Three weeks ago on March 18th 2013, four new students were inducted into Widener’s Sigma Tau Delta chapter. Sigma Tau Delta, the international English Honor Society was founded in 1924 at Dakota Wesleyan University and recognizes students that exhibit academic excellence, promote literacy, encourage interest in English and literature, and represent the three Greek letters, representing Sincerity, Truth, and Design. While I would love to tell you more about the organization itself and our chapter at Widener, I’d rather leave you the words chapter President Michelle Callaghan shared with the Sigma Tau Delta community at Widener to welcome the new inductees.

Muses, Magicians, and Guardians

Hello and good afternoon. I am Michelle Callaghan, president of Sigma Tau Delta. Welcome aboard, inductees. I know we’re a small group here on campus, and it may not feel like much to be reciting oaths in the University Center, but being a member of Sigma Tau Delta is a big deal. Of course we serve our community—we’ve held book drives in the past for local school districts, and this year we donated books to a local prison, and we have more plans for giving in the works, including sending books to the Eastside Ministries. But since we are a group of readers and writers, we know how important it is to have, well, let’s call it a philosophical motivation. A thesis statement.

What is ours?

I’ll be honest: while writing this speech I dug into the Sigma Tau Delta website and did consider pulling the old sincerity, truth, and design mottos into a really cheesy, feel-good snooze fest. But then I actually started thinking about some of the bullet points on the site’s mission statement page. One of Sigma Tau Delta’s driving goals is to nurture literacy in our communities—but what does that really mean, and besides book drives, how can we do this today, right now?

During my ponderings, I kept coming back to a thought—what are our duties as wordsmiths? Nurturing literacy sounds awesome. It sounds like a big, warm hug from a gently loved book, or tutoring at the local grade school. But as we all know, literacy means so much more than being able to read. As members of an English honors society, we’ve probably got a pretty good handle on this whole literacy thing (on most days), so what are our duties?

Sometimes our majors are considered very inward, and it’s true, most of what we do happens in our own brains and—if we’re very lucky and persistent—some of it ends up on paper. From a community perspective, what we do might seem too solitary… self-indulgent, even. Even from our own perspectives, we might feel like we chose this path because it is us, it is our passion, it is who we are, and we do this as an expression of our individuality as readers and writers. But we should always have a higher goal, too—we should get outside ourselves and always think about how and why what we do can be as much for our community as it is for ourselves.

Now if you can forgive me for being grandiose, and to use Dr. Pobo’s word, even a little bit twee…

We can be muses. We can be magicians. And we can be guardians.

(And yes, I was listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack when I wrote that.)

As muses, we can inspire. That sounds trite when everyday life is kicking us and the real world is dull. And what right do we have to tinker with people’s outlooks? But we have it in us to use words to redress old ideas in new, vibrant colors, to present human life in ways maybe some people never considered. As scholars, we can breathe new life into literature and explore how the literature around us fits into the giant mosaic of human experience. As writers, we can create just the right sentences to capture a feeling once thought ineffable. The poem “Tables Turned” by William Wordsworth ends with the lines “Come forth, and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives,” and yes, I am taking these lines out of context so forgive me, but think about it… “a heart that watches and receives.” This room is full of them. But what came first? Did we learn to write and communicate in words, and then start observing the world? No, I think that’s backwards. For whatever reason, we’re the lucky ones who ended up with hearts that watch and receive. While it is great to watch and receive the world for our own exhilaration, we decided to start writing about it. We read books and poems and essays and they are not static—they are part of a conversation, we are part of a conversation, and we are not quiet. When we come to a realization about relationships or feelings or aspects of our society, we write about it, and we are not quiet. We can inspire as long as when our hearts watch and receive, they broadcast their findings to the world. Don’t be quiet.

We can be magicians, and as magicians, we can create illusions. We’ve chosen to play with words and that’s probably the most masochistic thing we’ve ever done.  So maybe, better yet, we are magicians but not unlike athletes, going to the gym (the keyboard) and busting our brain muscles and stretching and squishing and splitting words to make the best possible sentence to carry our ideas. But magicians or bodybuilders, whatever we are, we have what I hear is called a “craft.” Nothing we write is arbitrary. We question the words we use, and we always try to be aware of what ideas they’re carrying—is this the right word? Does this word mean something to me, but carry some other color for someone else? It’s amazing that we can sometimes get it right, that sometimes, we craft just the right sentence and connect our brain with other humans. It really can be magic.

But, and perhaps this is most important to Sigma Tau Delta’s goal of nurturing literacy, we have a duty to be guardians. Just as words can be crafted into creative illusions, they can be twisted and manipulated. We are lucky. We have chosen a field of study that challenges us every day to think critically about what words mean, and how they’re used, and never to trust words at face value without context and a critical eye. So while we know that words can be magical, inspiring vehicles of imaginative transportation, we also know that words can manipulate. We’ve seen it historically on grand levels—biased literature, distorted speeches—but we also experience it every day, when a news story is misread by a classmate on Facebook, or information is subtly twisted to the benefit of the speaker. Perhaps we shouldn’t start a crusade on our news feeds or butt into every conversation we eavesdrop, but we have a duty to keep our brains powered on whenever confronted with texts of any sort. We all know how long it has taken to train our brains out of routine and automatic consumption, with every English course we’ve taken here, so we owe it to our community to put our newly unshackled minds to good use!

We also have a duty to guard the soft parts of the people around us. At the AWP conference in Boston earlier this month—a huge, national gathering of writers and writing programs—author Jeanette Winterson gave a reading and then spoke to the audience about souls. How often does a person throw around that word anymore? She commented on the rarity, but it was clear to all of us that her free use of the word “soul” made us feel like she’d been reaching right into our existences, helping us acknowledge our own hearts through art and through words. She was giving us permission to be soft. She then said, quote, “If I break my leg, I go to a doctor. If I break my heart, I go to a poet.” The audience applauded. I teared up. This is what words can do—this is why your community needs you.

Your induction to Sigma Tau Delta today is an acknowledgment that in your courses here at Widener you have proven your talent with the English language, and proven that you have what it takes to be muses, magicians, and guardians. Words are powerful.  Not everyone knows their stubborn ways, tricks, or magic, and since you do, you have a duty to share that aptitude with the community. Literacy is more than knowing how to read and write. Literacy is knowing how to navigate the vast landscape of text that defines our reality. Inspire, create, don’t be quiet, and whenever you can, challenge your community to read between the lines—just as you’ve been challenged here at Widener.

Congratulations on your induction.