Making a living

Graduation speech at UC Berkeley by Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior:

‘In 1962, I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English . . . I did not attend the ceremony. Some 30 years later, I can perhaps recover that period . . . A graduation ceremony ought to be a celebration, and I didn’t feel like celebrating. I also felt like a failure; there were quite a few Cs in my major, a low GPA. In those days, according to rumour, there was a grade in the English department called a Chinese C. It meant, out of pity, go ahead and pass the Chinese Americans; they’re going to be engineers anyway, and their English didn’t need to, and couldn’t, get any better. I had no business getting a degree in English. I’d gotten the liberal arts education of an aristocrat when I was a peasant and the daughter of peasants . . . [she talks about how she dropped out of engineering, which she didn’t tell her parents] . . .

In June, with my only marketable skill, typing, I got a job as a clerk-typist at an insurance company in San Francisco. I was fired. I got another job as a clerk-typist at a property owners’ association at the Claremont Hotel. I got fired from that too. I got another job as a clerk-typist at the Cal Engineering Department. I got fired from that. I was fired from the first three jobs after graduation. I give every one of you permission to get fired from at least three jobs . . .

The world is not friendly to writers. It is not friendly to English majors . . .

Today, some thirty years later, I want to suggest an idea that has taken me, in my slowness, all this time to understand that I had received the perfect education.

The teachers at Berkeley had given me the best they had, all they knew. It was a miracle of an education. In all its hodge-podge vagaries, here’s what I learned: to doubt, to ask questions, to appreciate ambiguity, multi-quity, to hold multi-quity like rainbows in one’s hands and clear eyes. I came away from Berkeley knowing how to doubt everything, how to deconstruct anything. The Cal liberal arts education blows away old answers, and leaves questions.

The most interesting and scary of the questions was this one: ‘”With this degree in English, what will I do to make a living?” Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? “Make a living.” A gerund, a verb form, an idiom made of two verb forms. Not a definitive once-and-for-all deadend noun like “money” or “job” . . . You create and make up new jobs that are good for a human being. You alter a cramping job so that it supports your humanity and spirit and changes the marketplace . . .

To give you short cuts and reassurances, and to save you from regrets, I want to say that after those three jobs where I got fired, I became better at inventing work. I helped found a sanctuary for AWOL soldiers from the Vietnam War. I started a drop-in school for drop-outs; I went up and down the road looking for boys with spray cans, and took those who’d collapse in the grass and bushes to my drop-in school. First I fed them; then I tried to show them that reading books will get them higher than sniffing paint.

In our culture, the education that we’ve gotten at Berkeley is the vision of the quest. This graduation is not the beginning or the end. In Native American cultures, the questing hero or heroine sees a vision, then brings it back as a story, a song, a dance, a weaving pattern, a painting, or a map to give to his tribe. This graduation is the middle of the quest. Now you take the knowledge and make sense of it, create its practical applications, invent human uses for abstractions, and bring gifts home to us, your community.’

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