Yes, we know. That old yellow wood is the time-worn commencement cliche — not to mention perhaps the first crystallization of the choice conundrum that plagues us all.
But in her 2009 commencement address, Barnard grad Sarah Besnoff takes that old metaphor and peppers it with generous dashes of insight– and hope — for a generation of Undecideds.
And that makes all the difference.
Listen for the resonance. She starts by telling the audience that when she was younger, “.. my mom would tell me, ‘When I grow up, I want to be Sarah Besnoff.'” At first, she didn’t get it.
As a child, I would dismiss this statement as something my mom told me to make me laugh. As a teenager, I thought she said it just to empower me. Now, I understand that it was more than that; it was a reminder that I have been given opportunities that she never had. The love and support of my mother and my father, and their parents before them, have given me more chances for high achievement and greater access to places and people than they ever had…
Later, talking abut the challenges that confront the typical Barnard student, she defines what she calls the “culture of choice.”
The hardest challenge, though, was always how to choose what to do: so many interesting classes to take, too many internships, every student organization imaginable. The challenge of too many options is also one that plagues us upon graduation: grad schools, non-profit or private sector jobs, eventually the choice of raising a family. It is this culture of choice that is our generation’s unique opportunity, a blessing that our mothers were not given in equal measure.
Did you hear it? Therein lies the difference between two generations of women, mothers and daughters, and, for that matter, between men and women: the reason that, for so many of us, deciding what to do with our lives is a lot more fraught than picking a path in a yellow wood. The remedy, Besnoff suggests, is shared experience and a sense of sisterhood:
So when two roads diverge in a yellow wood and I’m sorry I can’t travel both – I’m not concerned. I know my Barnard sister who chooses to take the other road will call me and tell me what she saw, who to avoid, where to turn and what lies at the end. Her distinct path will not be divergent from mine, rather it will add to the map of our joint experience. She will empower me with knowledge should I ever want to take that path too. She will share her time on that road with me should I never be able to travel it myself. Our sisterhood in this culture of choice allows us all to become trailblazers without fear of the roads not traveled.
And with this sisterhood of trailblazers, we are uniquely positioned to take on the continuing inequalities that women face in our society. We can each forge new paths to equality, calling our sisters along the way to find unexpected intersections. We can be pioneers as we reassert a gender consciousness within our generation. This is the Barnard sisterhood – supportive, collaborative, competitive sure, but conducive to our collective achievement. We need to create this Barnard sisterhood with all women and male allies, so that we can turn assumed equality into actual parity. We stand here today with a woman who put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, we, the Barnard College Class of 2009, have been given the opportunity to break the damn thing.
Oh, about those 18 million cracks? Did I mention that she shared the stage with Anna Quindlen and Hillary Clinton?