Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Preamble of Sorts

Amherst College > Vista, New York > Bamako > Tubaniso

Having received my college degree from Amherst College – the illustrious piece of sheepskin which Western civilization deems to be the beginning of my life as an adult member of the work force, this particular homo sapiens had little doubt as to where he was destined. With graduation, it was time for this boy to leave the cozy little gardens of my suburban upbringing and my private fancypants liberal arts school, to put down those books and to finally do something in the world to demonstrate my manhood... so that I could be a great big manly man with a deep booming voice... like Tony Marx.

Before handing to me that illustrious sheepskin, Tony Marx boomed with his stentorian voice “We’re in the business of graduating people who will make the world better in some way… That’s what justifies the expense of the education.”

Marx’s words were nothing truly original, but merely a paraphrasing of the long, great tradition of Massachusetts liberalism which John F. Kennedy espoused on the other side of the freshmen quad 45 years prior. When the great intellectual president came to dedicate our new library named after his favorite poet, he made it clear that this federal book depository was not being constructed “merely to give this school's graduates an advantage, an economic advantage, in the life struggle. It does do that. But in return for that, in return for the great opportunity which society gives the graduates of this and related schools, it seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools' graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest.”

Before the advent of Pell grants and affirmative action, when Amherst College was much more explicitly a playground for rich white men, “Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility ... And unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life--unless they are willing to put back into our society, those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion--unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.

Just as I was graduating, a short drive away to Wesleyan’s campus future President Barack Obama gave my entire generation a stark choice; “You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s… But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt. ’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.”

I think there’s a law some where that says that every college commencement speech, and of course everything ever uttered from the mouth of a Kennedy family member is supposed to culminate in a call to arms to fight for democracy, freedom and the American way. And you know what – I fall for that schmaltz hook, line and sinker. I’m such a sentimentalist, in fact, that I decided to sign up for the Peace Corps!

So... joining the Peace Corps has been a long, arduous process which I have been doing for more than a year (and it won't be over until I officially swear in September insh'allah). This is no mere entry-level job. Asides from the innumerable essays and interviews, I have had to demonstrate myself to be medically, psychologically and dentally - yes, dentally - fit to work overseas on behalf of the United States government. I have had every tooth X-rayed, every orifice thoroughly examined, and I have even had to spend an interesting afternoon in the Harlem NYPD precinct office to get fingerprinted so that the F.B.I. could investigate my record.

And last February I received a package in the mail which has made my greatest dream come true, inviting me to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali. The first thing I did was look at my map of the world on my dormroom wall. I saw that it was a big landlocked country split between the Sahara Desert and the more humid Sahel, that it was colored green for some bizarre reason, and that it looked awesome. They wanted me to be a Water Sanitation Extension Agent, which would entail the digging of wells, construction of water pumps, soak pits and irrigation systems. I called my recruiter back and gave her a very enthusiastic "Yes, m'am!"

(... continued on next post)

No comments: