My parents bought my egregiously orange Princeton doctoral robes, and I dutifully don (pun intended) them each spring to see Northwestern graduates on their way. I live near the stadium where their lives ceremonially commence and walk among the nervous seniors teetering precariously in over-high heels and sweating through new tailored shirts. Their proud parents bustle behind them – slightly smug at the thought of a parental job well done. It’s a funny reconstitution of the medieval processions it mocks with its inclusion of women at all and men who can’t read Latin. Medieval parents likely would have remained on the farm or in the castle when the monks of early university life got themselves to chapel for ceremonial occasions. Now graduation turns the monastic model on its head by making the day a celebration of family ties.
This year Mikhail Baryshnikov gave the commencement address at the behest of his daughter who will graduate next year. I guess she wanted him to do it now so he could enjoy her graduation in the stands with all the other parents. The university president has the parents, grandparents, and other family members rise and bask in applause from the sea of purple progeny sprawled before them. The student address was a meditation on the parental preconditions for collegiate success from which each soon-to-be-degree-holder surely benefited. The Russian defector turned American master, who stood upon the stage as a father, took a different tack.
As he does in the video to follow, he warned against the desire to be “the best.” Strive to be better. Better is a process. You can do better. Someone else labels you ‘the best.’ His message focused on individual self-scrutiny suited to the vestiges of a monastic institution. Seek out the uncomfortable failings in yourself and world and try to better them. The monks might have called this sin, but the self-proclaimed non-believer shares their vision if not their vocabulary.
With the best intentions the other speakers implied that every father in the audience had been the best father. Barishnikov opened that he likely should not have agreed to speak, but fatherhood makes one do ill-advised things. Baryshnikov owns in the video that he cannot be the perfect father, perhaps the commencement address was his attempt to be a better one.
As I listened to the soft Russian accent wafting over the heads of a multi-colored, post-modern, collegiate crowd, the irony and the improbability of the situation took hold. Baryshnikov’s mother may have taken him to his first ballet, but she could not hold his hand when he snuck out a side door and into new life. Like generations of refugees and immigrants before and after him, Baryshnikov could not rely upon a helicopter parent to ease his way in a new world. Universities intended to isolate scholars from the noise of world and permit the introspection of soul. Baryshnikov escaped the hothouse of the Kirov under KGB control for the hedonism of New York in the 1970s. Diversity and freedom breed disorder that would have appalled the dons of 14th century Oxford or Heidelberg. Baryshnikov slipped the Soviet net; many of his listeners descended from American slaves. Their brief union at a middle western university both highlighted the unforeseen opportunities archaic institutions can offer and questioned the comparative cosseting these grandchildren of repression enjoy.
In 1983, my family dined in a Santa Fé restaurant. A beautiful little girl from a neighboring table thought my food looked better than her own. I eagerly took her into my lap and let her eat my enchilada. Her father chatted with me to ensure that I had no objections to sharing my meal with his daughter. That toddler now has children of her own. Her parents are Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Lange. Baryshnikov embodied all he proclaimed today in my short interaction with him aged 13. He let his daughter move on to something she thought might be better. He sat glamorously relaxed in a denim shirt with his movie-star mate but chatted generously with a geeky tween girl. He was then what he told today’s graduates to be, a Mensch.