Litza Johnson ’10

"Coming Alive"

May 16, 2010

Good morning! Thank you for being here.

I tossed a coin to decide which college I wanted to attend. Scripps was heads. And no matter how many times I flipped my coin, I kept getting tails. Finally, I changed my technique. Instead of flipping the coin in the air, I spun it on my desk. Heads. I probably should have been paying attention during the course of that AP Government class, but in the end I believe my time was well spent. I called and made my deposit that afternoon. Despite my pretended indifference as to which way the coin landed, four years later I am pleased to say that I know I made the right decision.

This feeling is reinforced every time I think back on a conversation I overheard between Alexandra, the girl I nanny for, and her friends. By then, Alex had more or less convinced the majority her friends that they wanted to attend Scripps (you’re welcome, Admissions). And while I’m proud to take credit for that admirable goal, Alex took it farther. She wanted her friends to be aware that it wasn’t as easy as just deciding to go. “Of course, we all want to go to Scripps,” she said knowingly, “But you have to be the very best in your class to get in.” What a privilege it has been to be surrounded by so many of you best-in-your-class individuals. You’ve certainly held me to a higher standard, and I’m proud to be graduating with you today.

Yet, while I value and respect the vast pool of intellect that surrounds me, I know that there are also more important goals — skills, that is. My sister struggles greatly in many areas. Though nothing seems to come easily to her, she remains cheerful, enthusiastic and friendly to everyone — but not waving to me right now. [laughter] There we go.

A couple of months ago, I overheard a conversation between Michelle and a seven-year-old girl named Rio. I tuned in just as Michelle was announcing, “I’m disabled.” Rio looked up, surprised. “You are?” she said asked. “Yes,” my sister replied matter-of-factly, “Physically and mentally.” I waited to see how Rio would respond, ready to jump in and play my big sister role, if necessary. “Oh,” she said, after only the briefest of pauses, “That’s okay, I’m not very good at spelling.” I was dumbfounded by how easily and naturally Rio was able to relate to Michelle. And it’s something that many people with more years and life experience have struggled to do with finesse. At seven, Rio has only a developing sense of what is PC, and her response wasn’t influenced by what she should, or shouldn’t do. She didn’t have to search for a way to relate, she just did it. And her response was instantaneous, unplanned and absolutely truthful.

I can’t tell you how much I was struck by the experience. It’s so important for us to realize that as valuable as our differences are, there is always some place we can connect and that compassion and respect can be easy. If we look for the differences, we will find them. But if we look for the similarities we’ll find those too. I truly believe that if we approach the rest of our lives with this mindset, the opportunities will be limitless.

And yet, even with everything I’ve learned over the past four years, both at college and in the widely touted “real world,” I can’t say that Scripps has made my life much easier. I don’t have very many marketable skills. I don’t have any better ideas about how to solve various international crises. My knowledge of how to pay taxes and budget for bigger purchases is sadly underdeveloped, and even things that should be easy, occasionally become challenges. To be honest, I still pull on the door that’s clearly labeled “push” at least half of the time. And yet, while I have a lot of room to grow, one of the most powerful things Scripps has done is to make me aware of it. Besides, there are many ways in which I have grown over the past four years. And so much of that is due to the direct influence of my professors, classmates and friends at Scripps. I’m more critical. I think twice, or three times, about everything I hear and read. I’m aware that just because you’re an expert in your field, does not necessarily mean you are right. (And let’s be honest: most of the people writing down their thoughts on a subject, can hardly be called experts, anyway.) I know that “fact” is too often just another word for “opinion.” Among my other skills, I count the ability to use the word “heteronormativity” in a sentence, and my lectures on the nature of the gender binary get me raised eyebrows or enthusiastic agreement, depending on where I happened to have placed my soapbox.

I am personally insulted by the media’s portrayal of women. And I try to understand the circumstances under which this is considered acceptable, and more importantly how to change it. I am embarrassed by white privilege and the many ways I benefit from it, without wanting or meaning to. I am truly skeptical that nine out 10 doctors agree about anything. No, Scripps has definitely not made my life any easier, but it has made it more difficult in the ways that matter the most.

As a dedicated psychology major, I am aware that what we remember and what we forget doesn’t always have a lot to do with what actually happened. Therefore, there are things I plan to remember about my time at Scripps, and others I will systematically block from my mind. I will promptly forget that I might ever have skipped reading for class, or not written a paper until the night before it was due. I will probably forget precisely how hot it gets in the dorms if there is no air conditioning. I feel no need to remember the veritable mountain of paperwork that goes into applying to study abroad. But more important that the things I will forget, are the things I know I never will. I won’t forget the professors who have helped me to change the way I think about the world. I won’t forget the time as a first year, the junior next door who I didn’t know came by with cookies because she “made too many”. Nobody ever makes too many cookies.

I won’t forget those “Aha!” moments in class when suddenly diverse ideas connected, and it was like everything clicked into place. I certainly won’t forget matriculation. I have at least 15,000 photographs, all of the same people, to assure me of that. I won’t forget my friends and my classmates who have challenged my views, argued with my logic, supported my goals and made me laugh until I literally could not stand up.

Once, my sophomore, or junior year, I was giving a tour when a perspective student asked me how I would characterize a Scripps student. It was a difficult question, as many different descriptions immediately came to mind. I thought about telling her we were empowered, open-minded, determined, or critical thinkers. I considered our collaborative learning style, the many accomplishments we already had, and our lofty attainable goals for the future.

In the end though, there was really only one way I could characterize a Scripps student. We care. We care about our friends and our families, our professors and communities, and the world at large. We care so much in fact, that just caring is not enough. Action is the next step and that is where we excel. During our time here, members of our class have baked challah to support disaster relief, knitted blankets for babies who would otherwise be without, worked with the SCORE office to make Scripps a more welcoming and diverse place. And interned and volunteered off-campus at prisons, mental health facilities, schools, hospitals, political action committees, and more. Because we know that just caring is not enough.

During our time at Scripps, we have learned more about different issues, and our caring has expanded in different ways. In the coming year, members of our class will join Peace Corps, embark on Watsons, Fulbrights, and other fellowships. And teach in underprivileged areas through Teach for America. That, I believe, is at the core of what Scripps is. First you learn. Then, you put what you have learned into action.

A couple of years ago, I became acquainted with a wonderful English cocker spaniel named Luke. Luke is a cheerful dog, who goes through life with the enthusiasm of one who knows that at any minute dinner may be served, walks may be taken, or a tennis ball may be thrown. This in fact, is the purest joy of all in Luke’s life: the tennis ball.

Just show him a tennis ball and his whole body begins quivering with excitement. That little stub tail wagging at full force, and the rest of his body wagging right along with it. When you throw the tennis ball, Luke runs after it thrilled with the chase, delighted with the find and retrieval. Should you, h kindly possessor of thumbs and bi-pedaled motion, choose to hide the tennis ball, say, in a low-growing hedge? Luke scrambles around the yard looking for it, never once pausing.

Howard Thurman summed up the importance of living with this joy and enthusiasm, when he said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs, is people who have come alive.”

I believe we all have a tennis ball. Something that makes our whole bodies quiver with excitement, and is worth pursuing with enthusiasm. Something that is worth running after until we get it — head first into hedges, if necessary. Something worth finding again, no matter how many times we may lose it. At the risk of over-using the metaphor, now is the time to devote ourselves to finding our tennis balls, and following them wherever they make take us. I believe that if we can do that, we can create the changes we know are necessary, without ignoring the passions that drive us. Scripps College Class of 2010: I hope your time here has helped you find what makes you come alive.

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