Melanie Subbiah, Phi Beta Kappa Speaker
My dad told me once about a mountain climber whose favorite feeling was completing a climb and knowing that for that moment, standing at the top of the mountain, he was the only person in the world who knew he had summited that climb. A pure moment of success, just for him, untouched by praise or other people’s recognition.
Now this speech is not about success or climbing but it is about what we choose to do in those moments when we feel no one’s watching.
And it’s about grapefruits.
The first time I had my mind blown at Williams was watching my friend eat a grapefruit in mission dining hall freshman year.
Now clearly I’m either way too easily fascinated or maybe I have an unhealthy obsession with grapefruits. But what drew my attention was that she chose to peel her grapefruit half and eat it in sections instead of scooping it out with a spoon the way I had always done.
In that moment, she revolutionized my understanding of something I thought I knew how to do, that I had been doing one way my whole life.
But she had no idea.
She had no idea I was watching or that I would take away so much from her simple action. She believed herself unnoticed, just like the mountain climber.
And yet she had unknowingly shifted my paradigm, shown me that grapefruits are actually very similar to oranges and there’s no need to eat them any differently.
Now I know I’m just talking about eating breakfast here, but you can imagine other moments like this with far more profound reaches. And besides, let’s be honest, breakfast food is really pretty important.
The unfortunate part though is that these moments to learn and to teach sometimes go unnoticed. When we’re in the position to learn, we are often too absorbed in our lives to notice the wonderful things our friends do, to look over and just watch them eat their morning grapefruit. And when we’re in the position to teach, or to lead, we often don’t notice or don’t act because we assume no one is watching.
I imagine we’re going to have this feeling a lot in the future, that no one is watching or that no on cares what we do. We’re leaving a small school. We’re the oldest and at least hopefully most mature members of this community. We’re at the top and now we’re entering a world that often seems indifferent to us and, in some cases, is working against us. And we have to keep taking opportunities to be leaders, even if it’s just in the small gestures that we don’t know if anyone’s watching but that cut against the grain.
Because sometimes someone will be watching, and it’s these small local acts – of originality, of kindness, of resistance – that add up.
So let’s keep eating grapefruits, keep teaching and learning from each other, and keep summiting mountains even when no one’s watching.
Congratulations class of 2017!