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Writing the Speech: The First Post-Merger Graduation

May 20, 2011

In the spring of 1978, I was in Paris for my junior year abroad. From a distance, the proposed merger on the Hill that I’d heard about didn’t hold a lot of significance.

The significance struck me once I was back on campus. I saw it in the faces and postures of my Kirkland professors. It was a done deal by then, and I felt a kind of institutional devaluing of all things Kirkland, including those of us who had enrolled there in 1975 and 1976.

But it was the mood of my professors that affected me most. These were people – Carol Rupprecht, Sybille Colby (who got out of there before I even got back from Europe), David Miller, Steve Lipmann, Nancy Rabinowitz, and my beloved advisor, George Bahlke – for whom I had deep respect and affection. How could these intellectual giants have been rendered powerless and voiceless?

I’m a Leo – someone who loves the spotlight, so it was no great valor that motivated me to “try out” for the opportunity to deliver the speech at the first co-ed Hamilton graduation. I wish I could say that I was the valedictorian, but I was simply the beneficiary of some kind of vote in my favor. A number of students gathered to go before a committee made up of teachers and students, seven in all. Richard Lee and I were elected to speak.

Getting the job was the smallest of hurdles. Soon after I was chosen, a Hamilton speech professor summoned me to his office so he could “help” me with the speech. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t completely trust Hamilton professors whom I didn’t know. (Whether accurate or not, a prevailing feeling among Kirkland students was that Hamilton professors counted us as unworthy to be Hamilton students.) The professor was condescending, and I was inarticulate. I remember him asking me if I had read Thales and then scoffing when I said I hadn’t. By the end of my session with him, I felt bullied and demoralized. I didn’t cry in front of him, but I cried afterwards. I went to my friend Mindy Wagner, and I think she suggested I go talk to the Rabinowitzes.

In their kitchen, Peter said to me, “Well, don’t talk to him anymore.” “Can I do that?” I asked. It felt so chicken-shitty and cowardly to avoid him. Peter said something like – if someone violates you, you don’t have to give him your valuable time or courtesy. His message was “Stay away from the guy. He’s bad for you, and you don’t owe him or anyone an explanation.”

It was advice that was important for the moment, but it was a turning point in my thinking. Courage or integrity didn’t always mean that you did the thing that was hard, unselfish, or painful.  I didn’t have to face this guy again just to prove to myself or him that I was . . . brave.

So I didn’t make another appointment with him. I didn’t return his calls. My neighbors in Root answered my phone and said I wasn’t available. Finally, I got a note in my campus mailbox from a different Hamilton speech professor. It was very gracious, conceding that not everyone is always a good match and perhaps I would be willing to work with him, instead. So I agreed to rehearse my speech with him – in the chapel, with Peter Rabinowitz in attendance. The professor-by-proxy was satisfied, if not ecstatic, about my performance, and I was approved as a speaker for the graduation ceremony.

During that week between being chosen to speak and the commencement, President Martin Caravano’s assistant approached me and asked me not to be “divisive.” I’ll always remember that she pronounced it di VIZ ive, not di VICE ive (and I ended up pronouncing the word that way in my speech and always regretted it — it was phony coming from me.)

Others also expressed concern that I not wreck the ceremony with some kind of angry, anti-Hamilton speech. One so-called friend reported that a senior girl had said, “Oh, I hope she [me] doesn’t whine!” Yet many people were supportive. Carol Rupprecht said something like, “When Angela Davis was being harassed by the FBI, she said something like, ‘I’m just this little woman. What’s everyone so afraid of?’ You’re this nice, little WASPy girl, Jan. What’s everyone so afraid of?”

As much as I wanted to make it an anti-Hamilton speech, I am a people pleaser, and I didn’t want to make people angry. I needed a purpose, and I decided that I wanted to write the speech for the Kirkland professors – something that would honor them.

I made the speech. I haven’t read it in a while. I’m sure it was self-righteous. I have a little more compassion now for college presidents, CEOs, politicians, school heads, bishops – people who make important decisions. Rarely is it clear who the good guy is and who the bad guy is, and I’ve come to distrust any side that’s represented by vicious rhetoric.

It was a big moment for me, and for my mom who sat through the entire seven minutes of the speech – behind the Carovanos – worried that somebody was going to stand up and yell (at me), “Sit down and shut up!” No one did.

After all, who wants to mess with a Kirkland woman?

By Jan Sidebotham, K’79

Check back soon for the text of Jan’s 1979 speech.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Connie Halporn permalink
    May 20, 2011 12:47 pm

    I can’t wait to read the speech!

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