As I was quickly perusing through Facebook while avoiding grading some papers (sorry students!), I saw a number of posts about today’s (May 7, 2016) graduation speeches. This observation reminded me of two things:
- I had the honor to give the graduation speech last year at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School—the institution where I both teach and from which I graduated. And,
2. I’ve not written anything on here for ages; however, it isn’t so difficult to write a blog post that it timely and pertinent when one has already written something that will fit the bill.
So, with that relatively concise intro (a necessity given that what is about to follow is most certainly not concise), I present my 2015 Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School graduation speech:
Good morning graduates and families — Congratulations! It’s an honor to get to address you.
In thinking about what I wanted to share with you today, I was drawn back to a text we read together in your sophomore year — the “Introduction” from Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, Imagined Communities. Although I’m sure you remember the precise argument vividly—and how could you not given that the time spent in your sophomore history class was undoubtedly the apogee of your lived experience to date—I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and recap briefly. In this book, Anderson analyzed the concept of the nation and contended that it is always constructed. His argument permeated disciplines far beyond history and has led scholars to uncover the ways in which gender, race, class, and disability have all been “imagined.” In essence, Anderson has helped us dig beneath the surface of the past and deconstruct how any group or community defines itself.
So, at this particular moment, when you are about to leave one academic institution and head off to a host of others, I thought Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” was an especially apropos one to consider. How has Rowland Hall imagined itself as a community during your time as a student here? How have those notions shaped you as its students, and conversely, how have you helped shape Rowland Hall? How might your Rowland Hall experience shape you as you leave this community and move into new ones?
In considering these questions, I naturally reflected on my own experience as a Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s student — a “lifer” sentence I served from 1984 to 2000. In many ways, there is great continuity between my experience and yours. A focus on intellectually rigorous learning has remained the centerpiece of a Rowland Hall education. I developed a sense of academic confidence through the process of writing and then revising (and revising and revising) papers for Carol Kranes’ AP Lang class, making and reviewing study guides for Ruth and Carl Sturges’ history classes, and working through math problems on the board in Mr. C’s class. Being surrounded by other hard-working, diligent, and ambitious classmates (many of whom are still my closest friends) helped me push myself to participate more fully, engage with literary texts more critically, and learn how to contribute to serious academic discourse. And it was this sense of academic confidence that empowered me, without hesitation, to fabricate about 65% of answers to the questions you asked me in Western Civ and AP Euro. Pretty convincing, huh?
As I reflected on my experience, I came to realize that what I valued so much as a Rowland Hall student, and what I continue to value as a faculty member, is the way that the institution allows students to take academic and personal risks in a safe and supportive environment. To illustrate this aspect of Rowland Hall’s identity, I’m drawn back to my time in Carolyn Hickman’s 10th grade English class and my personal essay from the beginning of the year. In that essay, I wrote about the experience of living with my brother, Greg, who has Down Syndrome, and how his presence in my life helped me reassess and better understand concepts like “difference,” “intelligence,” and “achievement.” Carolyn encouraged us to take risks in this essay by revealing personal vulnerabilities and concerns; such risk-taking could only happen because at the core of Rowland Hall’s “imagining” of itself rested (and still rests) a sense of trust and support.
Rowland Hall supported my risk-taking in this area further when I took my intellectual interest in disability and turned it into a form of social activism. During my time as editor of the Gazette in my junior year, I wrote an editorial criticizing faculty members for parking in handicapped spaces in the faculty parking lot. I even think I published a photograph of the offending vehicles in those spaces, though I believe that I blurred out their license plates as some form of journalistic integrity. In that editorial I argued that when faculty members parked in the handicapped spaces they not only set a bad example for the students, but also displayed a larger cultural disregard for disabled people. Ironically, (and something I didn’t fully grasp at the time) the targets of this critical and persuasive editorial were some of the very same faculty members who had been so vital in helping me develop the critical thinking and persuasive writing skills that I had harnessed to publicly critique them. Once published, I felt particularly victorious when my small-scale advocacy worked: faculty stopped parking in the handicapped spaces. Now, in all fairness, this achievement happened because two of the four handicapped spaces were painted over and repurposed as regular spaces. Yet this experience confirmed for me that even when they were the target of my public critique, the Rowland Hall faculty nevertheless supported my critical voice and encouraged me to pursue my concerns of justice and equity for disabled people. [Turning to faculty]: Oh, and if any of you got tickets because I published pictures of your cars next to my editorial, please accept my sincere apologies.
I also recall the way Rowland Hall’s faculty challenged and supported me in occasionally unanticipated ways. An example of this dynamic took place during my Junior year in Lauren Carpenter’s Health II class during our study of STIs. To teach us how these infections manifest themselves, Lauren had a host of very clinical photos that she passed around to the students so that we would, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “know it when we see it.” Over my protestations that I really would rather not look at these photos, Lauren stressed that knowledge is in fact power and urged me to persevere. Partway through class I began to feel the room becoming very warm, so I got up to open the window to get some fresh air — in the middle of January, mind you. After opening the window, I turned around to return to my seat, but I never made it back. The next thing I remember was Lauren standing over me on the floor as I regained consciousness; she asked if I was okay, to which I replied (rather glibly, in retrospect), “I told you I shouldn’t have looked at those pictures.” For the rest of that unit, I was allowed to turn my chair around from the table and take notes without the visual supplement; as a result, I didn’t pass out in that class for the rest of the trimester! It was quite a feat.
That experience confirmed a few things for me: 1) I am not, nor was I ever, cut out for a career in medicine; and 2) Rowland Hall’s faculty, even in unexpected contexts, continually challenged students to move beyond their comfort zones, but nevertheless supported them and adapted things as need be based on individual circumstances. Moments of kindness, even in this silly example, really stuck with me and helped me recognize the way Rowland Hall imagines itself as a place uniquely supportive of students.
We share many of the same “imaginings” of Rowland Hall because in many cases we shared faculty or school traditions. For instance, we both imagined the Platonic ideal of “active reading” as something that’s done by underlining with a ruler and using at least ten different colors. We both imagined “Morning Meetings” as the highlights of our week; right? right? We both imagined “Battle of the Classes” as one of the amusing highlights of the year defined by moments of great public humiliation for our peers. And we both imagined the excitement of leaving Rowland Hall and finding new opportunities and challenges beyond this community.
Fifteen years ago when I stood on this same precipice, Carolyn Hickman offered these words of advice to me and my classmates during our Baccalaureate ceremony:
“part of the satisfaction of exploring is to return and know this place and yourself for the first time. Embrace the change and embrace the journey, and trust that when you do return, you will appreciate in a new way just HOW your background has molded you.”
She then ended her speech by offering an open door and saying, “we’ll all welcome your visit.” Now I’m not sure that she banked on any of our visits lasting quite as long as mine has, but after twelve years in the proverbial wilderness, I commenced my return visit in 2012 to teach you during your sophomore year. Since that time, I’ve found that this community had, in fact, added some new elements to its identity.
One major difference has to do with your endeavors as Winged Lion athletes. You helped lead your teams to Region, State, and Individual titles in Volleyball, Girls Basketball, Boys Swimming, Boys and Girls Soccer, Boys and Girls Golf, Cross Country, Boys and Girls Tennis, and Track & Field. Those successes marked an impressive contrast with my august contributions to an 0–14 Freshman Boys Basketball team, where I likely managed .3 points, 1.1 rebounds, and 4 fouls per game.
Your successes in athletics have also brought with it a newly-imagined nickname for the school, “RoHo.” I must confess, however, that I’ve found this particular reimagining of the school’s nickname a disconcerting embrace of anti-intellectualism. I can’t send you forth from this institution believing that the second letter of “Hall” is an “O.”
But I most clearly gained a sense of you as individuals and as a class during our time together in Classroom A-4. My 1st Period Western Civ. students imagined themselves capable of overcoming early morning exhaustion to engage in class energetically and answer my endless stream of questions even when they’d have rather been asleep. My 2nd and 4th Period AP Euro classes imagined themselves eager to embrace the challenge of learning both the wide-spanning content and the Byzantine writing and multiple choice expectations for the AP test, though 2nd Period did it with more puns than 4th Period did. And those of you in 6th Period AP Euro imagined yourselves in a Cold War-style struggle with your senior classmates — one that at times seemed headed toward Mutually Assured Destruction. Fortunately, the year ended (and they graduated) before any of you got ahold of the launch codes.
But it was also clear that some of the ways I’d imagined our classes would go didn’t entirely jive with your imaginings; and this brings me to 3rd Period Western Civ. If anything taught me about the processes of adaptation and accommodation, it was this class. I hadn’t imagined that proffering writing advice, such as “the thesis statement should be the last sentence of your introduction,” would lead some of you to collapse on the floor in what I could only interpret as the ultimate depths of despair. I also hadn’t imagined but quickly learned, that when your class falls immediately after a Morning Meeting that ran late you are entitled to get a snack without being counted as tardy. It turns out that this privilege was in fact John Locke’s fourth natural right following “Life, Liberty, and Property.” I also hadn’t imagined, but shouldn’t have been surprised, that my crusade against your use of the word “bias” in analyzing primary sources would backfire and actually lead to an increase in its use. But over the course of the year, we gained a greater understanding of one another and forged a sense of trust borne from toward our shared goal of intellectual growth. What began as a state of détente ultimately became a mutual affinity — I improvised songs for you about WWI unterseeboots to the tune of The Little Mermaid‘s “Under the Sea,” and some of you even asked me to sign your yearbooks! And then, for some reason, you began to imagine that I was a deejay, and while I’d love to drop the mic in a few minutes, I can’t because it’s affixed to the pulpit (and it seems kind of sacrilegious in this space).
Over the course of that year, and with much hard work, all of you became adept at imagining yourselves as confident thinkers and historians. You presented on historiographical disputes about the Roman Empire; you developed research questions and presentations about Renaissance artwork, early modern women and witchcraft, Enlightenment concepts of education, and the ramifications of European imperialism. You confidently shared your research and arguments about these topics at the Praxis presentations, where some of you even performed Dadaist poetry or constructed sweet dioramas about trench warfare with mini-barbed wire and fake blood! And as you’re keen to remind your younger peers when they express angst about this rite of passage (which has now been reimagined as the “Sophomore Symposium”), you not only had to do such presentations twice, but you also took a Winter Trimester final — and for those reasons, I imagine you as especially hardcore.
Having considered all those aspects of your Rowland Hall experiences, let’s now turn to the colleges and universities that will be your homes for the next number of years. First and foremost, recognize that these institutions and their communities are ones that, like any community, are “imagined.” In her famous quip, which I believe is about this precise topic, Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there.” For the past two years, or maybe longer, you’ve been absorbing a steady diet of these imagined “theres” through the colleges’ websites, emails, print publications, Facebook pages, Snapchat stories, Instagram feeds, and perhaps most critically, Bruce’s “Books of the Week.”
As you’ve absorbed and processed these presentations, you’ve each constructed an idea of what that college will be like and possibly started envisioning a narrative for yourself that answers some of the following questions: What types of friends will I make? What sort of social scene will I be a part of? What types of courses will I take and what academic experiences will I have? How many Bob Marley posters can I put up in my dorm room without becoming a cliché? And, the question that I hope forms the center of your focus, what type of person will I be when I leave that institution?
The notion that there is not some Platonic ideal of your college experience waiting to sweep you away the moment you step onto campus might seem disappointing. But I hope you’ll find it empowering. David Foster Wallace spoke to this concept when he said that “’Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” One of the things that we as faculty have strived to instill in you is this intangible skill of “how to think.” Thinking of your future academic homes as “imagined communities” gives you the freedom to remake them, and remake yourself, as you see fit.
I had this very experience partway through my first semester of college. In talking with my father during one of our semi-weekly discussions, I wondered whether I was having the quote-unquote “college experience.” I’d joined the Heavyweight crew team and made friends, I was taking intellectually stimulating and challenging classes taught by great professors, and I was attempting to live out my Seinfeldian vision of New York City by enjoying Broadway shakes at Tom’s Restaurant and pretending I cared about the Mets during the Subway Series. But it wasn’t clear whether this was what college was supposed to be. With time, however, comes a clearer sense of how you imagine yourself fitting into these new communities. I came to imagine my college experience as one that revolved around waking up at 5:45 am six-days-a-week, rowing on (and occasionally accidentally ingesting) the semi-toxic waters of the Harlem River, spending time in great classes about history and art history, and then going to a subterranean windowless room to work out for another two hours, all so that our team could lose a bunch of races. I’m really selling it, aren’t I? But you know what? It was great and as I reflect on the experience, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Now, many of you may have similar discussions with your parents in the months ahead. Yours, however, will be fundamentally different than the one I had fifteen years ago: it will consist primarily of emojis. But whether you’re having this discussion with words or with non-sensical strings of ideograms (winking ghost—thumbs up—praying hands—cactus—snowflake—ramen bowl), know that such feelings of uncertainty and trepidation are natural. Many of you, like I was, have been safely ensconced in this supportive institution since you were a pre-schooler. You have grown accustomed to the rhythms and traditions of Rowland Hall and feel immensely comfortable in this community. You have the immediate support of your families and friends as you’ve grown up and faced personal and academic challenges in this setting.
Yet in spite of all the things that will change once you leave this place, and in spite of the nervousness that might cause, remember to imagine yourselves as ready. Ready to take on new intellectual challenges because you know that the foundation you’ve built here is extremely strong. Ready to grow personally and define yourselves in new ways because you know how to encounter and grapple with adversity. And ready to make an impact on your new academic communities, because you’ve profoundly shaped Rowland Hall during the time you’ve been here.
We don’t imagine that you’re ready; we know you are. Thank you and congratulations!