Words and deeds to honor thee

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By: Kyle Whitaker

I’ve heard that it’s always good to start any kind of talk or workshop with a question. This strategy, in theory, immediately puts the focus on the audience instead of the speaker and, in doing so, gives listeners a chance to reflect and make a personal connection with the topic. As an Elon student, I’ve had the opportunity to use this approach in many different scenarios (with varying degrees of success, I must admit); I think it’s only appropriate, then, that I keep it up by starting this post in a similar fashion.

Question: Do you know Elon’s alma mater?

Let me begin by acknowledging a few things:

  1. This isn’t going to be a guilt-trip blog post. I’m not into guilt trips, and I don’t think they ever really work as well as we’d like to think they do. You can read on in safety and comfort, my dear friends—there’s no guilt trip here.
  2. The alma mater and the fight song aren’t the same thing, so. Let’s clear that one up pretty quickly 😉
  3. I recognize that this question can be answered pretty quickly, without much thought or immediate reflection. You can probably expect to give one of three answers: “Yes, I do!” or, “No, I don’t…” or (and this is maybe where many of you are), “Eh…I kind of know it? Does that count?” Either way, this isn’t exactly the kind of question that you would ideally want to open a conversation with.
  4. I promise I have a point, though.
  5. Lastly: I’m all about honesty and transparency in my conversations with others, especially when it’s something I care about. I’m therefore compelled to admit that my response to my own question falls somewhere between the “Yes, I do!” and the “Eh…kind of” categories.

In all honesty, Elon’s alma mater is a bit long, kind of slow, and actually pretty hard to sing along with. The tune is oddly reminiscent of an old church hymn, and the words aren’t exactly the most exciting pop lyrics to ever hit the Top 40 charts.

In short, it’s not surprising that many of us don’t know the alma mater. If we’re being honest, it’s often just another part of the Elon pomp and circumstance that many of us go along with half-heartedly, never giving it more than a moment’s thought during Call to Honor or Convocation or wherever it happens to pop up during on-campus events throughout the year.

I’d like to propose that we think about it a little differently, though.

I could spend a lot of time explaining what the alma mater actually is: how the words “alma mater” are Latin for “foster mother,” how the song is set to an old Latin carpe diem/ drinking song, or how the university recently added a new verse to celebrate the quasquicentennial (that means 125th, y’all).

But I’m not planning on doing that because you can just click the links and read about it. Instead, I’d like to focus on the one line that some of us actually know and remember from the alma mater, because I think it says a lot about our role as students and, for many of us, as soon-to-be alumni:

 “Alma mater, we will cherish thee.”

Despite the fact that these words contain the highest note in the song (and the hardest interval to sing, in my oh-so-musical opinion), I think their repetition is important. The refrain of our alma mater is a call to arms, a promise that we make to Elon whenever we sing it: “We will cherish thee.” The English major in me is fascinated by this word choice. William D. Ellis (the poet who wrote the original lyrics) could have chosen any number of words for this line—what led him to use cherish?

Aside from the obvious answer—that cherish is a sentimental word that happens to have enough syllables to fit the rhythm and meter of the line—I think we have a lot to consider when we say that we will cherish Elon, the place many of us have called home for the past four years. We’re not saying that we will honor Elon, or that we will respect Elon, or even that we will love Elon. To cherish is something entirely different, carrying with it a concept of love that moves beyond simply posting a photo of our oak sapling on Instagram or contributing to the senior class gift so we can take a photo in Fonville Fountain.

I’d like to argue that, when we sing about cherishing this place, this foster mother that has supported our growth and transformation for so long, we are committing to an active choice, one that requires we actually do something as alumni of this institution. To pull from a cliché trope that I typically try to avoid, I decided to let Mr. Webster do a bit of the talking. He says that to cherish means, “to hold dear; to feel or show affection for; to keep or cultivate with care or affection” (insert MLA citation here or just go Google it). To me, this means that when we promise to cherish Elon, we promise to hold on to our memories, to share them with others, and to ensure that future generations of students continue to make their own memories here. All of that sounds a bit hokey and intangible, but I think there are active steps we can take to make them a reality.

These steps are more obvious when we consider other perspectives on what it means to cherish. Some definitions include words like “defend,” “protect,” and “commemorate,” all of which imply a much more pointed and direct response. To some, cherishing Elon might mean that we continue to wear our Elon gear long after we’ve left, as a reminder that this place exists and that it has helped shape the path of our futures indefinitely. To others, it might mean that we stand up for our school when we read or see articles online that don’t seem to reflect the values we have come to understand here. And to some of us, it might seem that the best way to cherish our alma mater is by simply staying connected to the friends and family we have made during our time here.

I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m sure there are hundreds of other ways that we can think about the idea of cherishing Elon, many of which fall far beyond my own understanding and capabilities. And I also don’t assume that all of us necessarily want to cherish this place; each of us has had a unique set of experiences as students at this university, some of which I’m sure we might want to change or forget about entirely. Elon isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always easy to cherish a place that hasn’t exactly lived up to our expectations.

I’d like to pose a challenge, then, particularly to the class of 2014. In nine days, we’ll gather together under the oaks to celebrate the end of our time at Elon. Part of the commencement ceremony will include, among other things, the singing of the alma mater. As you stand with your fellow graduates and sing along, think about the words you’re saying. What has Elon actually meant to you? How has it met your expectations, and in what ways do you hope to see it transform in the coming years? What are the values and ideals you take with you as you walk across that stage and into the next chapter of your life?

Elon, ever lead us on
To a bright and happy dawn;
Teach us still to love and pray,
Guide us to a nobler day.
Joyous music lies before us,
Memories to swell the chorus.
Alma Mater, we will cherish thee;
Alma Mater, we will cherish thee.

In the spirit of ending this post the way I began it, I have one more question:

How will you cherish this place? 

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