Catherine Baker, Valedictory Speaker to the College



Catherine Baker

Catherine Baker ’15. (Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

President Hanlon, Members of the Board of Trustees, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, and finally the Class of 2015:

Throughout my life, my mother has advised me to take mental snapshots of moments like this—to capture their every detail—and store them as compact mental pictures. At times, I like to revisit these captured memories. I look inward as the inside of my head becomes a kind of movie screen on which I see flashes of past experiences.

If I look closely, I can see myself running around the 2011 bonfire, lifting my class jersey over the side of my face in a vain attempt to escape that intense heat; or I’m once again watching my Choates’ floor mates pummel each other with snowballs during our first campus-wide snowball fight, which was, I believe, arranged through a blitz invitation from none other than Dr. Seuss, himself; and I can still feel a shiver as I see myself waiting for my turn to plunge into Occom Pond in February (which, to our good fortune as freshmen, turned out to be the warmest day of the warmest winter in years, but no one needs to know that, because we maintain bragging rights.) And on this day of beautiful celebration, I feel we all owe it to ourselves to pause, look around, and take a mental snapshot. Capture this moment—the graduation of our class—the class of 2015.

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What I’ve learned in studying neuroscience is that we are only able to capture such mental snapshots because of our amorphous, almost mysterious ability to attend to—that is, pay attention to—the world around us. When we attend to a stimulus, that object receives a greater representation in our brains. In fact, we must attend to stimuli in order to become fully aware of them. The only problem is that our attentional power is limited—a fact we are all very familiar with. (Even as I speak, many of you are probably texting or updating Instagram or checking YikYak).

What I mean to say though is that with all our nifty tech gadgets to play with and social media profiles to update, we are constantly confronted with thousands of stimuli every day, only a fraction of which we can attend to. Therefore, only a small number of stimuli enter our consciousness and short-term memory, and from there, only selective items are likely to be consolidated further into our long-term conscious memory.

Thus attention is a precious resource. At any time, we have the opportunity to choose how to direct its narrow spotlight. It would be wise for us to allocate our attention carefully—allocate it deliberately to moments like this so that they can be cherished always as mental snapshots.

But we must also look beyond the pleasant moments and divert our attentional spotlights to more difficult life experiences because, realistically, most moments in life aren’t as spectacular as this one.

Yes, Dartmouth has provided us with four years that are densely filled with pleasant mental snapshots, but in that time we also experienced failure and mistakes of all types. As high-achieving Dartmouth students (and now Dartmouth graduates), we have encountered lots of praise, making our mistakes and failures feel all the more devastating. Some of us react by simply not giving these mistakes our attention at all. Others probably focus their attentional spotlights on their mistakes to excess. And still others vacillate between these two extremes. But, at the end of the day, it is important that we pay at least some attention to our mistakes.

Henry Marsh, a renowned British neurosurgeon, has made mistakes—ones that I would venture to say are probably more serious than any that we have made— slips of the knife or poor judgment calls in the OR that have led patients to premature comas and deaths. Yet, he has lectured all about his mistakes in an effort to encourage the notion that the practice of medicine is built on a constructive, yet non-self-defeating appraisal of mistakes, like all other practices that we learn. In other words, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up, but we should make an effort to look beyond our desire to preserve our ideal self-image, and pay attention to more than just our successes, but also our mistakes and failures.

And, lastly, we can’t forget to turn our attentional spotlights onto other people. We need to listen—pay attention to people who are different, and learn from them. It is easy to become caught in one’s own silo of beliefs—a state that only breeds intolerance. As my classical studies professor Paul Christesen taught all of us who went on his foreign study program, “get to know others—it is only easy to judge them if you don’t know where they’re coming from.”

So let’s pay attention. Pay attention today. Let’s follow my mom’s advice and take more than actual photographs, which rely on the sight of the image to recall the memory. Create something more powerful, a mental snapshot that will allow you to revisit this moment for years to come. As William Wordsworth writes, “in this moment there is life and food for future years.”

Thank you professors, and mom and dad, and congratulations, Class of 2015!

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