Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”

 

 

turmoil of heart

As a Christian, I am called to love. As a human in a world that bears the burden of far too much hate and discrimination (even thinly veiled or disguised by clever terminology), I feel this call deeply. And in this particular moment I feel like it is important to note that love demands more than tolerance.

Love cannot simply be the absence of bigotry that tolerance implies.

Love must fill that absence with generosity, selflessness, empathy, and affirmation. Love must reach out its hand to those ignored by the rest…even and especially when it is difficult, uncomfortable, frightening. Love must see the worth of the human being instead of the label we so easily assign. Love implies a willingness to reach beyond the simplicity of merely existing ignorantly side by side…a willingness to be in relationship with each other, to have a responsibility to each other. Love requires an open heart that recognizes a world beyond what is comfortable or familiar. Love understands that acquiescence is complicity, so love uses its voice for good…love stands up for and amplifies the voices of those who have been marginalized…and love does this knowing repercussions might be vast but also knowing there is no other way.

Love demands courage.

Love imagines boundless goodness.

Love acts accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be easy. It just has to be done. We just have to try.

magic

There’s a magic that happens when a baby enters the world. An enchantment stirs inside of the hearts of those who, for months, have been anxiously awaiting the moment that tiny new life would pronounce its presence in person.

What never seems to allow itself into definition or explanation is that the depth of that love grows as the child does. I tell my kiddos everyday that, without fail, every time I think it is impossible to love them more, something inside of me stretches to lend a bit of extra space. And that is a true statement.

Today is one of those days. One of my boys turned ten (double digits…how?!) and the other opened with a leading role in the school play today. As I watch these boys grow into the world shaping the humans they will become, it is pure joy to witness the avenues they travel while seeking their passions. Whether soccer or the stage, watching each in his element swells my heart a bit more.

Not sure what I’ve ever done that warrants the treasure of these children, but it is one that I cherish and honor (even when it isn’t like tonight…even when it is hard…even when there is attitude…because that is all part of the job). And this job pays richly.

(Day 34!! It’s short and down to the wire but still got it in!)

praise

I would venture to say that I read Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Praise Song for the Day” once a week, without fail. Of all the poems in the world, why read and reread that one in particular, you might ask? And, you know, that is a really valid question. There are so many poems that move my mind or spirit toward thinking and imagining and pushing beyond, but this one is on regular repeat. Always for different reasons, but essentially because in some way or another, it continues to instill in me a sense of hope for humanity. It portrays the strength we can muster when injustice needs to be called out and then Alexander pushes us a bit more and offers up a praise song for it: “Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day./Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,/the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.” This is our responsibility. To be grateful for this gift of being in the struggle and finding ways to speak out against it…even when it is difficult. Even when we feel threatened. Even and especially when we speak out for others, with others, who are struggling more than we are…because we can, and we should. Because that is who we are called to be in the moments when justice fails. Because we are granted the freedom to do so.

And then there is this, “We encounter each other in words, words/spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,/words to consider, reconsider.” This idea of encountering “each other in words” steals my attention with each reading and reminds me that what I say, in every situation, no matter who is around to hear the utterance, bears significance, creates impact. As a teacher, I have to remember that no matter how powerless I may feel, in a room full of kids, I have power. To wield words carelessly can alter the course of a young person’s day, can fray self esteem, but when considered cautiously can instill confidence, encourage perseverance. I can’t make decisions for my kids, but I can select language and words that allow them to feel able to do the work even when it is difficult…I can choose words that respect their humanity. And the truth of this extends beyond the classroom. When I pause to think, to take a moment to empathize even briefly, before issuing words, I can take the time to craft the statements that reflect the kind of person I really want to be. Am I perfect with this? Of course not. Hence, this poem is a regular read because, as I tell my students, I am not above reminders!

But really, it is this that keeps me coming back to this poem…

“What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.”
Love and light and hope and gratitude swirl in these lines and fill me up with a joy in
and a vision of what can be…if we only remind ourselves to be the people we were
created to be…if we only remind ourselves of the praise song for who we are and who we
have the capacity to become, together.
(Day 29!)

deciding

Every February, when red and pink hearts begin to decorate shelves, aisles, window displays, I find myself reminded of Rita Dove’s poem “Heart to Heart”. Dove makes it her business in this collection of mostly 3 or 4 word lines to deny the cliched fanciful imagery of love and hearts that we perpetuate. Instead, she refers to the heart in this way:

“just a thick clutch

of muscle,

lopsided,

mute…”
I’ve always felt like her purpose is to show that the reality of love stretches far deeper than metaphors about a shape, a symbol that doesn’t actually exist inside of us. I’ve always felt (especially at the end when she writes, “Here,/it’s all yours, now—/but you’ll have/to take me,/too.”), her purpose is to show that while we can express our emotions in fluffy language, the truth contains the complexity of human beings…the complexity of human emotion…the complexity of love not in a vacuum but rather of love in a complicated world.
As an engaged couple, my husband and I were asked to attend a weekend retreat as part of our preparation to be married in the church. I’m sure a good many important things happened that weekend, but there is really only one thing that I remember. One of the couples leading the retreat spoke to our group the first night we were there and shared this bit of wisdom: Marriage is hard. Love is hard. Sometimes you will have to decide to love each other.
Now, this quote has become a long standing joke in my nearly 20 year marriage. Whenever either of us is even mildly annoyed with the other, “I’m really deciding to love you right now” is uttered and suddenly the tension breaks a bit. But, honestly, those words represent some of the best advice anyone has ever given to me. They granted permission for things to be less than perfect, which makes it easier when things get downright hard. Because, in this life things are going to get hard…people are going to get sick…loss will be suffered…finances will fluctuate…jobs will change…but in knowing that no one’s love is red and pink hearts all of the time makes those moments feel more like challenges and less like failures…makes those moments feel like just that, momentary, rather than a conclusion.
I think that Rita Dove knew this.
I know that I am far from perfect and that I come with a whole lot of “stuff,” and I also know that the last couple of years when I was sick and miserable, I was really hard. But I also know that my husband has decided “to take me,/too”…that he had decided to love me even when he had to make that decision multiple times a day because, well, I couldn’t hear very well or see straight for a long time.
In a world of social media that allows us to craft and reveal only the moments that portray perfection, this poem offers an invaluable illustration of what we are really asking for when we seek the love of another. To be truly seen, to be fully accepted, to be deeply rather than superficially loved.
I got pretty lucky. Marriage is imperfect, but somehow I found someone who got that and is happy to spend all these flawed years with me…someone who keeps deciding to love me.
(day 28…so this was going to be a 100 word challenge because I really love this poem and didn’t want to kill it with too many of my own words…then as I wrote, it sort of became an early Valentine’s Day gift…sorry not sorry for the sap.)