Â A few months ago, I was delightedÂ to be invitedÂ to be one of the twoÂ commencement speakers for the University of Maine graduation ceremony in Orono this May.Â While I’ve been asked to speak at colleges out of state, this was the first time I’ve accepted such an invitation.Â I’ve been a resident of Maine for 17 years and although I’ll never be consideredÂ a real “Mainer” (you have to be born here to carry that title) I doÂ feel like one.
Never so much as today, after reading thisÂ editorial in the University of Maine student newspaper:
Choice of speakers perplexing
When the University of Maine announced the commencement speakers, the names Tess Gerritsen and Bob Edwards fell on somewhat disappointed ears.
Students may not be aware that Tess Gerritsen is a local mystery author and Bob Edwards is the former president of Bowdoin College, not the NPR anchor.
The university should look to the future and get someone that the students would be able to relate to.
While we appreciate that the university sought out local connections and speakers known for delivering powerful speeches, there is no doubt an individual with greater name recognition would better inspire the graduating class.
Graduation is for the students; the university should seek out individuals who will motivate the class of 2007, regardless of where they are from. A familiar name would undoubtedly create more excitment from the student body.
My first reaction was — Cool!Â They actually consider me a local!
My second reaction was … hey, wait a minute.Â They consider meÂ just a local?
It’s disheartening to discover that not only am I a disappointing choice for the students, but also that they have little interest in hearing from a novelist who’s “just a local mystery author.”Â Were they to travel outsideÂ Maine, they might discover that, oddly enough,Â this unknown mystery author’s books areÂ bestsellers across the U.S.,Â that they’reÂ translated intoÂ 31 foreign languages, andÂ have been #1 bestsellers in Germany and the UK.Â Â That I’ve given speeches around the world, from Malaysia to New Zealand toÂ Amsterdam. Outside of Maine, I’m a publishing somebody.
But in my home state … “um — who are you again?Â You say you’re a writer?”
What truly astonishes me is that the students are so dismissive of my fellow commencement speaker,Â Robert Edwards, the former president of Bowdoin.Â We are talking Bowdoin College here, folks, not some rinky dink school no one’s heard of.Â We are talking about one of the finest schools in the world.Â You don’t just waltz into the presidency of Bowdoin by singing and dancing on American Idol.Â This is a man whose accomplishments are worth hearing about,Â a man who deserves theÂ respect of anyone who values knowledge.Â Â IÂ myself cannot wait to hearÂ what he has to say.Â That he’s not someoneÂ whom students feel they can “relate to” is a sad comment on how little value is placed on academic accomplishments these days.
Perhaps it’s the fact I’m not a spring chicken anymore, but the older I get, the less impressed I am by the culture of empty celebrity, and the more I value the chance to sit and talk with someone like Robert Edwards.Â I want to know his journey.Â I want to know what propelled him through life.Â Just as I hope others might want to know how I, the daughter of a restaurant cook and an immigrant, managed to get intoÂ medical school and then ended upÂ on the New York Times bestseller list.
Clearly, Bob Edwards and I are going about this all wrong.Â Maybe we should be warming up our vocal cordsÂ to try out forÂ American Idol, or hanging out with the truly accomplished Paris Hilton crowd.Â Because we all know that it’s celebrity, not academics, that’s the real measure of success these days.