Distributed May 27, 2002
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole
2002 Senior Oration: “Finding New Homes”
Following a long-standing tradition, two members of the Class of 2002 delivered Senior Orations during Brown University’s undergraduate Commencement ceremony. Edward Smith, of Washington, D.C., addressed his classmates on the topic “Finding New Homes.” The text of his speech follows here.
When I finish with this ... Speech ... I will have a lot of hugs to give. But I fear my arms are not big enough to hug you all. So I hope to embrace you with words.
I’m going to talk about a fish.
The Atlantic salmon is something of a world traveler. Born in the freshwater streams and tributaries of North America and Northern Europe, in the course of maturing it makes its way out to sea. The amazing thing about the salmon is that after some seven years it returns, guided by the Earth’s magnetic field and an uncanny sense of smell to the very stream of its birth. This process is as regular and as constant as the tides, which carry the scent of home to those finned mariners. Without fail, like Odysseus to Ithaca, the salmon fights upstream to its birthplace. Well almost without fail.
Now I say almost because in some rare cases, despite a sense of smell honed by millions of years of evolution – and an internal compass attuned to the Earth itself, the salmon returns to a different stream than that from which it was spawned. It gets lost, and in the process finds a new home.
It is a beautiful accident. That accident is the topic of my speech: finding new homes. I, like the wayward salmon, have found a new home – only instead of some stream my new home is here at Brown.
Until I came to Brown, I had never lived outside of Washington, D.C. I, the son of two loving parents who struggled everyday to put me through school, have known the sons and daughters of senators, ambassadors, and the progeny of scores of millionaires. And I have known the sons and daughters of inequality, addiction and poverty. Yet the people I have met here have engraved themselves into the records of my life.
Can a salmon calculate the distances it has traveled? Can it conceive the enormity of its odyssey? If it can, it is a more exceptional creature than I. But now that I think about it, a salmon may travel thousands of miles in a lifetime but I have traveled through the hearts of friends, and the people I have come to know here in the narrow passage of four years boggle my mind and leave me dumbfounded that they could fit so much wonder into so little time. Who should envy whom?
I suppose that there is nothing inherently marvelous in these brick buildings or the books they hold, but this place is my home because home transcends reason. After all, how else can you explain the emotions you feel today?
Perhaps the hardest thing about finding a new home is leaving the old one. I’ll never forget the first time I slipped up and referred to Brown as home within earshot of my mother. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year. She asked me one day if I had my gray slacks, and before I could censor my words I responded, “No, I left them at home.” We were both pretty shocked. She said to me “That is not your home. Do they feed you? Do they take care of you when you’re sick?” I thought about the V-dub and Health Services and responded, “Actually they do.” This was the wrong answer, or at least not the answer she wanted to hear. But the truth of the matter is that Brown is my home now, and yet so is a little house at 508 Crittenden St. N.W. Washington, D.C. And today I’m sure she understands.
This salmon will call many places home. Each place is part of who I am, and each has its own familiar smell which calls to me like the fresh water calls the salmon. 508 Crittenden St. smells like oatmeal and Brown hints of salt, clouds pregnant with rain and (if you can imagine) minds pregnant with new ideas.
I want you to understand what this place has been to me.
Through my entire academic career here and now into my life beyond, my friends (whether they be professors or students) have strengthened me, and I love them. No place is home without a family, and here my family is too big for my arms alone to hold. Maybe too big for my words
But I am not unique. Every one of us has family here. Try to hold them though your arms may be too short and your words too few.
We are wayward salmon and the streams we travel now are as rich as the ones we have left behind.
I hope the Greek heroes excuse me for the hubris of my comparison, but what if Odysseus didn’t go back to Ithaca? What if he stayed with Calypso or turned back and sought adventure in different parts of the world? The story would have been different, but no less incredible. Here is my challenge. Reset your compasses or throw them away altogether. We are wayward salmon. Years ago we went out to sea and came here, to a new home. Now we set out again.
At the end of their long journey, the salmon die. But in death they make way for a rebirth, and the journey starts anew. My father used to tell me, “Son. Dead fish go with the flow.” Well, I’m no dead fish and neither are you. Today is a day of rebirth. Fight the current. Get a little lost. And find new streams.
By some trick of magnetism, this place has become my home. My internal compass has been reset, and it points roughly to the main green. Someday it will point somewhere else, but I will always be drawn back to this place, to this smell. As we move through life we will call many places home. Brown is just one such stream. Let yourself be pulled back here sometimes, to smell it and remember.