Adriel Barrios-Anderson: 'Silent Lessons'

Adriel Barrios-Anderson, one of two graduating seniors chosen as orators for the 249th Commencement, delivered an address titled "Silent Lessons" on the College Green on Sunday, May 28.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — “Why do you love music?” That was the question posed by one of my Brown music professors on the first day of class. He asked us to tell him in one word. As a musician, I laughed to myself thinking, “That’s an impossible question to answer.”

While the question lingered, my professor began to play a recording of Beethoven’s "Fifth Symphony." You know, the one that goes “Ba Ba Ba Bummm. Ba Ba Ba Bumm." After that phrase, he paused the recording and asked, “Can’t you hear it? Not the Ba Ba Ba Bum, Ba Ba Ba Bum, but the part in between?” He was talking about the pause, the rest in the music, arguing that it was not the booming unison in the orchestra, but rather the collective silence that was most breathtaking. He thought the one-word, silence, captured what gave the music shape and character.

If silence can be so impactful in music, what kind of impact can it have in our lives and our society?

VIDEO: Adriel Barrios-Anderson: "Silent Lessons"

Before coming to Brown, I thought of silence as absence, something to be skipped over and forgotten. Take, for instance, silence in a conversation. We usually try to forget those uncomfortable moments when someone says something but for a moment you don’t have anything to say, and they don’t say anything either. That exchange can be a little uncomfortable. Because even without words, we are still communicating. If we take the time to listen carefully, we may find that the apparent silences are filled with obscured or forgotten experiences that have not yet been given words. It is those silent, powerful moments, the in-between parts, of my experiences at Brown that I most want to share with you today. Because while our proudest achievements — like that of today with all its pomp and circumstance — will persist in our memory, the quieter moments we had at Brown may fade if not voiced.

At Brown, I came to learn how instructive silence can be while completing a class project a few blocks from here on Angell Street. Across from me sat a woman who had suffered a terrible loss: Her child had died of cancer. Over the course of an interview, the woman shared with me her child’s feelings and experiences before his death, but notably at first, did not discuss her own experience of grief as a parent. Preparing for the interview, I had come to learn that often individuals do not feel that they can grieve out loud. So, when I asked the woman about her feelings, what had previously been a free-flowing conversation came to halt. My stomach tightened as the woman looked at me and tears began to fill her eyes. The seconds felt like hours as I waited for her reply. When she finally could speak, she said, “You never get over [the loss of a child].”

Her words, captured in the transcription of the interview, were telling. But it was the gripping moments of our silent exchange that truly communicated the enduring nature of her grief. Yet the important message in this powerful moment would leave no trace but a small gap in the audio recording. I realized later that she taught me an important lesson sitting in those seconds of silence. Without ever proclaiming it in a lecture, she gave me a master class in empathy and a reminder to wait and listen carefully to what is not spoken.

So much is left out of our everyday conversations, but that silence is filled with significance.

Hidden in our stories are silences that critically shape our experiences and — like in music — can influence our character. For instance, after only months of being on this campus, many of us cannot help but reflect on our own stories. It wasn’t until coming to Brown that I began to contemplate the important facets of my story that go unsaid at first acquaintance.

See, when you meet me, you might not hear in my accent that I am the son of Panamanian immigrants. My father, at the age of 17, left his home and family with a one-way ticket to participate in this American dream. I find that seldom voiced is the tenacity and wisdom found in the stories of immigrants of color.

See, when you meet me, you might not see that I stand tall only because I stand on the shoulders of giants like my great-grandmother: A tailor who through delicate care composed and weaved a path for her great-grandchild stretching from Ciudad de Colón to Providence, Rhode Island. When you meet me, you may sense confidence in my speech, but you cannot smell the delicious arróz con pollo at my mother’s dinner table around which I gained my voice. Mom and Dad, you instilled in me the confidence to speak here, a long way from our dinner table conversations.

This is some of my often silent history, and I share it because each of us carries our own. Since we first arrived, Brown has challenged us with the task of seeking out the unspoken so that we may gain new perspectives that uplift and empower. And we owe it to ourselves to continue to recognize and share the value in what goes unsaid, especially in times when rhetoric aims to silence voices or discourages seeking the unknown. We must hold ever true to our commitment to seeking and if necessary defending the silent because sometimes, as Nobel Laureate Nelly Sachs reminds us, “Silence is where victims dwell.”

One of the most noble and worthwhile aims of scholarship is to uncover the unknown: those silent phenomena that pervade our world. Brown has encouraged us to seek lessons in silence: To ask questions, challenge assumptions and broaden our perspectives with the hope that in so doing we can build a more just and healthful world. A common refrain amongst students at Brown is, “I barely know anything.” What a remarkably refreshing phrase to hear on an Ivy League campus, right? Now, don’t worry parents. We have indeed learned many things. In fact, it is because we’ve had the privilege to study at the edge of our disciplines that we can peer over to the hidden places where innovation lies. See, Brown prepares us with the foundational principles of a discipline so that we can attend to the unanswered questions in the field. In neuroscience, for instance, many of our professors insist on teaching us how to study the brain and think “like scientists.” We interrogate the silent and undiscovered, rather than just memorize what is known. And we have all come to see in our respective studies that the questions far outnumber the answers. Yet, from the mysterious role of glial cells in the brain to the veiled histories of marginalized peoples, I have seen Brown students dive head first into the unknown. Seeking the stories hidden in between the cracks and casting a light on narratives rendered invisible.

So, when we leave and people ask, “What was it like at Brown?” we can say this was the genesis of our first paper publication, the springboard for our startup company or our ticket to travel the world. But, that is not all that it was. Here, we learned during every moment. Because even in quieter moments when we comforted friends, sat alone in libraries, or watched the blizzards of 2015 — hot cocoa in hand — we grew.

Often, Brown students are described as lifelong learners because we know that scholarship is not reserved for the classroom but is a daily practice that can improve our lives and the world. Some of the most important lessons are shrouded in silence and getting at them requires speaking their language by taking time to be silent ourselves. As we go out today into the chaotic world, remember to pay attention to the gaps in recordings. Let us “listen,” as Kerouac suggests, “to the silence inside the illusion of the world.” Let’s listen because in those hidden spaces lie the tools for us — especially the Class of 2017 — to orchestrate a more beautiful, and brilliant tomorrow. Thank you.