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Class of 2024 Commencement Address

By Christine Leunens ALM ’05

Christine Leunens in cap and gown at commencement

Christine Leunens ALM ’05, a beacon of resilience and creativity, addressed the Class of 2024 at Harvard Extension School’s Commencement ceremony on May 23, 2024. As the acclaimed author of the internationally best-selling “Caging Skies” and an esteemed alumna of the school, she shared her wisdom and encouragement with the graduating class. She encouraged them to continue to move forward through times of hardship and embrace the Harvard community that they are now a part of for life. Read her Commencement address below.

Thank you for having me, Greetings to All, 

In 1998, three days before my flight to Boston to start a Master’s in English and American Literature and Language, I met my future husband in Paris. For the next months, I stayed up all hours of the night, writing essays for my literature classes, then letters to him – by hand, as one did back then – redoing any page botched up to make a good impression.     

After that semester, I went back to France, we got married, we had a baby, then another baby – it wouldn’t be until Fall 2003 and Summer 2004 that I’d return to my studies with our two little ones. My husband helped me for as long as he could then went back to his work in France and my mother came to help. My mother was born in Grumo Appula, at the heel of the boot of Italy. During World War 2, her school was first occupied by the Germans then used by the Americans, so she, like the other children, didn’t have any schooling during those years. When the war was over, mostly the boys returned to school as it was deemed that girls needed to focus on domestic skills. 

Today I really regret that I hadn’t learned some of Mamma’s talents, like how to sew my own clothes, be able to cook as wonderfully as she does, or know just what bit to pinch off a tree or plant to get a new one to grow. 

Living with my mother again as an adult was an experience, here I was taking an overload of four classes, and getting scolded when I got back to our apartment on Mass Ave because I forgot to unroll one of the children’s sleeves before I put clothes in the washer. She couldn’t understand what I was doing here in Cambridge. What job were these studies of mine going to lead to? Your sister, she once said, studied to be a midwife and now she helps people. You, with these books you read and books you write, how do you help anyone?

I told her that a divorced women used to be seen as a fallen woman and shunned by society –  thanks to novels, people felt empathy for the realities women underwent and society changed. She seemed satisfied with that.  

As a writer I’ve come to learn a few things. 

It’s helpful to read great books, but it’s also helpful to read bad books. Why? For one, it can be pretty daunting as a beginning writer to read only masterpieces, and then wonder what, in turn, someone new to the trade can ever contribute to the written word. 

Next, that a bad book somehow got published, gave me hope… well, if that one did, surely my writing stands a chance.

Plus learning what not to do sometimes easier than learning what to do

Besides.  At the end of the day, no one does Hemingway better than Hemingway. No one Balzac or Tolstoy better than Balzac or Tolstoy. So just being yourself, nothing more, fills a space that no one else can.

Literature is, in my mind, one of the most intimate forms of art. When you read, you can go right inside a character, feel their pains, hear their thoughts, discover their universe; it doesn’t matter where in the world they come from, you become them, their family becomes yours. The act of reading makes us feel viscerally what it’s like to be someone else, while letting us also feel how essentially the same we all are. Continue to read, read, read. 

A word about words. They’re powerful little things, words, and how you string them together can tilt feelings towards hatred and dehumanization or empathy, greater understander, and peace between people and peoples. String them together carefully so that they find their home in the latter.

Pursue what’s meaningful to you. If you step back a little, you’ll find that you have more opulence than most people in human history by just having running water, sanitation, electricity. Some emperors didn’t have it as good as you, and you have anesthesia too if you need it. Seriously, at the end of your lives, I think it’s fairly safe to say that you’ll never wish you had more money you’ll have to part from, but rather that you had a meaningful life and meaningful relationships. Use your hard-earned education to that end.

It’s all the more touching for me to be here today as I couldn’t make it to my own graduation back in 2005 with our third child on the way. I received two medallions in the post that Dean Shinagel had collected for me that I’ve kept in my desk drawer all these years, reminders of my time at the Extension School that was precious to me and had a major impact on me in ways that weren’t obvious or clean cut, but that looking back I can see contributed to the development of my writing and of me as a person.

It took me five years to research and write Caging Skies in the World War 2 Museum where my husband worked. We rode our bicycles there every day with our Tupperware of rice for lunch, and we’d squirt a bunch of the cafeteria’s industrial mayonnaise on it to help fill us up. We were young, and had faith in how things would go. At first no one wanted to publish the book and that really hurt. Then after a year, an editor at Planeta, a Spanish publishing house, said it was the most important book she’d read in ten years, and made an exception to their policy not to bring out a translation of anything not already published in its original language. More translations spread from country to country. In New Zealand, only a thousand copies in the original English were sold, but one of the readers was Taika Waititi’s mother, who kept insisting he read it. After eight months, he gave in to her once when visiting so she’d leave him alone and knew after ten pages that he wanted to adapt it to film. That took over eight years. 

Sitting at the Academy Awards in 2020 as it won the Best Adapted Screenplay, the long, hard journey of that book was running through my mind. My mother was in her Florida rest home watching TV – as she later told me – and when the book appeared on the screen and she saw my name, she threw her hands up in the air with a shriek of joy, she was so proud, she said, she could die now. I was a little taken back. The book had been published in Italian, French – languages she spoke in countries she’d lived in prior to immigrating to the United States. But for her to accept what I do, it had to have success, as she put it, “in America”. 

Like me, you value education, you don’t give up when it gets hard, you live complex lives juggling more than one commitment, you made sacrifices in your own lives to make room for class after class, you worked incredibly hard to get into a degree program, then to do everything you had to do to get out of the program with that degree in your hand.

Have confidence now in your abilities, in the many possibilities open to you. Be proud and grateful for your education, which though hidden in you, will show through in many ways during the courses of your lives, in ways you too don’t yet know, but that will come as opportunities and moments you never would have imagined. My heartfelt congratulations to you. And so I welcome all of you very warmly into both the Harvard Extension Alumni Association and the Harvard Alumni Association, as lifetime members. Get to know each other, exchange ideas and initiatives, and make the most of this big, global, diverse family that you are now a part of. Again, heartfelt congratulations and welcome class of 2024.