Commencement Address By Clarinda Blais, May 20, 2017

Commencement Address delivered by Clarinda Blais
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 20, 2017

I’d like to begin by asking you a question: “When is the last time you felt bored?” I know what you’re thinking. “Well actually Clarinda, since you mentioned it, I’m feeling a little bored right now.” But I mean truly bored – so much so that you became weary due to your lack of interest – everything you did began to feel like a meaningless waste of time. My sophomore year of college, like many others, I became curious about and knew little about the homeless population in Boston. I began serving breakfast at the St. Francis House, one of the largest operating day shelters in the Greater Boston Area. On my third day as a volunteer, I stumbled into the resource room. The resource room is a waiting room. Here, patrons of the shelter wait for their next meal, a shower, or a doctors’ appointment, or just escape the cold. It has a maximum capacity of 150. The walls are lined with chairs, and the middle is occupied with rows of chairs and tables. When I walked in for the first time, nearly every chair was taken, but the room was strikingly silent. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice that the people sitting around looked really… bored.

This was something I identified with immediately. I grew up in a very rural, economically depressed area in upstate New York. There were few opportunities, and virtually no diversity. I graduated from what is frequently cited as one of the worst public high schools in the state. Congratulations to me. I would come home at the end of the day during my senior year and my parents would ask, “Clarinda how was school today?” I would reply with the same single word, and I’m sure if I asked them to say it aloud now, they could. It was, “stupid.” I was so bored by the end of my time in Herkimer.

When I arrived at Boston University freshman year, I was overwhelmed by the degree to which I felt behind my peers academically. When I realized that if I wanted to catch up, I would need to spend 13 hours a day at a desk, I knew I would have to find something that made me eager to get out of bed in the morning and even more eager to get the library after class. I could never feel bored again. I worked hard to find out what this would be – I tried political science, biology, international relations, journalism, and finally, I stumbled into the philosophy department.

Suddenly, I found myself asking questions I didn’t know I was capable of. Both Professor Speight and Dean Cudd so nicely pointed out what some of these questions are: What does it mean to be good? What is happiness? What is ultimately real? I found myself conversing, thinking, reading, and writing at new levels literally every day. Boredom is something I have not felt since.

So, as I stood at the back of the resource room, I thought to myself: “It’s too bad the residents of homeless shelters don’t have access to philosophy the way I do at school.” Then I thought, “It’s really a shame they don’t have access to philosophy because it’s accessible in a way that many other academic fields are not. It often just requires that we reflect on our own experience, and everyone has their own experience.”

So, I had the perhaps naïve idea to teach philosophy in homeless shelters. As Professor Speight mentioned, I would later call this the Free Philosophy Project. So, with a grant from the department, and their unending support, I set out for two months, nearly ten hours a day, trying to find just one shelter that would allow me to teach the class. They all responded the same way: “I’m sorry, but we don’t have the resources to accommodate this kind of program.” Polite for, “This is not a good idea.” I was going to return the check to the department. I chalked it up to an idea that was good in theory, but not in practice.

Then, there was a voice in my head that said “Clarinda, just try a little bit harder.” The next day, I came across a small women’s shelter in the basement of a church in downtown Boston. The director at this shelter happened to minor in philosophy when she was an undergraduate. She thought the idea was an interesting, and thus offered me a trial class.

I had never been more nervous than I was the hour before the trial class began. I sat in a conference room on the second floor of the Women’s Lunch Placec with a box of donuts wondering what I had gotten myself into. How could I, a 19-year-old girl, teach women who would be twice my age, and had experiences far different from my own, anything about philosophy? How would I get them to take me seriously? How would I connect with them?

But as the nine women on that very first day filed into the classroom and took a pencil, a donut, and Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics I decided to be straightforward with them. I think I said something like this: “I really have no idea what I’m doing here. I just know that I love philosophy, and I want to share it with others who don’t have access to it.

Thus, I began asking the same questions Aristotle had asked me, reminding them that I was not there to teach, but to learn. And as we traversed topics like drug addiction, abuse, and homelessness, I learned that these differences which made it seem like there was an insurmountable gap between us, would actually become the platform for our most profound commonality: we all wanted to answer the same questions.

These nine women became people I shared meals with, laughed with, and cried with. They became my friends and my teachers.

Two years later, I return to the same resource room. Only this time, I see people asking questions, laughing, getting angry, or moving from the back of the room to the front as my classmate, and fellow volunteer, Dan, asks the question: “What is justice?”

Now, the Free Philosophy Projects exists at two Boston-based universities and 11 shelters with plans to expand across the US, and even internationally.

I was apprehensive to give this speech because I thought it might come across as bragging, like I was telling you about something that I deserved praise for. But the truth is I couldn’t feel less like that. All I wanted to do was share what I loved with others. And if anyone deserves praise for this work, it’s the people sitting behind me, because I have simply done what they have taught me to do so well. So, as you celebrate the graduates today, celebrate our professors as well.
Finally, to my fellow graduates. I think we’re all asking ourselves a lot of questions right now. But if there’s anything I have learned over the past four years, it’s that going forward, we must do work we love. We should trust our instincts and do what we’re afraid.

So, what comes next? Yeah, that is a good question. Maybe that’s the key. As young philosophers, I believe it is our responsibility going forward to remember we have something to learn from everyone. More than we should talk, we should be asking good questions, and listening carefully to other’s answers.

Thank you so much. Enjoy commencement weekend.