Your Defining Moment
Birmingham-Southern College Commencement Address 2006
by John D. Tatter

President Pollick, Provost Murray, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished Guests, colleagues on the Faculty, members of the Staff, parents, family, and friends of the Class of 2006—please join me in congratulating this group of bright, motivated, accomplished young adults who are the center of our attention today.

Members of the Class of 2006, I am honored to be your Valedictorian, a title that, by the way, has nothing to do with grade point average but which, in Latin, simply means the person who says farewell. You are about to depart on the next stage of your journey, and today marks a defining moment in your life: from this day forward, you are a college graduate, a Birmingham-Southern College graduate.

Over the course of our lives we experience many defining moments: events that reflect—and sometimes shape—who we are. I’m going to spend the next few minutes talking to you about these moments. As a way into this topic, I would like to focus on one of the places where literature and art connect. In particular, I want to examine with you the choice that visual artists make when they select a moment from a familiar story and freeze it in time through their art.

In art museums all over the world, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of works that illustrate such choices. Sir Thomas Brock's sculpture of Eve I have chosen to focus on just two, which happen to be in the 19th-century collection in the Tate Gallery of British Art in London. One of these is a life-sized sculpture of Eve by Sir Thomas Brock, which portrays her as a young woman barely out of her teens, standing with one arm limply at her side and the other pulled protectively across her chest, her head hanging down, her entire posture depicting an attitude of sorrow. It is as if she has just realized the gravity of her choice, and she’s wishing she could take it back. When I saw her most recently over spring break, I was reminded immediately of two of your fellow students who also made a choice that changed their lives, and the lives of the congregations whose churches they burned.

Before seeing that sculpture I had never thought of Eve as a young woman your age, someone just entering adulthood, someone who deserved the chance to try things out, to make mistakes that wouldn’t scar her for the rest of her life, to fall and still be able to get up and try again. Sir Thomas Brock, in sculpting Eve at her defining moment, has actually re-defined that moment for those of us who are used to seeing her depicted as either a temptress or opportunist. He has given us an alternative vision.

Another work of art in that section of the Tate Gallery is one that you might recognize—the painting by John Waterhouse of the Lady of Shalott, which depicts a scene from the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson that tells her story. Some of you may know Tennyson’s poem, or the shortened version that harpist Loreena McKennitt set to music. For those of you who don’t know it, the story comes from the body of literature about the court of King Arthur, and it goes like this.

The Lady of the poem lives alone in a castle on the island of Shalott, upriver from Camelot. Though Tennyson never explains how or why, the Lady has been forbidden to look through her window to the world outside. If she does, she will bring a curse down upon herself.

As part of the enchantment that she lives under, however, the Lady has been provided with a magic mirror that reveals to her what passes outside her castle, and she spends her days and nights in front of this mirror, weaving a tapestry composed of the sights she sees reflected in it. Tennyson calls this tapestry a “web” and he calls the sights the Lady sees in the mirror “the shadows of the world.”

In addition to the river traffic of boats and barges, the Lady sees all sorts of people walking and riding by on the road to Camelot: village children, shepherds, monks, and occasionally the most colorful of all—the pages and knights of Arthur’s court. With all of these images to weave into her tapestry, the Lady stays very busy. But, although she seems content with her lot, Tennyson remarks that when she watches “two young lovers lately wed” walking together by the river, the Lady suddenly feels “half sick of shadows.”

One day Sir Lancelot appears in her mirror as he rides to Camelot, and the Lady is so taken with the sight of him that she forgets completely about the enchantment and rushes to the window to get a better view. Immediately the mirror shatters and the tapestry she has been weaving flies out the window and floats to the ground. An autumn storm begins to build—dark clouds roll in, the wind rises, and rain begins to fall.

Realizing that “the curse has come upon her,” the Lady decides to brave her fate, leave her island castle, and follow Lancelot to Camelot. She gathers up her tapestry, finds a boat on the bank, writes her own name around the prow of the boat, and casts off to float downstream. Some time later, as the boat arrives in Camelot, the curse takes its final effect, and she dies. The people of the city come down to the riverside to see this mysterious sight—the body of a woman wrapped in a tapestry and lying in a boat—and they discover who she is by reading her name written around the prow. Lancelot too comes down to the river, and when he sees her, he comments on how beautiful she is, and says a blessing over her, asking God to grant her grace.

As you might imagine, this story can be and has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some readings emphasize the cost of disregarding the law or breaking with tradition. Others emphasize the benefits, however brief, of the choice the Lady makes. These latter readings celebrate her courage to reject arbitrary rules, to embrace life, to follow her heart. In the spirit of these positive readings of her story, I want to bring us back to my original focus this afternoon, the choice artists make to represent —literally “re-present”—a particular moment in a work of literature.

Out of all the moments in Tennyson’s poem, John Waterhouse chose to depict the one in which the Lady of Shalott casts off from the river bank. As he portrays her, she has gathered up her tapestry and spread it out in the boat, then written her name on the prow. Though she has a pensive look on her face, she sits proud and erect in the center of the boat. As one of my former students Finley Bullard Evans said in her own poem about the painting, “She is the Captain of the Ship.” Waterhouse captures her at her defining moment, the moment she leaves observation behind and takes action.

John Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott 1888

Before this moment, the Lady had been content to observe the wider world through her mirror, and her purpose in life was to copy what she saw. In a similar way, you have spent the last four years creating your own tapestry. Each class you took, each project you wrestled with, each laboratory exercise, reading assignment, and writing assignment you completed, was an additional piece in what has turned out to be a complex web of associations. And although your professors have held the mirror for you, at times providing you with new information, and at other times sending you on the adventure of research, you have been the one to weave the new material into the fabric. You have been responsible for keeping track of the “big picture.”

Though you have had to focus carefully on each new addition to the tapestry, I am sure that, like the Lady of Shalott, you have also imagined your future, watching the traffic to and from the Camelot of your dreams through the mirror of your education. Perhaps you have even caught sight of something that has thrilled you to the core, as the sight of Lancelot thrilled the Lady in her solitary bower. Perhaps, like her, you are willing to risk everything for the chance to fulfill your dream. Whatever your vision of the future, you have reached the point of stepping away from the artifice of your educational experience and focusing your gaze on life beyond the fence, outside what so many of you call “the bubble.” This is a defining moment in your life. Carrying the tapestry of your education, you are about to embark—literally “enter the boat”—on the next stage of your career, to let go of the chain that anchors you to what has been your island home.

For our part, for those of us standing on the shore of the island, wishing you farewell, I hope that in addition to challenging you to look outside yourself, we as faculty and administrators have also encouraged you to look inward, to listen to your own voice, to seek out and evaluate the sources of your opinions and feelings, and to measure yourself against the internal yardstick of your potential as you know it to be. I hope that while teaching you to value the quality of the end product, we have also taught you the importance of the choices you make on the path to that end. Today we celebrate your achievements, but you are more than the sum of your achievements. Like the Lady’s tapestry, your diploma may certify what you have done, but it does not define who you are.

I said a few minutes ago that Sir Thomas Brock re-defined Eve by depicting her not as a temptress but as young woman deep in thought over the direction her life had taken. I have also made much of the fact that John Waterhouse chose a particular moment from her story to define the character of the Lady of Shalott. But though you may share some similarities with these two young women, you differ from them in one important way—no one else is telling your story for you, or painting your defining moment. You are both storyteller and painter. You choose the moments that will define you.

Just as the Lady of Shalott wrote her name on the prow of the boat, I challenge you to lay claim to your life, its past and its future. In the words of Saint Paul, I encourage you to “work out your own salvation”—to do your best under the circumstances you find yourself in, keeping in mind that your best is never a fixed point but, rather, a moving target. Remember your watchword: “Forward, ever.”

In closing, on behalf of your professors, and your parents, too, I would like to offer you a blessing. It comes in the form of a poem written by Richard Wilbur for his daughter, and it wishes you luck as you let loose of the chain and enter the river.

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

In memory of Becky Tatter-Myers