Delores Ziegler's commencement address to the Class of 2012

Delores Bowen Ziegler '73 delivered the commencement address to the Maryville College Class of 2012. Here is the full text of her address, titled “What’s in a Gift?”

President Bogart, Dr. Wells, Reverend Youngs, honored Platform Party and Board of Directors, respected Faculty and Staff, proud parents and most importantly today, distinguished graduating class of 2012; A warm welcome to you all.

The first thing my dear friend said to me after learning I would be giving the Commencement Speech at my Alma Mater was “…so I guess they have forgiven you for burning down that dorm.” Yes, on the night of Feb. 13, 1972, Pearson’s Hall was gutted by fire and yes, I happened to be in charge of the dorm at the time, but no, it was not my fault. Everyone got out safely, the fire was attributed to a faulty electrical wire and I learned many important things that night: such as how NOT to use a fire extinguisher and just because a boy signs out of the dormitory (in those ancient times we did not have coed dorms) it doesn’t mean that he has actually left the premises. “And yes”, I told my friend, “Maryville College can be very forgiving.”

May I be one of the first to say how proud I am of all 216 of you, hailing from 14 states across the US and 2 foreign countries? I am proud, not of anything great you may or may not have achieved at Maryville College, but of your giving of yourselves, your time, and your efforts over the last four years to reach this significant moment. In the few minutes I have you as my captive audience, I would like to share a simple theme: what we have been given and what we will give back. I would like to pose three questions: What is a gift, what is YOUR gift and what will you DO with your gift?

In Lewis Hyde’s book appropriately entitled “The Gift,” he proposes that something given willingly without expectation of payment is a gift, but to be truly considered as such, it must keep moving; it must constantly be given away, never hoarded. To illustrate his proposition, Hyde goes on to imagine a scene, describing the invention of an early American colonist’s term “Indian gift” or “Indian giver”. This scene very likely took place repeatedly during those first days of social contact between the Puritans and the American Indians. An Englishman invited to an Indian lodge is asked to share a pipe of tobacco from a ritual pipe, which traditionally is passed from tribe to tribe. The Indian host politely offers the peace pipe to the Englishman as a parting gift. The delighted Englishman proudly displays his new acquisition on the mantle, fully intending to take it back to England to add to his collection from the New World. A good time later, an Indian tribal chief visiting the Englishman notices the peace pipe on the mantle, makes it known that he expects to share a pipe of tobacco with his host and leave with the peace pipe as a gift. Naturally the Englishman finds this a gross misunderstanding of what is meant by private property and coins the phrase “Indian giver.” The misconception however, according to Hyde, is partly the Englishman’s lack of understanding of the fundamental property of the gift: “whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept.” The peace pipe was never something to be stockpiled or added to a collection, but in Indian culture it was a gift to be shared; a gift bringing peace and pride to all peoples as it was passed from tribe to tribe; A gift in the truest sense of the word. I don’t believe that Hyde intends us to give away all of our precious Christmas gifts from Grandma, but, in the spirit of that special time of year, give a gift in turn. In our capitalistic society we often tend to hoard our gifts perhaps out of fear of want or need. Hyde suggests that in sharing our gifts, in giving them away, they actually multiply. At the University of Maryland, where I am a professor in the School of Music, an undergraduate voice student of mine spends a good bit of her time in Latin America working on an independent major, entitled, “Education and Social Change in Latin America.” This past January she traveled to a rural town in El Salvador. Her plan was to use music as her contribution to the community where she was staying and where there is no music education available in the public school system. The story in her own words: “…I feel strongly about the power of music and music education to make a meaningful difference in children's lives. I asked my family to donate 50 recorders (a simple flute-like instrument), and I took them with me to the community's after-school center. During my time there, I partnered with another volunteer to teach the instructor how to play the recorder and how to teach the children. She picked it up very quickly, and we wrote down fingering charts for several songs that she could teach over the next several months. We then helped her run the first music class ever held in the community. The children were very enthusiastic, and soon the sound of their practicing could be heard echoing in the streets at night. Now that he had the tools (his very own recorder), one child even began traveling to a nearby city to participate in more comprehensive music lessons. All this happened in two weeks, and I feel proud that I contributed to a sustainable change in the community in such a short amount of time.” The gifts my student, Mairin Syrgley, gave to these children, her time, her musical expertise, her recorders, rippled through the community, traveling to nearby cities and will continue to multiply beyond our imagination. At the same time, the gift returns to Mairin as well. Walt Whitman would say, “The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him—it cannot fail…”

The word “gift” can refer to a talent or ability as well. While a student at Maryville College, I experienced a convergence of people and opportunities that led me to discover my own gift or talent. As music students we were required to take a number of semesters of music theory, which was not my best or favorite subject at the time. Victor Schoen was the theory teacher and an avid opera fan. Every Saturday he would invite many of us to his home to listen to the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcasts. His wife, Salley, a talented pianist and also a professor at MC, would usually bake a lemon meringue pie, so we rarely missed a Saturday. Victor Schoen’s passion for the voice and opera in particular, was so contagious that one couldn’t help but be infected by it. He developed an Interim topic that culminated in a trip to New York City to experience the art form live at the Metropolitan Opera. For me, this week was life altering. It grabbed me by the throat, so to speak, and I was hooked. I couldn’t stop singing and began to pursue the study of opera performance. Being willing to share my gift with others, opened the world to me; I traveled from China to Brazil, Norway to Greece, experienced different cultures, learned new languages, met intriguing people all the while surrounded by glorious, divine music. Here I must make a disclaimer; while I often sang for free, of course I accepted payment for my work as well. Payment for my gift did not seem to diminish it, however, I always felt that the most creative part of my talent was something that had no price and could not be bought or sold. For me, this story exemplifies the rhythm of the gift. In giving so freely of his time, and I’m sure some of his own money, Victor Schoen allowed his passion to flow freely to us, his students, who in turn spread our talents abroad. The uncomplicated giving of ones self, of ones passions, of ones talents, not hoarding, but freely giving, in itself leads to an abundance of gifts.

So, what is YOUR gift? All my life people have said to me, “You are so lucky to know what your gift is. I have no idea what I’m good at or even if I have a gift.” To try and discover what we are good at is pretty scary! What if we fail? What if we make a fool of ourselves? What if our gift is not spectacular? We may find out that we’re not good at something we really want to be good at and have a talent for something we may think of as insignificant or worse, un-sexy. There are those who may feel that their talents are greater than their brothers or sisters. Kahlil Gibran, poet and philosopher, author of “The Prophet” would have this to say to you, “Often I have heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, ‘He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil. And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.’ But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass; And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.” There are no insignificant talents. Spectacular gifts do not happen in a vacuum. It takes mothers, fathers, teachers and mentors to inspire a child to become president. My talent is my voice, but it is certainly not my sole defining attribute. My singing voice, while a gift, is very much like an athlete’s gift in that it is ephemeral, short-lived. If I believed that singing was the only thing I could “gift” to others, it would be a bleak life for me from here on out. Sometimes when we make the grumpy cashier smile or acknowledge a stranger or give hope to a despairing friend, these are gifts, my friends, that can be given away freely and never diminish. “Blessed are they who have the gift of making friends,” exclaims Thomas Hughes, “for it is one of God’s best gifts. It involves many things, but above all, the power of going out of one’s self, and appreciating whatever is noble and loving in another.” Seen from a different and perhaps darker perspective, May Sarton, an American poet and novelist, puts it this way, “There is only one real deprivation, and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.” A gift not given is like “The flow of life backed up.”

So we are agreed, we all are receivers of gifts and we all have the ability to bestow these gifts on others. You sit here today in front of me overflowing with talents and abilities and eager to begin. But before you go, please take with you these words from the tireless giver of our age, Mother Teresa:

People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.

If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.

For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Thank you.