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James B. Comey's remarks at Convocation

The following are the prepared remarks of Former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey ('82) for William & Mary's 2009 Opening Convocation ceremony. - Ed.

ComeyTwenty-seven years ago, on the night before my graduation, I stood on these steps and spoke at the Candlelight Ceremony.  I had decided to try to give a funny speech, about the Real World, poking fun at people, like my parents, who were always telling me I needed to stop taking strange courses and start preparing myself for The Real World, which was a place somewhere outside Williamsburg.

It was a scary thing, to try to make a funny speech, made all the more scary by the fact that I was following the President of the class of 1932.  He had just spent 50 years in The Real World, and didn't seem real happy about it.  And he definitely was not interested in warming up the crowd for me.  But the speech I had written was hilarious - or at least I thought it was - so I plowed on.

To my relief, it got a good laugh - from three or four people - who all chuckled at the silly notion that William & Mary is somehow part of an Unreal World.  I made a strong argument that William & Mary was firmly in the Real World, and I mocked those who said otherwise.  Which was a really nice thing to do, given that meant I was mocking my parents, just as they finished paying for four years of my education.

Don't ever do that.

Although it took some time, I have come to believe that mocking your parents is a bad thing.  One of the reasons for that new belief is that now, it turns out, I am my parents.  I actually say things like,
"If I have to stop this car . . ."
"Not dressed like that, you're not, young lady"
"Could you stop saying ‘like' all the time?"

But I'm here to tell you that, as strange as it sounds, my perspective has not changed much from decades of living in the supposed Real World.  I still think William and Mary is part of that Real World; except it's a much more important part of that World than I knew in 1982.

This place is important because the rest of the Real World is often too busy, too noisy, and too dangerous.  It's very hard to find time there to pause and reflect.  It's hard to find the space to question first principles, to find out how things got to be the way they are, to actually take something apart to learn how it works.  There is simply too little time to shape - or re-shape - yourself.

The rest of the Real World is also a place where it's sometimes hard to find someone who listens with the attitude that they might actually be convinced of something.  Instead, people listen in order to figure out what rebuttal to make.  They pause politely before telling you why you are an idiot.

They aren't looking to learn anything.  It's a place where many people take a position rather than stating a belief.  It is a place where people take sides, and care mostly about their side winning.  It is also a place where people almost never step back to figure out if they are still on the right side.

This little corner of the Real World is different and always has been.

William and Mary is something of an island, a bit removed from the craziness, danger, and distraction.  And on this island, there are people who will poke you and prod you and demand that you give a hard scrubbing to your ideas, beliefs, and conclusions.  It is a place where people will insist that you actually listen and understand.  It is a place where you can meet - and really come to know - different people, all interesting, some fascinating, some actually a little weird, to be honest.

It's a place where a science geek can study ethics, Islam, or music.  And it's a place where a philosopher can learn about neuroscience and what that discipline says about who we are.  It's a place where people have long taken the time to think and talk about our government, our institutions, and our natures, and about ways to try to make all of those better.

Wherever you come from, you can use your four short years on this island wisely.  You can use that time to learn, to think, to question, to argue, to complain, to dream, to serve.  In other words, you can use your time on the island to train yourself to become a well-rounded citizen of the world.

  But you don't have to.  You can use your time on the island as simply a bridge between high school and a job.  Your main interests can be socializing while acquiring a trade.  You can get good grades, suffer through the courses they force you to take, and focus on your specialty, whatever that is.  Some fine people do that, but I think it would be a mistake, and I'm glad William and Mary makes that path hard to follow.

I should add, though, that I'm not against socializing.  On benches all around this building, and, actually, in that tree, I did some fairly active socializing with the love of my life.  So much so, that Patrice and I were married right here and have five kids, one of whom - Maurene -  helped direct your orientation.  Yup, it's a little freaky, particularly for my kids, who have to listen to me talking about my college love-life.

But life on this island can be so much more than that.  William and Mary is the alma mater of a nation because it turns out people who have used their time here to challenge and broaden themselves.  It turns out people who want to keep learning, who want to keep challenging, who want to keep contributing.

 And we need that kind of people very badly right now.  I don't need to tell you that your junior high and high school years were a time of great upheaval - of terrorism, wars, and economic crisis.

There is a lot of pain and hurt in the world right now, and it will be there when you graduate.  Our country has enemies to fight, and we are lucky to have brave men and women - many of them led by William and Mary graduates - to wear the uniform.

But with our warriors, we also need those who will follow and plant seeds of hope and peace.  As a wise person said as World War II came to a close:

"Our job will not end with the sound of the guns.  . . .  We may not stop until we have done our part to fashion a world in which there shall be some share of fellowship; which shall be better than a den of thieves."

We need teachers, diplomats, doctors, nurses, engineers, writers, artists, lawyers, and volunteers.  There are so many ways to serve the world, our country, and our communities.  Every single person can make a contribution, and a difference.  That kind of person has always come from here.

Which leads me to the last thing I want to tell you:

You have now joined a very special family.  Of course it's a family of extraordinary academic talent; you sit here surrounded by the brightest and most creative young people imaginable.  Whatever your path to this point, it has been marked by excellence and achievement, and that will continue.

But more than that, today you add your light to the beacon that has always lit the way for this nation, this school that produced those who literally designed this country, but also those who have long nurtured it and protected it.

And this isn't about long-gone people in powdered wigs.  You can look to any corner of American life today and see members of the family you have just joined.  They are in visible roles, leading our most important institutions or dominating the arts and entertainment; or they are in countless less visible, but equally vital roles - teaching, healing, inventing, and helping.

Your membership in this family will change your life.  But the nature of this family, this Tribe, is a gift, purchased for you at huge personal and financial cost by those who went before.  As a new member of the family that has always guided the life of this great country, you have obligations to which you must be faithful.

Your first obligation is to never, ever fail to help a fellow member of the Tribe and to look for ways to advance those who follow you.  Hire them, recommend them, mentor them, protect them.  Those ahead will do the same for you.  It is a shared obligation that lasts a lifetime.

Your second obligation is a solemn duty to give back some of what will come to you by virtue of your membership in this remarkable tribe.  Contributing your time, your talent, and even your money to this family is a matter of honor as important to this College as the Code.  Those who follow you depend upon you.

Never forget that.

 The long line of patriots and servants that began at this spot three hundred years ago now stretches down and includes you.  By joining that line, you have made it better.

Welcome to the Tribe.  I am honored to call you sisters and brothers.

Thank you.