Watch the entire Honors Celebration and senior Evan Aroko’s speech here.
Grant Spicer ’20 (Indianapolis, Indiana) and Evan Aroko ’20 (Salem, Massachusetts) provided the keynote addresses for Centre College’s annual honors celebration, this year delivered virtually. Remarks from the speakers, who are selected by tallying votes from the senior class, are always a highlight of the annual showcase of student achievements.
Grant Spicer ’20 is a double major in politics and economics and finance from Indianapolis, Indiana. At Centre, he is speaker of the house for the Student Government Association, secretary for Student Judiciary and a senior interview and Centre Ambassador with the Admission Office. He also sits on the College Council. Following graduation, Spicer will attend the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville, Florida, with a focus on business/corporate law and transactions.
The Power and Importance of Words: The Archives of Our Lives
Actions speak louder than words, right? I would wager we have all heard this saying at some point or another, but if there is anything Centre has taught us, it is the importance of asking questions even of those things about which we seem sure, because you never know what new lesson will reveal itself when you change your perspective. So, instead of treating this phrase as conventional wisdom, what if we asked a couple of questions of it: first, why are we so quick to dismiss the importance of our language? And second, if this is true, then why do we hold celebrations like this where all we have to offer are our words, why are TED Talks and lectures so popular, and why are silent movies not breaking box office records? However crude those examples may seem to you now, what I hope to convey is our inextricable connection with words and the power they hold over our thoughts, emotions, and perspective in life.
My fascination with words and their meanings began at a rather young age. I am the son of an English major, and the grandson of an English professor, so there were no shortages of verbal lessons given in my house and at family gatherings. However, it was not until my grandfather’s memorial service a few years ago that I fully understood the extent of language’s power. A tradition in my family is videotaping all of our special events: birthdays, vacations, graduations and the like. My father’s family even took it one step further and would interview each other periodically to provide whoever would be watching later an update of what was going on in their life at that time. My cousin is in filmmaking and, miraculously, stumbled upon many of those interview tapes and compiled a “movie” of sorts remembering my grandfather for the memorial. One interview stood out to me and completely changed the way I use my language. In one interview, my grandfather was talking about his lessons and how good diction is one of the most important things a writer or speaker can master, because to him, words are like his best friends, so when he speaks or writes, the words he ends up saying or writing mean a great deal because he is sharing his best friends with you. I never could have been able to describe it as such without hearing it first, but when I heard that I realized, “THAT is how I feel about words too.” When I speak or write, I am sharing my best friends with you, so you know everything I say, and everything I write, I mean, because these are my friends, I choose them carefully! Now, I know somewhere out there some of my previous professors are saying, “I’ve read your writing, you might want to work on finding some better friends next time.” Fair enough.
Aside from being a brilliantly beautiful way to describe verbal communication, it makes sense; words can behave just the same as normal friends do. Sometimes your friends are loud; well, he’s a boisterous, rambunctious individual. Sometimes your friends are quiet; the calm breeze danced across my skin. Sometimes your friends can exaggerate; I have definitely mastered Excel. Sometimes your friends are not there when you need them; we call that writer’s block. Sometimes your friends like to disguise themselves and play tricks on you; if you, like I, have ever read chaos as CHAOS and misled as MISLED, you know this fact well. Sometimes your friends can get you into trouble; you look different have you gained weight? Sometimes your friends can save you from trouble; you look different, have you lost weight? Sometimes your friends can hurt; I will never be good enough, it’s pointless. Sometimes your friends can heal; you are enough, you are not alone. While a bit corny, Professor Dumbledore describes it perfectly: “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
But these examples do not just exist out in the ether, we witness them every single day. The importance of our language, more specifically how we use it, is illustrated in our characterization of Centre as a community or a family rather than a campus, it is illustrated in why we call first-years “first-years” and not “freshmen,” it is illustrated in Professor Fieberg administering “Great Opportunities” rather than exams and “Small Opportunities” rather than quizzes. The way in which we use our words speaks volumes about who we are and what we value. And right now, words are all we have. They are the strings which bind our community together. They are our great archives in life, carrying with them the memories of meeting President Roush and Susie for the first time, attending your first convocation, or adventuring abroad with a class; the emotions of seeing your older friends graduate, winning a conference championship with your team, or enduring the hardships of life alongside your friends; and the joy of declaring your major and advisor, obtaining your first internship, or getting Tony to remember your name and order when he worked in the omelet line. In a word, they carry the weight of our lives: annals of our past and present, pavers directing our future course.
Words, whether you realize it or not, mean a great deal to us and can significantly affect how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. I mean, another saying I am sure we have all heard is, “if you say you’re going to fail, you probably will.” Why is that? Well, probably because we internalize words…words said to us and about us, words said about others, words said about a situation, place, object, or idea. It is the reason some of us still remember those hurtful things bullies would say about us, it is the reason some of us still remember the glowing remarks a professor or coach gave us after a job well done, and it is the same reason some of us still remember the first time we heard or said I love you to someone. That is some awesome power, in the literal sense of the word. The fact that you can actually change the way someone thinks, or feels, or acts with your words is mind-boggling. That is why I believe, contrary to the saying, that your words can actually shape your actions. If you enter a situation thinking or describing it as worthless and a waste of time, I guarantee you are more likely to act disinterested and annoyed. But, as we’ve seen, words can work both ways, so use them to positively influence your perspective. Go into a class not viewing it as a blow-off, but an opportunity to really engage with the material and learn to learn rather than worry about a grade. Don’t say hi, how are you just to be cordial, really ask them because you’re interested in the answer. Consciously make it a point to compliment someone every day on something traditionally seen as mundane. If you saw a presentation you liked, why not tell that person you liked it! If someone says something interesting you hadn’t thought of in class, tell them you appreciated their insight, if you see someone hold the door for someone else, tell them you saw and recognize their kindness. The best part is, it is not difficult at all and the rewards benefit the entire community. It is not difficult to say one nice thing to someone every day and your nice comment might lead to a nice comment back to you, or someone else. So, in one genuine compliment or recognition, you not just change one person’s perspective of that day, but you have the potential to change a whole day’s worth of interactions of perspectives. Kindness is a habit and words, part of its vehicle. The words we use to think about and describe ourselves, others, and ideas directly influence how we act toward those entities as well. Through our language we consciously dictate and shape our perspective of what we see and how we experience it, so kindness in our thought and perspective can lead to kindness in our actions, which is then reflected by others and can lead to greater kindness in the community—but it starts with us.
However, perhaps most importantly, it is not only about the language we produce, but the language of others we seek out to reflect and describe our own perspective. I like to say there is not a single person on Centre’s campus from whom I have not learned something, and in that spirit, if there is one thing I have learned it is that age has nothing to do with ability to teach. It is not just our elders who have lessons for us, though they have many, do not be afraid to learn from those younger than you or even your same age, because a person is a person and sometimes another person can say something better than you can. I was reminded of this fact while writing this speech. I came to reflect on our class of 2020 motto, and how appropriate it is now given our current situation. In case you have forgotten, when the class of 2020 entered Centre, we chose an excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses as our class motto: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” However, I find the entire conclusion to be even more poignant a lesson, it reads: “Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved Earth and Heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
In times of hardship and uncertainty, from pandemics to graduating college, we are all faced with a choice. Let us learn from Ulysses and choose to strive: continue to do your best, be your best, with no regrets—to seek: utilize your Centre education to embark on a lifetime of learning—to find: to explore, remembering Centre lives not just in Danville, but in the hearts of her stewards across the globe; when the time comes, go find those places, go find what truly is this global community of which we are a part and go find your place in it—and not to yield: love, learn, and live fearlessly, because as this situation has shown us, nothing is given. But, tho’ much is taken, much abides. Do not stop for that which is taken, only pause so that you may always continue your search for that which abides. Never cease your pursuit of and appreciation for the little things which make life worth living, because while a moment may be fleeting, memories last a lifetime. Each day brings an opportunity for a new memory: a new word, a new friend, a new lesson. Let us greet and live those days in the manner in which Centre has prepared us to: unyieldingly and with no regrets.
by Grant Spicer ’20
May 18, 2020