WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On Williams College's grandest occasion, in front of its biggest crowd and surrounded by the trappings of pomp and circumstance, the student speakers at Sunday morning's commencement exercises focused on the mundane.
The tone was set by Jeffrey Rubel of Dallas, Texas, selected by the members of the class of 2017 as the day's first speaker.
Rubel framed his speech around the metaphor of sea glass.
"When broken glass first falls into the ocean, it has sharp edges," Rubel said. "But it's in the sea, a world of waves, of currents and of sediment transport. And those forces polish that glass, taking it from broken fragment to smoothed section."
So it was for the graduates four years at Williams, where mundane, the routine, the "daily grind," shaped their lives, Rubel argued.
"[R]outines are how we accomplish what matters to us," he said. "Because grand achievements are built on everyday moments. Just ask anyone who's done a thesis or won a sports championship or is graduating Williams today."
"This … This is the power of the ordinary. And, perhaps, it's why it's called the daily grind. Because it's grinding our sea glass's sharp edges, polishing them."
On Sunday, the college dispatched 525 newly minted pieces of "sea glass" from Rubel's metaphorical "little bay in the Berkshires."
Among the group were nine Berkshire County residents: Hinsdale's Ivy Adair Ciaburri, Pittsfield's Megan Katherine Bird (cum laude) and seven graduates from Williamstown itself — Luke Thomas Costley, William M. Kirby, Jackson E. Parese, Rohan Raj Shastri, Kathleen Swoap and Jacob G. Verter.
Their classmate, Phi Beta Kappa speaker Melanie Subbiah of Norwich, Vt., picked up the baton from Rubel and built her address on a seemingly mundane moment in a dining hall freshman year when she had her "mind blown" by a fellow student who showed her a new way to eat a grapefruit
That student, who Subbiah watched without her knowledge, eschewed the "scooping spoon" method and peeled the grapefruit, eating it like an orange.
"In that moment, she revolutionized my understanding of something I thought I knew how to do, that I had been doing one way my whole life," Subbiah said.
Her point was to open to radical new approaches and understand that you — like the student peeling the grapefruit — may be changing someone's life when you least expect it.
"Because sometimes someone will be watching, and it's these small, local acts — of originality, of kindness, of resistance — that add up," Subbiah said.
Class of '17 valedictorian Caroline White-Nockleby of Cambridge, who entered Williams as a member of the class of '16, took advantage of her position to seek advice for Sunday's graduation from those who sat in their chairs just 12 months before.
And, once again, it was the "little things" that emerged.
"'I learned so many things … how to fix a toilet, how to survive when the heat stops working … and that unlike in Williamstown, people actually steal things in the big city,' " White-Nockleby reported one of her former classmates reported.
Of course, the day was not entirely without mention of big ideas or even politics.
The first truly spontaneous applause of the 228th commencement exercises came when Williams President Adam Falk read the citation for one the school's five honorary degree recipient, Gina McCarthy.
Specifically, the crowd interrupted Falk when he mentioned her service as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
One of the other honorees, the founder of the blog RealClimate, shared McCarthy's life work of working to protect the environment.
"[RealClimate] comes at a pivotal time — one in which ideology threatens to cloud fact," Falk said. "Your simple formula is that science plus values should equal policy. Because of that work and that of those you have inspired, it might still yet."
The day's clearest call to action on big issues came from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the day's principal speaker.
Adichie told the graduates that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place, and although Falk described her as a "woman of the world," she had a somewhat U.S.-centric message for the Class of ‘17.
"This is not a perfect country, in fact it is not as 'hallowed' as American nationalists like to think," the Nigerian-born McArthur Grant-winning author said. "But it was built on an idea that is humane and beautiful and very much worth perfecting. What America will become is now in the hands of your generation.
"You cannot be complacent. You cannot afford to be complacent. Because democracy is always fragile. To keep a just society just has nothing to do with being on the political left or the political right. It requires people who know that incompetence dressed up as strategy is still incompetence and still unacceptable."
That line also drew applause from the crowd gathered on the college's library quad, a new site for commencement necessitated by ongoing construction in and around the Bronfman Science Center, which adjoins West College Lawn.
In addition to telling the graduates, particularly the women, to "own their ambition" and to "put the damn phone down" in favor of real world interactions, Adichie challenged them to strive for social justice.
"I want to ask you to please always take a stand," she said. "Stand for social justice. To paraphrase something I heard recently: Be ashamed to die until you have taken one stand that benefits humanity."
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