Ann Bancroft, 2011 Baccalaureate Speaker

Giving Good Weight

This winter, when President Falk invited me to join you on this very special weekend, I had no idea that I would find Williams such a familiar place. 27 years ago I was on campus for the wedding of my cousin John Hebble and his wife Julie (class of ‘80 and ’82).
They, like many of you, met on campus—For them it was ON the ice rink. I thought my connection was just that, my family and I were simply visitors to this beautiful place.  But as the news trickled out that I would be here tonight, so did our family history with Williams. News to me was that my Great grandfather Chester Griggs attended Williams from 1898 – 1901. My favorite uncle–Chuck Hebble, class of ’53, is here tonight as well. We even have a relative who received an honory degree…He was not a Polar explorer but was Attorney General under president Hoover. As the non-academic of our family, I coined a term for this amazing coincidence – Hoogity Boogity (expand here). There is more William’s presence in my sphere as well: Susan Roe—my sister’s dearest friend—and her husband are in the overflow room with their family, and a special shout out to current graduate Maddie Wendt… who I have a hunch had a little something to do with my invitation to be here… I could continue with the list of prideful friends who are Williams Alums, but I will stop here because this is really about all of you – the class of 2011!

President Falk, Reverend Spalding, members of the faculty, administrators, parents, family members, friends—and most importantly, members of the class of 2011, Thank You for sharing this occasion with me, and members of my family. It is truly a great honor for us to celebrate the Baccalaureate with you and your families.

I am especially honored to accept an honorary degree tomorrow, when all of you have worked so hard to earn yours. And I suspect you all will feel a bit of well-deserved relief by days-end tomorrow (that is if you aren’t letting thoughts of the rest of your life creep in—which could bring with it a little terror) I must say, that I am feeling a sense of anxiety tonight although for different reasons. To serve this honor and this celebration with words that might in turn serve all of you…well I suppose this is where I earn my weight in salt.

My gratitude extends to Reverend Spaulding who wrote to me last January, the most beautiful and inspiring letter—an eloquent invitation to share reflections of what I’ve gained during my own adventures. His words inspired me not only with deep awe for what is Williams…a very thoughtful and world-conscious place of higher learning. Williams is an institution that loves its students—while expecting great things from you here, AND out in the world when you leave. Clearly, the college expects that you will take Williams with you, and as I have read, you in fact “ARE WILLIAMS” from this moment forward!

One sentence in Reverend Spaulding’s letter stood out for me, as he described the purpose and spirit of this Baccalaureate tradition. He said:

“We try to construct a service that can be a summons to your continued engagement in the quest for a better world—and an opportunity perhaps FOR YOU to catch a glimpse of the sweeping wholeness and goodness of your lives, and of life itself.”

There is another theme echoing among the mementos that symbolize Williams—the beautiful mountains and rivers that surround the college. Great expectations for ourselves,
…HOW we will measure our lives… in the context of the natural world…these are the themes that also guide me.

As I look back on 30 years since I graduated from college, there is a bit of paradox in the notion that I could have considered “the wholeness” of my own life back then! I am speaking tonight from the perspective of 30 years hence, and it might still be a challenge to measure my life NOW as “whole”…given that there is so much left to do! So many places yet to see!

In 1981, with a fresh degree in hand from the University of Oregon…my hopes to be a member of the Olympic Field Hockey Team dashed, my rowing career lackluster, my dream to gain a teaching job in the Pacific Northwest vanished by a depressed economy, I packed up my VW Bug and returned to my parents home in Minnesota. (Depressed economy / living with parents– could be any graduate’s nightmare—in just about any decade).  After several months, I got my first job as an elementary teacher at a tiny Catholic School in an old immigrant neighborhood. At that moment I had more questions, than confidence …that my life was at that moment “whole” did not cross my mind. I had hopes, and dreams. And I felt some notion of “grace”…that all would be well, and all matter of thing would be well.

If Reverend Spaulding has asked me in 1981, “are you ready to make the world a better place?”
I might have answered, “yes, maybe?… Maybe later! First, I need to settle into my job, look for a second job to supplement the first since one could not possibly live off of my teaching salary alone, find an affordable apartment………Assure my parents that I am grown up…”.

The idea that life, your life, is whole, at any moment…even now, while accepting
the call to “quest for the greater good, a better world”…Even while you’re at this auspicious moment, wholeness is not the answer to your life’s journey, but the very question of it
assures that your life’s journey will be meaningful!

What do I mean here?

There’s a famous passage where (Karl Maria) Rilke writes to a young poet who seeks his advice, he seems to be looking for answers to his life’s questions… the big questions about what to do, how to live his life going forward. And Rilke is inspired and awed by this young guy…

Rilke says…“I am touched by your beautiful anxiety about life. …I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable.”

He reassures him though… “I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things… If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, TO TRUST in the small Things that hardly anyone sees…”

“If you have a love for what is humble…then everything will become easier for you… To have patience with everything that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…Don’t search for the answers, that can’t be given to you now…
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

And here I am speaking to you from the future…

My career as Polar Explorer was unplanned, unexpected and at the time when I was just beginning, a huge improbable, impractical risk. When I was asked to join 7 men and 49 male dogs on the Steger North Pole Expedition in 1986 I can tell you that the decision was based on impulse, not calculation.

It seemed a huge risk to take a leave from my teaching job, which I loved, and exchange it for a very minimal life in the North woods of MN. There I would train with a team of strangers… living for long cold months tucked in a tiny tent away from family & friends, no pay, the only woman and a good dose of uncertainty only to leap off  to a 57 day expedition across the frozen, often shifting sea ice to reach the North Pole. To top that off, we would try to do this expedition like the early explorers. Using only a compass and sextant without any outside support. Reaching the North Pole on May 1st, 1986 was believe it or not my childhood dream come true.

After 2 months of backbreaking work by both dogs and people, we returned to the modern world by plane. In an instant we stood on the tarmac of the St Paul airport, having left the frigid temperatures of the Arctic, to enter the real world in 85º above zero heat and a crowd of people—not just my parents and sibs, cousins and grandparents as I had expected—but a crowd of over 1000 people who were there to greet us. For the first time in my life, I became conscious that a decision I had made many months ago, to accept the opportunity to experience a once-in-a-life time challenge, a childhood dream, had impacted many more people than my family circle and myself. Today the expeditions I organize are not just private experiences, although traveling in small teams with a commitment to personal truth has everything to do with my life’s work.

Over time, I have come to realize that the platform for my life’s work was built by the historical record; to be the first known woman to reach the North Pole…to cross Greenland on skis… and the continent of Antarctica with the first all-woman team… my passions have grown into the responsibilities of my life’s work.

Even as I set my sights on expanding the expedition to involve a global impact…to collaborate with women leaders from each of the Earth’s 7 continents, I realize that making history IS not the real prize. To organize expeditions that include taking school kids around the globe with me…gives me hope, and the stamina to pull the weight. Lately we have adopted pulling 250+ pound sleds ourselves leaving the sled dogs at home… Our sleds, loaded with supplies…all that would sustain us on the journey (fuel, tents, food…) …include kids; Curriculum that we’ve worked on over the years, and technology interfaces allow my personal dreams to translate into meaningful teaching tools for teachers, and in turn…learning experiences for children. When the weight of our sleds seems overwhelming, I need only to turn and imagine the millions of kids riding on top, cheering me on, assuring me that I can do it, must do it. More than any single motivation it is the children on our planet who fuel a direct link to my internal compass.

My purpose is to share the exhilaration of the journeys, fueled by the challenges that always teach me. As an educator, adding curriculum to the expeditions gives me a vehicle to purpose well beyond my own goals and ambitions. What I receive in return…is immeasurable. Merging my passion for the out-of-doors with my purpose as an teacher answers one of the big questions: why I do what I do. Over time and many thousands of small steps later…across all sorts of landscapes, I now understand completely my need for purpose to meet passion.

This is MY Giving Good Weight.  The title borrowed from an essay John McPhee wrote when I was just out of college. “Giving Good Weight” is one of McPhee’s magical pieces of journalism, taking place mostly in a Brooklyn Green Market during the mid-70s. The magic of this piece is the volume of its story, giant orbs of narrative that describe the characters. You’ll have to read it someday. In it, we’ve got the farmers and the New Yorkers— every stripe and color—who shop the market. Buried deep at the heart of McPhee’s essay is a guy named “Benepe”. Benepe is the quiet hero of the story; he is the architect/city planner who creates the farmer’s market. And, as it turns out, he is a Williams graduate, class of ‘50. (Hoogity Boogity) Giving Good Weight literally refers to weighing produce to gage its fare cost. But there is also a second layer of meaning: the deeper purpose and success of one’s calling, beyond the measure of one’s achievement.

Now, why did this story pop into my mind in relation to you tonight? My family will snicker… because we have a little farm outside the Twin Cities and I have taken to raising chickens, as much for their eggs as for the delight they bring to our yard. At $3 per dozen, the sale of eggs is not a profitable enterprise, but our chickens certainly GIVE GOOD WEIGHT, from valuable manure to being what I think are adorable animals to watch and interact with.

Giving Good Weight means, for me, much more than the literal measure of things… It’s also about what is simple, the small things that hardly anyone sees. It’s what Rilke means when he says, “trust in the small Things that can suddenly become huge, immeasurable…”

Digging a bit deeper we discover that giving good weight also refers to our Williams grad, Benepe, whose vision came from a deeper value for a life’s work and productivity.

Now, going back to expeditions once again…

Among the greatest joys of traveling where few have been… are not the sprawling landscapes of ice, nor the comradery of collaborating with amazing team mates:
The challenge and gratification of the ice…including the years of anticipating and planning, is actually that: planning is what makes an expedition possible. But it is the unexpected that defines the experience. Expeditions are a little of what you know and a lot more about what you don’t.

Expeditions don’t provide a predictable career path; They are not paths with financial security nor corner offices. But, the explorer’s life is never dull. And like your college experience, it is an invitation to be fully present in life, to embrace your strengths and your weaknesses… so that you are better able to choose that fork in the road when it presents itself to you. Not once but again and again. Of course this takes some leaps of faith. Giving yourself permission to go off the map. Even to get a little lost.

I am privileged to have stood at the top and the bottom of the world. Expeditions require such goals, the objective to reach the mark … But with many years of looking back on such accomplishments I now trust in the knowledge that goals are merely waypoints; the annukshuks and cairns that direct one’s passage. The expeditions, the diplomas, making history if you will…are only meaningful, if we can say… in some small way… that we are participating in the larger world for the better. Giving our good weight.

So all of your plans from here on out, your academic major/or double major!
your parents’ ambitions for you, and your own dreams… Williams’ love and respect for you…the honors you have earned here…your total experience and your transformation from being excited and curious freshman… to becoming the alumni you will be by this time tomorrow… the whole nine yards, so to speak—All of your history up to this point has prepared you well for the unexpected fork in the road, the call that will greet you—to give good weight in everything.

To be Williams means To Give Good Weight!

To courageously Step into the world – to be curious and explore – to be forever a student, hungry to live the questions.  The world is waiting for you the world needs you.

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