The beaming faces of members of the Class of 1996 when they gathered on the Old Campus for Senior Class Day exercises on May 26 suggested that unwelcome thoughts were far from their minds. And if the 1,238 graduating seniors heed the advice of Class Day speaker and former "Happy Days" star Henry Winkler, they will forever use their "powerful" energy in their lives after Yale to combat any negative thoughts that erode their self-esteem and their belief that they can achieve their dreams.
In his address to the graduating seniors, their families and guests, Mr. Winkler recounted how he battled his own insecurities to achieve fame as an actor, producer and director. He told of how he struggled through his high school years, sometimes being called "stupid" and "lazy." It wasn't until he was 31 years old -- long after he graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1970 -- that he realized he had dyslexia. His own experience, he said, made him "living proof" of an epigram once given to him by a fan: "If you will it, it is not a dream."
"Allowing negative thoughts to live in your mind and body is powerful and addictive," Mr. Winkler told the crowd of nearly 7,000 spectators at Class Day festivities. "And what I have learned is that there is no nutritional value in a negative thought. ... Those negative thoughts that live in your mind and in your soul, they pervade every part of your life. And you know those thoughts: 'I'll never ... She won't go out with me ... He won't go out with me ... I'll never get that job ... I'll never achieve ... I'll never ... I won't be able to ... I can't."
Along the way to his own stardom as the leather-jacketed, tough-talking but sensitive Arthur Fonzerelli more popularly known as "The Fonz" on the long-running sitcom "Happy Days," and later as a television and film director and producer, Mr. Winkler said he learned from a philosopher's disciple not to ever "put a period on the end of a negative thought."
"When those thoughts 'I can't,' 'I won't,' 'they'll never,' 'it will never happen' come into your mind, you say 'I'm sorry, I have no time for you now,'" Mr. Winkler urged the graduating seniors. "If you put a period on the end of a negative thought, it will become a paragraph and that paragraph will become a thesis of negativity that will hold you in your place. And if you say 'I have no time for you now,' and if you make that a part of your ritual -- if you don't put a period on the end of that negative thought, it will leave you and you will continue your march toward your dream. I am living proof: 'If you will it, it is not a dream.'"
Cheering 'The Fonz'
Loud cheering by members of the Class of 1996 forced Mr. Winkler to pause on several occasions during his address. The biggest cheers came when the actor, reflecting on the power of television, recited some lines from a "Happy Days" episode in which "The Fonz" comments to Richie Cunningham: "I got a liberry card; this is very cool. You know, anybody can get one of these suckers and you can meet chicks there, too." There was a 500-percent increase nationally in library card registration after that show was aired, Mr. Winkler told his amused audience.
As part of his message to the students to believe in themselves, Mr. Winkler also reminded members of the Class of 1996 that they have the responsibility to help others, particularly children. He decried the "disrespect" shown to children in the United States -- which he said, is evident in government cuts or potential cuts in programs that aid children, such as the breakfast program for poor schoolchildren.
"We want everything as fast as our instant-food hamburgers in this country. Our mindless need for everything that is new is incompatible with the harmony of living on this earth. Our short- term need for gratification so outweighs our long-term interest in the future. Without being considerate to ourselves and one another, we pass on a chaos to our children that then is translated into violent and destructive behavior. Considerate behavior to others can only come when we are considerate to ourselves first. And until then, that destructive behavior destroys our children and the communities we live in. And that violence has finally shaped our children's communication. One child wants another child's Nike's: instant communication: boom, a bullet," stated Mr. Winkler, who is actively involved in a multitude of programs and initiatives for the benefit of children. "We have to take the country back, and basically, you must lead the way," he added.
'This world is yours'
Mr. Winkler also urged the seniors to trust their own instincts, telling them that their "mind knows only so little compared to what -their- inner voice knows."
"And never forget who you are," Mr. Winkler concluded. "Never forget where you come from. Never forget to give back for everything you've gotten in return. I promise you this: the anticipatory fear that is coursing through your body as you sit there, wondering about this new journey you are about to take tomorrow, or in the middle of the summer or next September, is worse than the exciting journey you're about to go on. You know how to get what you want. You are very powerful. Be kind to yourselves. For God's sake, be kind to each other. And it will give you a never-ending supply of power that will let you take your place on this planet. This world is yours. Go and take it!"
Separate narratives, woven together
Class Day festivities officially began with a procession of the graduating seniors onto the Old Campus. While all were clad in the traditional black graduation gown, many soon-to-be graduates took the opportunity to make personal statements, both humorous and serious, by wearing decorative headgear or carrying signs, stuffed animals and other objects. Headgear ranged from a Halogen lamp and an inflatable football helmet to a model of Harkness Tower, mini- umbrellas, nylon stockings, party hats, sombreros, berets and witch and clown hats. Some of the students carried "Settle Now" signs regarding negotiations between the University and its unions on new labor contracts, while others waved balloon depictions of Sesame Street and other popular television characters. A few seniors with an inclination for faster travel made their way onto the Old Campus on rollerblades.
Class Secretary Lesley Frieder welcomed her classmates by noting that while members of the Class of 1996 arrived at Yale as a diverse group of individuals with only a common desire to be a part of the Yale experience, they now leave having become a part of "something larger than our individual tales."
"In the courtyards, classrooms and dorm rooms, we have etched our mark alongside those who have come before," Ms. Frieder told her fellow students. "Our achievements will stand and grow more marked with time, and we can one day look back and know that we have been a part of something sacred and unique. Yale has given us a gift; it has given us each other. And from each other, we have learned about desire, about success, about compassion. We now know that it is not enough to simply be smart, to run swiftly or to sing sweetly, because all of these things become meaningless if they aren't shared, if they aren't sharpened by use. We are 1,300 remarkable individuals, but more importantly, we are a community." Awards and honors
Sixteen students were honored for scholastic, personal or athletic achievements during the Class Day ceremonies, while six members of the faculty were recognized for their teaching excellence. For the first time in over a decade, one student received two of the top Yale College prizes. He is Joshua Ian Civin, who was presented both the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize and the Warren Memorial High Scholarship Prize.
The other winners of scholastic prizes are Behrang Behin, Jonathan Elliott Cohen, William Scott Whyte, Jonathan Peter Andrews and Sara Ellen Wolverson.
Awards for excellence in varsity athletics were presented to J. Daniel Thompson and Kellianne Bartlett see page 12-A . Recognized for their sportsmanship in intramurals were three students: Adam Spiegel, Kate Jones and Ann Kao.
Awards for personal achievement were given to Lisa Hovesepian, Anders Martinson and Bryan Mark Rigg, while awards for public service were presented to Mary-Ann Etiebet and Gary Stewart.
Teaching prizes were presented to Laura King, Kai T. Erickson, John Rogers, William Segraves, Yitzhak Brudny and Howard Stern. Humorous reminiscences
In keeping with a Class Day tradition of delivering the class history in a tongue-in-cheek manner, Geoffrey Klein and Corey Stern centered their telling of significant events during their undergraduate years around the theme "Top 10 Things Corey and Geoff Were Rejected From in the Last Four Years." They recalled such Yale events as the naming of Richard C. Levin as Yale president during their sophomore year, the installation of the Women's Table by Maya Lin to celebrate coeducation at the University, the closing of High Street to make way for a pedestrian thoroughfare, the removal of "D" from the Credit/D/Fail grading option and the GESO grade withholding. They also commented on top national events, such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and highway chase. Their classmates smiled and laughed while Mr. Klein and Mr. Stern recounted their shared four years of history.
The Ivy Ode, which is traditionally read in an esoteric language, was presented in English by Douglas McKay, who wrote this year's ode, and translated into Greek by Dimitra Doufekias. Traditionally, the Ivy Ode describes the connection between the growth of the ivy vine and the flourishing of the graduating class. A stanza from this year's ode reads: "As the trowel turn its first clump/watch the vines melt/in the courtyards/the cobbles/the towers/and us/each leaf holds an image/cherish their colours/grab your rake and gather a pile/to run and to jump in/sing over your shoulder,/its four years of friendship."
As the ode was read, Yuri Iwaoka and Waisinn Chan planted the ivy in honor of their class and dedicated a stone on Phelps Gate that is engraved with the numerals of the Class of 1996. The planting of the ivy and the dedication of the class stone follow a tradition dating back to 1852.
Wave of celebration, farewell
By the time Class Day festivities drew to a close, clouds had blocked the sun that shone brightly at the start of the ceremony and many of the more lightly dressed parents and guests hugged themselves trying to stay warm. But most remained seated as the proud near-graduates took part in one their last celebrations of Yale tradition: the singing of the alma mater, "Bright College Years." Like so many graduates before them, the seniors were right on cue as they began to wave their white handkerchiefs in the air during the last line of the song. Some parents climbed on their seats with video cameras to capture an image of the symbolic scene, their child one of a multitude robed in black, swaying the fluttering white cloth high in the air, poised for the future in a moment when memories made the four years of their pasts so keenly alive.
--By Susan Gonzalez