Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Commencement Reunion

Transcript of keynote address

Posted on May 18, 2013

NANCY GERTNER:

President Crutcher, trustees, faculty, graduates, honored guests, and parents, especially parents. It's been only a few years since I was sitting where you parents are, watching the graduations of my three children. It will be an extraordinary day, count on it.

Now, I am a workaholic. As is my wont, I did research for this talk. I didn't reread the great books to lard this talk with pithy quotes or cite to Greek Philosophers so you could understand the breadth of my education and go right to sleep.

I didn't go over the year's events to sum up current affairs so that you can see the scope of my interests and enable you to completely zone out. What I did was this: two nights ago, I went to see the latest Star Trek movie: Star Trek into Darkness.

I went with my husband and two colleagues from Harvard Law School. When we left the movie, one very serious colleague remarked about the many moral insights that the movie conveyed. To be sure, there were really loud lessons about people crashing into one another, beaming from one ship to another, dealing with really astonishing explosions. Characters, of course, talked about the importance of individual human beings as our hero saved Data's live, the dilemma of sacrificing the few for the many. But for me, the important part was the extent to which a half-Vulcan half-human person feels emotions and even cries. How to practice the Vulcan salute. That in the future cell phones will be able to work--can you believe it?—intergalactically—but the roaming charges will unquestionably be a killer. And most important, most important, how to set up a multimillion dollar story for a multibillion dollar sequel.

Then I listened to other commencement speeches, some inspired, some rather dopey, many funny, albeit unintentionally. I listened to the speeches of scholars and politicians and comedians.

What I mainly learned is what to avoid. I didn't want to give a speech trying to tell you what to do with the rest of your life, a speech that underscores the importance of planning, of laying down those tracks for the next 50 years. The fact is, my own life was not planned at all.

I thought I was plotting a clear path when I was sitting where you guys are sitting now. I thought I had worked it out, as if it were a simple decision—I will be an X—that that decision would be part and parcel of a neat and linear life. It is not. No one's is.

Jill Ker Conway writes about women's careers, which are often circuitous, redefining themselves as their circumstances change, a lesson for all of us. Women of my generation, in particular, just could not follow the traditional script. So we wrote our own. And today that pattern, that very circuitous path in the world of rapidly changing technology, social change, and longer lives, news scripts, now that's the pattern for men and women alike.

Take mine. I was born on the lower East Side of New York, before it was fashionable, I might add, when it was still tenements without sanded floors and unbelievable rent. College for me was not a foregone conclusion. There wasn't very much money in the family. Had there been a son instead of two daughters, there is no question it would have been different. Somehow money would have been found.

My father was very traditional. He wouldn't let my mother work. She didn't even know how to drive a car. My sister and I, however, went to college, went beyond college to advanced degrees, much to my parents' surprise. So, some of these stories, just to put a—to give you sort of a snapshot—some of these stories I recount in my memoir.

So I get into Yale Law School. Big deal. My mother tells me that I have—she talks to me very seriously and says, "Nance, you know you have now priced yourself out of the male market. No one will marry a Yale Law School graduate."

When I graduated Yale Law School with honors, a prestigious clerkship, my mother and I then had another fight in our little kitchen. I like to describe that fight. The women in the audience will know this. These are the kinds of fights you have with your mother. There are things you say to that woman you would never say to anybody in your life. So this was a fight that went on for hours. What were we fighting about? She wanted me to take the Triborough Bridge toll taker’s test—just in case.

And my activism, my activism, that was completely incomprehensible to my parents. After the first time I marched against the war my father said to me, again in another multi-hour argument, and finally at 2 a.m. he says, "Nance, it's one thing to believe in something, it's quite another thing to do something about it."

Still, I pressed on. Inspired by the civil rights struggle of the '60s and '70s, shaped by a bourgeoning women's movement, somehow I believed I could be different. I envisioned a different life for myself than my parents had had, although, as I said before, I never, ever could have predicted the life that I have. Again, perhaps the best way of recounting that is in the opening chapter of my book.

So the women law students at Yale sponsored a panel. What they wanted to do know was how does one become a judge? They gathered around. What are the courses you should take? What are the jobs you should get? What are the people you should.... How does one become a judge? There were two panelists, me and Justice, then Judge, Sonia Sotomayor. I had been a judge for the United States District Court for only a few years. Sonia was then on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, not yet a Supreme Court Justice. We both had been Yale Law School graduates, I in the class of '71, she in the class of '79.

Sonia spoke first, speaking deliberately. "How does one become a judge? You graduate this fine institution with a stellar record. You work as a prosecutor in the celebrated Manhattan District Attorney's office. And then you are a corporate lawyer in New York. You have clear principles, very clear principles. But you take care not to be publicly associated with controversial causes. Rather, you speak your mind carefully, within existing institutions. You demonstrate in every way and word and deed that you can be a neutral, tempered jurist. And then you become a judge."

It was my turn. I paused. "How does one become a judge?" I paused again. "Yes, you graduate this fine institution with a stellar record. But then"—as I pause for effect, ever the trial lawyer, my voice getting louder, the cadence quicker—"you represent the first lesbian, feminist, radical anti Vietnam War activist accused of killing a police officer you can find."

(Applause.)

"That would be your first case in prime time. You then take every abortion case in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you speak out on hot button issues of the day, and successive rallies on Boston Common, or on television, or in the editorial pages of the newspapers. You represent defendants of all stripes, from those in political corruption cases, to high profile murder. But for the final coup de grace, you marry John Reinstein, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. In short, after doing just about everything that in this political culture, in this epoch of strident politics should disqualify you for the position, you become a judge."

You, today's graduates, are obviously facing different challenges. I have talked to my kids about the fact that every generation seems to have had a defining moment. My parents' generation was shaped by World War II and the Great Depression. Our generation was clearly shaped by the Vietnam War and all the protest movements of the day. Sadly, this generation seems to be shaped, at least in part, by 9/11, and now the abomination that was the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

At a time of Internet disconnectedness, that bombing was a shared and horrifying moment. One reaction, perhaps the most understandable, is fear; how to create a safe space for yourself and your family. You might say, "I can't control the world, the economy, the politics, so I will build a wall in which my family and I can live." In some sense the Internet makes that easier. "I will stay in my room. I will think I am interacting with the world when I am online, and I am to a degree, but it's a contrived world. I go to the places I know. I hang out with the people I agree with. I look at world filtered by someone else. I can stay in my room and be safe, and I may believe that that's all I need to do."

But you can't. You just can't. I am intrigued by the title of Howard Zinn's memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Zinn was a renowned historian. The title of his memoir reflects a theme of the '60s: If you are not part of the solution, we would say, you are part of the problem. Let's look at where this train, our world, is moving.

The New York Times ran an article a few days ago. See, I have consulted sources other than Star Trek, I just want to give you a heads up. The article reported that devices on top of Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii reflected a precipitous and sustained rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, now reaching levels we had never, ever seen before. We can visualize that moving train, can't we? Our planet moving through space, greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere, building over time. We understand specifically our contribution to it. Every time you ride in a car, every time you turn on a light or an air conditioner, every time you cut down a tree, get on a plane, buy a vegetable transported across the country, we know that we're adding to the carbon dioxide of the planet. We cannot escape it. We understand our responsibility for the whole. There is no opting out, no safe space. We literally cannot get off this moving train.

Sadly, we don't see other issues as clearly. Equality issues, criminal justice issues, to name a few. When we hear of a young man being sentenced to a mandatory term of years for drugs, a nonviolent offense, when we know that the prison term that he has received is wildly, wildly out of proportion to what he did, to any reasonable penal policy, we don't see how we contributed to that.

When we hear about how the U.S. imprisons more people, incarcerates at a higher rate than any other industrialized state—our nearest competitors are China and Rwanda—we don't see how this concerns us. It is them, not us. We haven't added to the sum of their pain with our acts, as we add to the sum of carbon dioxide in the air.

When we learn that we have imprisoned African American men at a level not seen in this country since Reconstruction, we don't understand our role. Forty percent of those in American prisons are black, a number completely out of proportion to the proportion of minorities in the population and their share of crime. Nearly 10 percent of black males between 25 and 29 are in prison. Black men are imprisoned 5.6 times the rates of whites. One in three black men will go to prison during their lifetime, as compared to one in 17 white men. And the consequences of this imprisonment are stunning. It is generational. Their kids are more likely to go to jail. The kids of convicts, with one or more of their parents in prison, are more likely to be imprisoned. And it is sadly invisible; the economic and social consequences, which are profound, are ignored.

But this is a moving train, our country, for which we are responsible. The people we elect to Congress, the public debate about crime to which we contribute. More imprisonment somehow is always touted as better. We, the public, join in criticism of judges for being too lenient; never, ever, for being too harsh. Then there are the things we don't do. Hiring the people who come out of jail, speaking out against injustice, working to stop it.

Likewise, we don't see the issues of equality so easily. Apart from criminal justice policies, the persistence of racial inequality, the continuing astonishing gender gap in wages, gender gap in leadership positions in business and politics, the widening chasm between rich and poor, now exacerbated by this recession. We seem to note only what we have. We don't really notice what's missing in the lives of our neighbors. We don't see our contribution to inequality in the same way that we understand global warming and carbon dioxide. All these issues are simply not as palpable as a warming globe racing through space, but they are palpable.

So when I was sitting where you were sitting, when I graduated college, then law school, I thought life's path was linear and clear. I wanted, in fact, to be an academic, after I got over my dreams to be president of the United States, but that's another discussion.

I wanted to be an academic, think grand thoughts, write grand books, but I could not sit still. I couldn't sit in the library. I felt that train moving. I was too drawn to participate in the movements for criminal justice, women's rights, racial and gender equality. The first time I represented someone who was acquitted or had secured a settlement of a gender or gay rights or race discrimination case, the first time a client told me that I had saved their life, I thought I couldn't stop. But I did.

After two decades of legal practice I became a judge. Make no mistake about it, I had the same passions, the same concerns as I had before. But I understood fully that my role had changed dramatically. I had sworn to uphold the Constitution and our laws. And while I believed that those laws mostly would align with the just result, I understood that sometimes they did not. The problem was now I was the one sending those young men to jail for nonviolent offenses. I was the one who watched them come into the courtroom as free men and walk out shackled. I was the one who heard the cries of their families. I could not, I would not, ring my hands as some of my colleagues did and say, "There was nothing I could do." There is never “nothing I could do.”

I would work to make the sentences proportionate to the crime, to level the playing field, and I would publicly criticize my government when that was impossible, when it was impossible to make the law conform to justice. I watched the law on civil rights and discrimination change dramatically. I believe that the civil rights laws of the '60s, which we have fought for, are being undone, not by the legislatures in our really pernicious politics, but by the courts.

Civil rights cases lose in courts at an alarming rate, even while inequality grows and discrimination persists. Again, I did whatever I could to bring about a fair result and criticize the precedent when I could not.

Then after 17 years on the bench—you are not to do the math, I might add, 22 years in criminal defense law, 17 years ... don't do the math—after all those years on the bench I needed to do more about that train. I needed to leave the bench, which I loved, so that I could speak and write, say what I had seen, what I had heard, why it was wrong, and how to change it. In some ways, I wasn't very different from that young woman who simply could not stay in the library. In some ways, I was very different.

So: civil rights lawyer, criminal defense lawyer, judge, mother, wife, professor, what's left in this circuitous root that is our lives? Running for office, or singing protest songs in Harvard Square? I'm not sure. Both are on my list, but there are many other things.

So I am delighted to be here today. After the comment about Barbara Walters, I don't even pretend you will remember anything that I have said. It's not about fashioning your life's plan today. It's not about drawing the linear path for you to follow. It is really only about taking responsibility for the direction of your country, for our neighbor's plight, for our really pernicious politics. It's about changing the direction of that train and the world. So yes, here are a few quotes which I didn't get from Star Trek.

From President John F. Kennedy: "Our problems are manmade, therefore, they can be solved by man [and, I will add, women]. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again."

From Rabbi Abraham Heschel: "The opposite of good is not evil. It is indifference." The opposite of good is not evil. It is indifference.

From the Reverend Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

So, read the directions of life, but don't always follow them. Know where the lines are, but sometimes step outside of them. And understand how you contribute to that moving train, but more importantly, learn how to stop it.

Congratulations to you all.

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