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Very early in the speech, Quindlen uses the image of the backpack as her metaphor for all the expectations that individuals put upon themselves or that they allow others to place on them. Referring to the effort of being perfect in the clothes she wore, the way she acted, the type of student she was, she reflects,
Eventually being perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back. And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down.
The body of her presentation then becomes an exhortation to the graduates to free themselves from the backpacks they are carrying as they graduate and venture out into the larger world. She wants them to find the strength within themselves to create personal standards for which to strive instead of conforming to expectations set up by society. "You will have to bend all your will not to march to the music that all of those great "theys" out there pipe on their flutes."
As she concludes her speech, she reemphasizes her point with the quote you cite. She is encouraging the graduates to find values and ways of living that allow them to become self-fulfilled individuals with worth because they are independent and self-reliant, concluding, "Take it from someone who has left the backpack full of bricks far behind. Every day feels light as a feather."
In her commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College, Anna Quindlen recalls how, when she was young, she felt under enormous pressure to try to be perfect. She compares this pressure to wearing a backpack full of heavy bricks. In other words, she suggests that the compulsion to be perfect can actually be a handicap that prevents people from achieving their full individual potentials. By feeling forced to be “perfect” according to standards imposed by others, they risk losing the chance to achieve their own personal goals and enjoy their own personal satisfactions. Near the very end of her speech, Quindlen says,
Most commencement speeches suggest you take up something or other: the challenge of the future, a vision of the twenty-first century. Instead I'd like you to give up. Give up the backpack. Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives.
As Quindlen notes, her advice is deliberately paradoxical and unconventional. It flies in the face of what is usually expected from commencement speeches. Instead of congratulating the graduates on their academic accomplishments and urging them to strive for even higher and better conventional achievements, Quindlen advises them to march to the beats of their own drummers. Instead of affirming and reinforcing conventional standards of perfection, she challenges those standards. By comparing the pressure to achieve perfection to a backpack full of bricks, Quindlen implicitly suggests that such pressure is deadening. It weighs us down with burdens that are lifeless and soulless and merely materialistic. The metaphorical backpack, after all, does not contain food, which might sustain us; or water, which might relieve our thirst; or camping gear, which might allow us to survive in the wild. It does not even contain books (the usual contents of most students’ backpacks), which might feed the mind. Instead, Quindlen’s metaphorical backpack contains only dead, heavy, burdensome bricks.
Note the interesting adjective and verb that Quindlen uses in the passage quoted above. She refers to the “punishing quest for perfection that dogs too many of us.” It is as if we are inmates in a prison, guarded and herded by dogs, as if we were animals ourselves.
Thus, instead of urging her audience to strive for perfection, Quindlen paradoxically tells them to “give up.” Ironically, only by “giv[ing] up” in this way can they win the most important kinds of victory. Only by surrendering their backpacks full of bricks can they feel the freedom necessary to achieve authentic, meaningful lives.
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