Meet Alum Mary Grahame Hunter
Mary Grahame Hunter, an English major, and French minor, graduated from Wayne State in May 2018. During her time here, Mary Grahame was an honor student, an office assistant for the Theater Department, and a Rushton Conference presenter three times. She loves literature and theater, having acted for eight years in middle school and high school. She also enjoys researching, writing, and had a short play published in the 2017 issue of the Wayne Literary Review.
Now that she has graduated, Mary Grahame is off to start grad school at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. She plans to study library science, hoping to become an academic or public librarian. She has always liked helping people, and believes that everyone should have easy access to books. To future English majors at WSU, Mary Grahame recommends taking full advantage of the opportunities at the English Department. She says that attending the Rushton Conference and joining English Honors are both great experiences, and clubs like Knit Lit are worth checking out too.
On April 20, 2018, when the Department of English held its annual Scholarship and Writing Awards Ceremony, Mary Grahame was featured as the ceremony's student speaker. Her speech- a funny and insightful tour through the authors, classes, and professors she encountered in her English classes- received a great ovation by the crowd of students, graduates, and professors in attendance. Below is a full transcript of Mary Grahame's fantastic speech, reprinted with her kind permission.
Mary Grahame Hunter- English Department Awards Speech 2018
I grew up in a household where we listened to A Prairie Home Companion just about every Saturday evening. One of my favorite recurring sketches was called “Lives of the English Majors”, and there was also a series of tongue-in-cheek public service announcements brought to you by the Professional Organization of English Majors—also known as POEM, because of course. POEM is a fictional organization, except sort of it’s not, because when I declared my English major in a very unceremonious fashion via an online form submitted one day between classes, I felt like I had just joined this prestigious Professional Organization. English majors, after all, are the kind of people who can tell you when to use who versus whom, but are also quick to point out that language is constantly evolving and that singular “they” has been in use since the fourteenth century and really, everyone can calm down about it. They were my kind of people.
Indeed, when I joined the Wayne State Department of English in the winter of my freshman year, I found myself, for the first time in my educational career, around people who geeked out about Shakespeare and Shelley and the theory of the carnivalesque as much as I did (once I learned what the theory of the carnivalesque was). I’ve got a host of anecdotes from six semesters of English classes that I would happily spend all day recounting, but I’m abiding by the seven-page hard limit I’ve come to think of as “the Rushton Conference cut”, so fear not, I’ll be brief.
In Dr. Chess’s Shakespeare class my sophomore year, for example, I learned such important lessons as “Dividing your kingdom among your three daughters cannot possibly end well” and “You can never trust a modern edition of anything!” (To be fair, we were studying the First Folio that semester, and every play we read had some kind of weird and fascinating textual history.) A classmate in Dr. Scrivener’s British Literature after 1700 survey claimed that if John Keats were alive today, and he’d be totally into pumpkin spice lattes. (I, for one, completely agree with this statement.) Honestly, reading the Romantic writers as a fairly dramatic college student was a very rewarding experience, because I used to think I had a lot of emotions. It turns out I don’t have half the emotions the Romantics had, which is just as well because pulling a Victor Frankenstein and dropping out of college to play God with human life would have really diminished my career options. It was in Professor Bakopoulos’ Intro to Creative Writing class that I discovered my love of writing drama, and taking her advice to watch my favorite television show and pay attention to the dialogue led to one of the greatest accomplishments of my academic career—watching The West Wing and passing it off to myself as schoolwork. And Dr. Fox taught me that most of Anglo-Saxon literature can be summed up by a line from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
About halfway through my time at Wayne State, the country had an election. To put it mildly, it wasn’t a very fun one, and neither was the day after, when I dragged my nauseated self out of bed and headed to class. We were scheduled to discuss Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in Dr. Scrivener’s class that morning, and they weren’t going to take that away from me. Aside from the fact that Earnest is one of my favorite plays and it’s always good for a laugh, it felt important, even necessary, that in the wake of such a distressing event I showed up to study the work of a man who is remembered not only for his razor wit, but for his suffering at the hands of an intolerant society. And then I went to Dr. Scrivener’s afternoon Romanticism class, where we discussed Shelley, who is very fond of the idea that tyranny always wears itself out eventually. I love symbolism—English major—and like Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I often have to work very hard not to constantly read literary devices into my own life. It would certainly be easy for me to interpret those readings and my determination to get out of bed and discuss them as a symbolic rejection of everything that had just happened the day before, except I think it goes deeper than that.
The texts that I read that November day struck me as important not just because of what was happening when I read them, but because they—and all of the literature I’ve studied in my time here—tell me something about where we used to be, which in turn tells me something about how we got here. Or, as they sing in Hamilton, “Look at where we are, look at where we started. The fact that we’re alive is a miracle.” The study of English has not only taught me how to think critically about events and texts of past centuries, it’s taught me about how our language and the stories we tell with it reflect and shape the lives we lead now. Or, as Dr. Fox said to my class on our last day of her British Literature Before 1700 survey: “Words have power, which is why the main lesson of this class is ‘don’t be a jerk’.”
All that’s a large part of the reason I’m an English major, and maybe why some of you are too. But when I was working on my Honors thesis last semester with Dr. Chess, I discovered another reason that I had somehow failed to fully articulate during my previous three years of school, although it was always there, once I looked back on things. You see, there’s this hilarious Broadway musical called Something Rotten. It’s set in the Renaissance and you don’t watch it for the historical accuracy, but it involves Shakespeare, and for that reason I frequently had it playing in the background while I worked on my Honors project, which was about Shakespeare and young adult literature. There’s one song entitled “God I Hate Shakespeare” (which could have been the anthem of many of my high school classmates) and at one point the chorus sings to the Shakespeare-hating protagonist: “How can you say that? The man really knows how to write a bitchin’ play.”
And listening to that song for the millionth time was when it hit me: If you sat me down at my most tired, like, peak just-did-three-final-papers-in-a-week tired, and put a mug of tea in my hands and asked me “Yes Mary Grahame, but why English?” I would be just coherent enough to give you my truest answer: because the man really knows how to write a bitchin’ play. I’m an English major because it gives me joy. The job marketability and the critical thinking and the empathy are real advantages of my degree and I’m glad we talk about them, but I also think joy is wildly underrated, and that in the present day we should be grabbing all the joy we can find and hanging on to it for dear life. I did “serious” things as an English major, certainly—presented at three Rushton Conferences and the Michigan Medieval and Renaissance Studies Consortium, discussed race in the Renaissance and representation in children’s literature (and I certainly got joy from all those things)—but I also spent a lot of time looking for double entendres and dirty jokes in my assigned reading, and I have read both Harry Potter and fanfiction for class credit. I’ve written my own troubadour poetry for a creative final project and spent an evening at the theatre with my entire Shakespeare class. I’ve had fun.
It’s frustrating, as someone who works and plays with language, to reach a place where despite my best efforts, words are inadequate, so I suppose I’ll just stick with a phrase that’s hopefully one of the first we learn: thank you. I would especially like to thank Dr. Chess, Dr. Fox, Dr. Scrivener, and Professor Bakopoulos, who encouraged and challenged me and never said “her again?” when I showed up in multiple classes and knocked on the door at office hours. Thank you to Dr. Maruca, who takes such good care of the undergraduates as our associate chair, and to Royanne, who was always happy to see me when I slid into her office around registration time. And thank you to my dear, delightful classmates, some of whom are here and some of whom have moved to greener pastures, or at least fully-funded PhD programs. Thank you for your friendship, your insights, and for insuring that every class I was in had at least one inside joke.
I’m going to close with a story from Dr. Fox’s Pre-Modern Love class, which I believe is running next year and which every student in this room should absolutely consider taking, because it’s fascinating and kind of horrifying in a really delicious way. I still think about this class all the time—my friend Alex can attest that I once texted her early in the morning to say “You need to listen to the single Taylor Swift just dropped because it includes basically every concept we discussed in Pre-Modern Love last week.” Anyway, it was the first day of class after syllabus day and we were parsing our assigned reading by the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina about the nature of love. According to our friend Ibn Sina, every form on earth—minerals, plants, animals, humans—has a perfect ideal, and the nature of the soul is to strive towards that perfect ideal, and that striving is the definition of love. That’s a very basic overview; it’s not a simple concept, and at one point someone raised their hand and said, “Okay, so, it’s like if you were a tulip, even though you don’t have consciousness the way a human does, you’re still trying to be the best tulip you can be?” Dr. Fox told us that was exactly it. It became a running reference throughout the semester, and on the last day of class she gave us all silk tulips. Mine is sitting in an empty Cheerwine bottle on my windowsill, where it encourages me to strive towards my highest being. And that is the parting word I offer to you, my beloved companions of these past four years: go forth, and be the best tulip you can be.