That's the short version of a commencement address I saw in May. Here's mine.
A COMMENCEMENT SPEECH WE’LL NEVER SEE
Last night I had a dream. Don't tell me that you haven't had this dream or that you haven't heard about this dream or some variation of it. You have.
If you're a woman you've probably dreamt it, if you're a man you've heard it from your mother, daughter, sister, aunt, grandmother, or a female friend. Men have this dream, too, sometimes. Here it is.
I'm at my own college graduation in a small town in central Illinois, but in the dream the small town is at the outskirts of the city of Chicago, maybe it's a near western suburb. There is a big party at a huge hall; the hall might be a sorority. I feel I don't belong and take my bicycle, ride across a field thinking I'll ride home, ride home to my home in Chicago, which is about 15 miles from the party in the dream.I wake up.
I'm tired. The riding has made me tired. So I get off my bicycle and start to walk, pushing the bicycle. I'm still much, much closer to school than I am to home. I am only a few short blocks from the field that separates the sorority from the city, when a car pulls up next to me and a wiry, greasy man with sharp features rolls down his window.
"Tired of riding?" he asks.
"Did you come from the graduation?" he leers.
I know that I have to get on my bike and ride very fast to get away from this guy who has now cut his engine and is getting out of his car and is walking towards me. But my legs are leaden, and I can't get on the bike. The best I can do is run while holding on so that I am running with it, running as fast as I can.
He is running after me. I'm running fast but he's closing in.
This is a secondary trauma dream, meaning I've heard so many rape stories that it's rubbed off on me, I’m traumatized from the trauma of others. I know too much. I hear too much as a therapist. And little things like statistics scare me. For example:
Did you know that between 20-59% of all college women have been sexually assaulted between the ages of 16-24?
Or that the National Institute of Justice findings indicate that at least 350 of every 10,000 females are raped on campus annually?
Approximately 93% of the perpetrators of rape are male acquaintances known to victims from classrooms, dormitories, fraternities, bars, and parties. They aren't strangers. They look no different than the young men before me today.
If any of you out there happened to cross the line at this school? Then I'm hoping you'll be leaving that behavior behind you. You are older and wiser now. If you didn't know it then,
No Means No.
This is the law. It is a felony to take advantage of someone sexually because you have misinterpreted what she has said or because you think you know what she wants. It is a felony to have sex without informed consent.
Informed consent, among other things, means that neither of you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when you have sex. If she said “yes” under the influence it won’t hold up as valid in court if she says she meant “no” later on.
Most acquaintance rapes on campuses like ours occur in fraternity houses. There is an association with athletic team membership, too. You've read the news. Thus the workshops we set up to educate new students during Orientation Week target that male population, the one, ironically, that doesn't generally pay much attention to workshops.
Do you remember the day you arrived? Do you remember that first week?
I do. Each September I walk around campus in total admiration. Many of you, as first year students stand out from the crowd, eager and starry-eyed, happy for the chance to learn, excited to leave childhood behind.
My co-investigator, Carolyn Jenkins at Xavier University, made me identify freshmen as first-year students—it’s more respectful, face it, a “freshman” can be in her forties. We did the first on-line university survey to investigate student experiences with sexual assault, gender bias, sexual minority harassment, and racism.
Because of that study Xavier has a state-of-the-art social service response team for students in distress. Other schools are catching up.
Do you remember that first week on campus? Not all of you actually were fresh and naïve. You might have already formed demeaning attitudes about women, thoughts of dominance and disrespect that you learned well before you accepted your admission to college. You assumed that if a girl let herself drink too much, then, well, she wanted sex. You assumed that if she dressed a certain way, and you were aroused, then, well, she wanted sex.
You believed what we call rape myths. If you had attended rape prevention workshops you would have known better.
These things happened in the past four years and some of you are sorry for some of the things you’ve done. You might want to get a little therapy this summer. This is a good time to look back, seriously, before you look forward.
Even if you came here with issues, you're open today to a new beginning. The future will be brighter because you have had a college education. It's okay to stare into that bright light.
You're lucky. Not every student can.
The Virginia Tech massacre taught us that we must work double time to make schools safer places. We have to protect your younger brothers and sisters.
The job is getting trickier and trickier. Students can buy fire arms.
We throw around ideas. Maybe metal detectors at the entries of every residence hall and building. Perhaps mandatory mental health evaluations for new students. Make it mandatory that students agree to treatment if they are found in the least bit to be dangerous to themselves or others.
It is a proverbial “slippery slope.” We’re talking about individual freedoms here.
Colleges nationwide, thanks to the Cleary Act of 1991, do provide preventive education to raise awareness about the dangers facing students. We are painfully aware that alcoholic binge drinking, too, can result in death, and strive—on paper, at least—towards zero tolerance of under-aged alcohol use.
We need to enforce state laws. We have to prevent senseless deaths due to accidents or aspiration. These things happen when people drink too much. Two families lost children this year in a snow-mobile accident. One, the driver, was intoxicated. His passenger was not. Beautiful young people.
Even if your brothers and sisters are warned about the dangers of substance abuse and sexual violence, even if they see a mental health professional, we will still know only so much about the inner workings of their minds.
We really don't know if we will ever be able to protect them or ourselves, for that matter.
We will do our best, however. Maybe resident advisors will be trained to recognize the warning signs, will recognize students with certain genetic predispositions that are lying in wait for that significant stress over-load that will tip them over, trigger the first manic, depressive, or psychotic episode.
Maybe students will take better advantage of student services and professional help on campus to treat mental and behavioral disorders. They have to ask. Maybe we have to encourage them more to ask.
Just as rape prevention programs are offered to students in some high schools, perhaps we can teach young people about mental illness, too. Why not? At some point in their young lives every student on campus should know the warning signs of mental illness.
We all need to be watchdogs. None of us should have recurrent dreams of rape or violence. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be in a caring society.
This really is a commencement, a beginning, an end. If you’ve suffered trauma, or witnessed trauma, like the kids at Virginia Tech, it is a part of your history, something you can not erase, not yet, not until we invent some type of laser that aims at a memory and poof! It's gone. No such technology yet and no drugs that specific either.
But we know that life is a straight shot forward in time, and that you can move on. You don't want to stay stuck, psychologically. You're young, you're strong. You have what those of us who look down at the bleachers and the stage don't have, your whole lives in front of you. Make them matter.
Go from strength to strength, and may G-d bless you.
Copyright 2007, therapydoc