“Being Human”
108th Convocation
Monday, August 29, 2022

4:30 PM Tempel Green

Good afternoon. How wonderful it is to be with you today for this momentous ceremony. And before I go on, I want to take a moment to thank all the people who made today possible: our wonderful staff in facilities for setting up the grounds; Tiffany Thiele and Ben Parent and Rob Richter and Ingrid Bushwack and Merrill Collins and the staffs in communications, events, the arts, and dining, for organizing the program and materials and the community dinner that will follow; I want to thank the talented musicians who have joined us—the incredible New London Big Band and the Manchester Pipe Band—for setting such a joyful tone for this event. And finally, I want to thank the incomparable Joy Valenti who joins us at every major event and is here again today as our virtuosic ASL interpreter. Thank you!

Convocation is such an important rite of passage. Some of you may know that the word comes from the Latin convocare, which means “to call together,” and today’s event not only brings us together on this iconic spot, Tempel Green, but it also calls us to reflect together on why we are here, and to acknowledge together what it means to be a part of this exceptional community. And so I want us to take a moment to recognize and to welcome together the newest members of our community: the 22 brilliant faculty and 75 talented staff members who have joined the College since last spring; the 20 courageous transfer students who made a choice to start again in a new place; and the 634 dazzling and determined, socially conscious and creative, generous and gifted first-year students who make up one of the most diverse and academically talented—and by far the largest—incoming classes in our history: the Class of 2026! [applause] It is my duty and my honor now to declare this new year—the 108th year of academic exercises at Connecticut College—officially open.

What a moment. I hope you students are paying attention, because these kinds of dramatic turning points don’t happen very often in life, and when they do it’s important to be fully aware and fully present, in order to reflect on what they mean. That’s one of the reasons we have a ritual like this. It allows us to mark the significance of a point in time because, in effect, it slows down time—bringing us together as a community, allowing all of us, faculty, students, and staff to experience a moment whose gravity might be lost if we didn’t pause to mark it in this way. I said that convocation calls us to consider what it means to be part of a community.  And that’s what I am going to invite you to do now and for the next few minutes. I want you to think about what it means to be welcomed. What it means to belong. And more specifically, I want you to think about what this will mean for you and your education here at Connecticut College.

That is certainly one of the ideas we had in mind when we chose the book that you students would read this summer, Being Heumann, by Judith Heumann. For those of you in the audience who may not know the book or the author, I should explain that Judith Heumann is a celebrated American activist who has spent her entire professional life fighting for disability rights. Fighting against the New York State Board of Education. Fighting against the federal Department of Health Education and Welfare; and fighting for the civil rights of disabled people around the world. In the 1960s, she was a founding partner at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, and as such, became an early proponent of what we now call full participation, creating environments that allow all people, no matter their circumstances, to live full, independent lives, to reach their highest potential, to flourish, and to contribute to more just, equitable, and welcoming communities. She has demonstrated that conviction both through her non-profit organizing and through her government service, as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services under Clinton; as the first advisor on disability and development for the World Bank under Bush; and as Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State under Obama. 

So, Being Heumann is the story of her life, “an unrepentant memoir,” as she puts it—created in collaboration with the non-disabled writer Kristen Joiner. And as a memoir, it offers a first-hand account of the disability rights movement of the 60s and 70s and even 80s, told from the vantage point of Heumann’s own experience as a person disabled by polio as a child in 1950s America. To the extent that the first part of the book takes us through her early years in school to her time as a young adult trying to find her path in college, you could say that the story of Being Heumann offers some useful perspective on your own education here at Conn.

But what kind of perspective does it offer? Well, that actually depends on how you read it. And so, to begin, I thought it might be useful to consider a few of the different ways you can read a book like Being Heumann. I have four in mind, I’m sure there are many others, but as I think you’ll see, talking about their differences turns out to be quite instructive.

Of course, we assigned this book to you students as “summer” reading, and so I imagine that when the book arrived in the mail, many of you were hoping just to relax and have fun with it. That’s normal, and it’s one of the expectations we have for a good book—the expectation of enjoyment. Let’s call that reading for pleasure. Now, I haven’t taken a formal poll, but I’m going to guess that this may not quite be how some of you would characterize your experience. I’m not saying that the book wasn’t interesting. Quite the contrary: the central chapters, especially, which focus on the demonstrations of 1977, the occupation of the federal building in San Francisco, and the critical turning point for disability rights—the signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—are almost worthy of a Netflix miniseries. Yes, surprising but true: a story about federal legislation as high drama, with heroes and villains and unexpected twists of fate. And yet the book as a whole cannot sustain this level of suspense, in part because it has to relate many more details about other times and places that are just as important to the story, details we cannot afford to ignore if we want to understand what’s really at stake. And so trying to read Being Heumann purely for pleasure might end up being more frustrating than anything else. 

There is satisfaction, though, associated with a memoir: following the stages of a life from the beginning, charting the path to ultimate success—which, in Heumann’s case, means both the signing of Section 504 and, finally, the passing of the American Disabilities Act. This is what we look for in the story of a prominent figure. And I might call that approach reading for the plot. Heumann sets up the expectation in the very first sentences of Chapter 1: “Some people say that what I did changed the world,” she says. “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.” 

There you have it, in all its understated elegance: A first person, a quest, a resistence, and a fight. All the elements you need for a good story. As it turns out, it’s a plot we see repeated many times over in Heumann’s memoir. First, as her mother takes her to her first day of public school, only to learn that wheelchairs are forbidden. Then, later, as she finally arrives at P.S. 219, only to be relegated to a segregated special education floor; then, in high school, as she prepares to receive an award for academic excellence, only to be told that the stage is not accessible; then, in college, as she completes all the requirements for a teaching credential, only to have the Board of Education disqualify her. And still later, of course, as she develops larger and larger coalitions across the country demanding equal rights for citizens with disabilities, only to meet resistance at every turn. In each case, Heumann challenges the status quo, has a vision for what is right, organizes, and prevails. The moral of the story is pretty clear. Tenacity wins.

But Judy Heumann would be the first to tell you that she didn’t do any of it alone. Yes, we hear about the relentless advocacy of her family and many friends. But the names of other prominent figures dropped into the story prompt us to look beyond her immediate circumstances and ask about the larger context in which this plot is unfolding. And that question, in turn, suggests another approach to reading that is less about the story, perhaps, than the way it is told—an approach we might call reading for history. The book opens, for example, by sketching the historical context of post-World-War-Two America, with its apparent sense of prosperity compromised by racial segregation and inequality. Heumann notes the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that in 1954 made school segregation unconstitutional; rejected the idea that “separate-but-equal” schools were sufficient; and ultimately set the stage, ten years later, for the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the Civil War. By invoking this context from the start, she foreshadows the same destiny for the story of disability rights,  even though a federal law is still over thirty years away. 

Other characters in the narrative suggest the same fate. The young lawyer Roy Lucas, for example, shows up in 1970 to help with her case against the New York State Board of Education. And if Heumann sees him as a guardian angel, the arrival of Constance Baker Motley as the judge is like divine intervention. The first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law and the first to be appointed to a federal judgeship, she presides with clarity and determination over the case and seals the victory. Heumann gets her teaching license. And the decision positions her struggle squarely within the history of anti-discrimination and civil rights law. And yet, reading the book this summer, as I did, I will admit that the next detail in her account caught me short, producing a kind of historical vertigo. Heumann notes that Roy Lucas would “go on to become one of America’s most preeminent lawyers for abortion rights,” and points to his role in arguing the “monumental Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court, which legalized abortion in 1973.” At the moment Heumann wrote those words, she could not have known that, by this summer, the summer of 2022, that same court would have decisively revoked the right. The unwitting effect of the history is to show us how much we cannot take it for granted.

And that, new students, could be one lesson to take from this book: never take your freedoms for granted. But there is a larger message about freedom written into the pages of Being Heumann, and finding that message requires us to employ yet a different kind of reading, one that will be even more critical, I think, to your education here at Conn. Let’s call it close reading. What is close reading? It has a lot to do, I think, with the experience I just shared—of being pulled in, or even caught short, by a narrative detail, a detail that changes the way you see everything. It is a kind of personal encounter that only happens when you allow yourself to be fully present, open, curious, and alive to your experience, whatever it may be. 

And when you think about it for a moment, that is, essentially, the central lesson of Heumann’s memoir: what it means to be fully present, fully open, curious, and fully alive to the world.  What it means to be human. It’s a lesson that we find hidden all across the book, sometimes in the most unlikely places. It’s there in her earliest memories, for example, as she describes her experience of being a child who didn’t know she was different. It’s there in her stories of the special education class at P.S. 219, as the students begin to value each other for their unique gifts, “without dismissing anyone for looking, thinking, believing, or acting differently.” It’s there in her stories of camp in the Catskills, where she and her fellow campers taste freedom for the first time in their lives. And it’s there, finally, in her story of the celebrated San Francisco sit-in, the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building in U.S. history, when, embroiled in the heat of the conflict, they open themselves fully to each other and taste the freedom of “being ourselves without apology.” Heumann has an unexpectedly touching phrase she returns to throughout the book as she describes these moments of joy and belonging. She calls it “kid culture.” As she puts it, “it’s what kids do naturally until they are taught otherwise. Slow down enough to listen and truly see each other. Ask questions. Connect. Find a way to have fun. Learn.” That is the recipe for being free; for being fully present and alive in everything you do; for Being Heumann. And for Judy Heumann, it’s also the recipe for changing the world. All it takes, she reminds us, is to “move from thinking it can’t happen to saying it can happen, from being naysayers to being problem solvers. Like kids.”

And that, new students, is not only the joy of Being Heumann, it’s also the promise we hold out to you as you begin this new year, the 108th year of this great college. And it’s a recipe for changing the world. I’m going to let Judy Heumann have the last word on this one, because I think she says it best. “The story of changing the world,” she tells us, “is always the story of many. Many ideas, many arguments, many discussions, many late-night, punchy, falling-apart laughing brainstorms; many believers; many friendships; many failures; many times almost giving up; and many, many, many, MANY people.” 

Yes, that may be her story, but, I want you to know, it is also yours. So let me say again: Welcome to your new community. Welcome to Connecticut College.