2006 Academic Convocation

To See the Elephant Under the Top Hat

Constructing Narrative: Our UPS Story
Emily MacPherson '06

Sometimes I feel like my life is one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I loved in junior high and borrowed all the time from the local library. In these novels, the reader charts the course for the main character by selecting the best possible outcome at the end of each one page mini-scenario.

Personally, I think that a recent, more mundane, Puget Sound “Choose my own adventure” would read something like this:

Option One: You stay up late studying in the SUB, downing a combination of espresso drinks from Diversions Cafe. Turn to page 14.

Option Two: Instead, you choose to go to bed early and hope that your alarm clock will wake you in time to finish glancing over the books before your class. Proceed to page 50.

What makes this interesting is that by choosing either option, I would work toward constructing my own narrative and its direction.

This metaphor of our lives as stories isn’t all that far from an academic theory and possible truth. The theory of performativity explains that we are continuously developing, or writing, our identities. That is, our “self” isn’t fixed, but rather we keep adding and connecting “performances” in the forms of experiences, encounters, and dialogues to our narratives. Performativity doesn’t always give us a choice, though, as different factors “perform” through us, and our lives may turn in a completely unexpected direction. This idea of actually living the creation of a narrative never reaching completion is intriguing and somewhat freeing (or terrifying—depending on the day). It also becomes more and more relevant as I conclude this chapter in my life. I wonder how my own story would read—piecing together the moment when I first glanced at that glossy-paged University of Puget Sound brochure with the recent whirlwind of finals and graduation celebrations.

Indeed, the elements of short fiction can be found in the life of a Puget Sound student. Here, we are surrounded by dynamic (and incredibly intelligent) characters in the forms of friends, mentors, faculty, and staff members. And, of course we have lived for these four years in an extremely picturesque (though sometimes rainy) setting. We could make such a great vignette from just those elements. But hasn’t our time at Puget Sound also taught us to step outside of the confines of the classroom and test what we have learned about diversity, community service, and knowledge as essential parts of our lives? I believe that it is possible to read our time here as a part of a much larger, interconnecting, and quite complicated story.

When writing fiction, one is often instructed to begin the story in medias res-- in the middle of things. This means that our story, or even chapter, about Puget Sound may have started with our entrance into college in the middle of questioning our values, morals, or potential major. My creative writing professors have also instructed me to stop ending my stories with a bang and to leave them ambiguous enough at the end so that they could continue past that last page: Where will the characters go? What will they do next? How much is actually resolved?

But living a life, writing it as I go, is so much bigger and more complicated than writing a short story for Hans Ostrom’s Advanced Fiction Writing class. I’ve spent some time during these recently sunny afternoons sitting on the stoop beneath one of those beautiful flowering trees outside of where I live in University Hall. Perhaps you’ve seen me. I’m quite good at pretending to read: sunglasses resting on my nose, novel open on one knee, and an iced coffee beverage on the concrete next to me. In actuality, though, I’ve often been lost in thought, pondering my narrative and trying to understand how I got here—a difficult question indeed because my narrative is bigger than myself, bigger than what I can sometimes comprehend. In “Stories That Define Me,” an essay for The New York Times, the author Joyce Carol Oates writes, “For many days—in fact for weeks--- I have been tormented by the proposition that if I could set down, in reasonably lucid prose, the story of ‘the making of the writer Joyce Carol Oates,’ I might in some rudimentary way be defined, at least to myself. Stretched upon a grammatical framework, who among us does not appear to make sense? But the story will not cohere. The necessary words will not arrange themselves.”

I’m suggesting that the idea of a clean, simple, individual UPS narrative will always fracture and a singular story will never “cohere.” Instead, we need to recognize the possibility of a much larger and interconnected UPS story. It is impossible for us to have submitted applications, to have been accepted, to have taken some classes, and now to graduate without ever having been affected by this place. Sometimes the elements of choice in narrative direction involve more than us as individuals.

A few examples:

One summer, between my first and second year here, I was flipping through photo albums on a shelf in our basement and came across a white album with pictures from my parents’ summer cross-country road trip before my older sister and I were born. Opposite the pictures, my mother had meticulously described each day: from the weather, to the meals they ate, to the places where they spent the night. One night while on the west coast portion of the trip, my parents spent the night at the campus of the University of Puget Sound—of course remarking on the beauty of the area. Being from Massachusetts and never having visited UPS before being accepted for admission, I now have the knowledge that my father and mother set foot on this campus. Fate perhaps? Or maybe just an odd coincidence? In any case, somehow the MacPherson family connection to UPS began long before I enrolled here.

At this year’s spring Donor Relations Luncheon, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Joan Welch, a retired teacher from the Portland area and a member of UPS’ class of ’66. We had a great time chatting and eating the delicious food provided, and I learned that, much like I have, Joan had enjoyed her English classes and developed some wonderful friendships at UPS. Listening to her stories and watching her greet a few of her friends also in attendance, I hoped that I, too, could recall in 40 years the details of my escapades here, as well as claim that I had kept in stable contact with my core group of friends.

In general, there are additional reminders that we are part of a larger UPS community and its constantly developing history all over campus. For example, February 19th marks the observance of Japanese Internment Day. Around that time each year, plaques bearing the names of 30 Japanese UPS students are placed in front of the cherry trees on the way to the student center. According to the UPS website, these students were relocated to interment camps during World War II, but first, before leaving campus, they presented the original trees “as a token of their appreciation and thanks for all that their friends and professors had done for them.” On each walk to the SUB (maybe in hopes of getting that coffee and finishing those papers), the trees stand as a reminder of those who made history at UPS before us, as well as signify the challenges of diversity and our responsibility to this institution.

In graduating from UPS, we enter into a brilliantly detailed story and our lives automatically become involved in this institution-- a place that Professor Mary Turnball calls “a living, breathing university.” Maybe in this chaotic time, we might also take a moment to reflect and acknowledge that our present, developing narrative is a result of those seemingly arbitrary choices, those bizarre moments of chance, that decision to mail in our acceptance to The University of Puget Sound. I’ll admit that this speech is also a product of a number of directions and choices contributing to its genesis, as well as my own narrative: those moments of reflection on that concrete stoop outside of my room, my fabulous English major, wonderfully supportive friends and their encouragement, a lunchtime conversation with my brilliant academic advisor, conferences with another amazingly helpful professor, an e-mail correspondence with the UPS director of donor relations, and late night practice sessions with a fellow RA. And what an amazing narrative it has been . . . so far. As Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen has written, “A finished person is a boring person.” Yes, I think that there are many more choices to be made in my narrative-- and in our story.