whenever you please. As my Grandma Moore says “if you have to change who you are in order for people to like you, to heck with them.” And now, Class of 2015, I would like to give you one last hug!