PN Unscripted - The Big Pond: Remarks for Graduates

Regular followers of Passing Notes will have noticed that over the past few months there's been a decline in the amount of fresh material on both the website and the Friday broadcast/podcast.  As you might have guessed, my work as a blogger and podcaster isn't a paying gig, and I'm lucky to have a civilian job that I enjoy very much.  I teach at a private school in South Florida, run the school's writing center, and, up until very recently, I was the lead advisor (a sort of class dean) for the Class of 2012.  The job of lead advisor in the high school requires a four-year commitment, and our team followed the students from the first day of 9th grade through to the last day of 12th, keeping an eye on their academics, athletics, and all the rest -- including the whole college application process.  I had a tremendous amount of help with all of that from my wonderful partners in education at my place of work.  With the students approaching graduation, there was simply so much work spilling over into the rest of my life that keeping up regularly with Passing Notes was impossible.  Hence all the reruns on WDNA of late.  But the young men and women are finished; mortarboards have been tossed; summer break has begun; I'm back at the keyboard with lots to write about.

Many matters have improved behind the scenes for Passing Notes over the past few months.  WDNA was very generous in offering me a music show, the Sunday Time Warp, which allows me to play and talk about artists and genres that interest me.  I hope you'll tune it in on Sundays from 1:00 to 3:00 pm, either over the airwaves or online.  The growth of and coordination of social media has fallen into place nicely, as our following  has steadily increased, and using management tools like HootSuite and MailChimp has made keeping track of every little detail much easier.  And the listening times for podcasts have also increased on iTunes and our new platform on Stitcher.  If you do listen to the podcasts, by the way, please leave a review!

For today, I'll leave you with the final lesson I had for the members of the Class of 2012.  This speech was delivered last month at a luncheon with the graduates and the school's board of trustees.  I've included links to the audio immediately below, as well as an edited version of the text following.  Hope you like it.

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The Big Pond: Remarks for Graduates

When you work at a high school, one of the features of the job is the cycle of the school year – the end of which brings the customary end-of-the-year speeches.  I was going to use the modifier terminal, but that sounds a bit cruel. After two decades as a teacher, I’ve heard about a hundred such speeches.  I remember three of them:  one was by Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, one was by Palmer Trinity graduate Sandy Nader, and one was by my colleague in the English Department, Ms. Kenley Smith.  It seems to me that one should strive, in the end-of-the-year speech, to remain free of clichés but not inaccessible, free of sentimentality but not without feeling, free of moralizing but not without gravitas, free of the cloying quotation but not without the apt allusion, free from being somber but not too serious.  I know what you’re thinking: If anyone can meet that extensive set of rigorous standards, it’s Bobby Bowden.  But he did.  “To thine own self be true.”

The author David Foster Wallace – Amherst College, Class of 1987 -- gave a commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005, and he opened his remarks with a story.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?"  The older fish swims on by. The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

Wallace then goes on to explain the story as a parable about what a liberal arts education does.  That’s basically the kind of education you received here at Palmer Trinity, at this very good college preparatory school: A liberal arts education.  And one of the essential points liberal arts educators like me will often emphasize about the liberal arts education is this: A liberal arts education teaches you how to think.  I have spoken those words – It teaches you how to think -- many times, to many of you – perhaps cruelly and in great detail -- and I tried to explain what they meant. 

But the fish.  The familiar point made about the fish-in-water story is that the young fish – that is, untrained minds – don’t even realize that they are swimming in water – that is, untrained minds don’t understand that their thinking is determined, in large part, by frameworks that are cultural constructions. So really, “teaching you how to think” is a sloppy way to describe what it is we’re striving for here.  David Foster Wallace argues – and I would agree – that we’re trying to teach you how to choose how to think.  You can choose to think about things in the world as, say, a scientist would.  Or think as a historian would.  Or a musician.  Or a mathematician.  Or an artist.  Or an economist.  Or a writer.  Or think about it in Spanish or French or Chinese.  The choice of framework is yours, and that’s the fundamental value of a liberal arts education.  If you can choose to change the way you think, all kinds of things that used to be impossible suddenly become possible.

When we first met about, approximately 1350 days ago – remember?  I, a new father, had a bushy red beard and you were all (sigh) 9th graders.  When first we met, I pointed out, perhaps cruelly, that you had roughly 1350 days to go before you would graduate.  This information was met with groans, much to my delight.  You thought you would never make it. Why would you think otherwise?  The human mind can’t grasp the reality of 1350 days – certainly not the mind of a (sigh) 9th grader.  But here you are, just 21 days from graduation.  Here you are.  Now.  This, roughly speaking, is what the passage of 1350 days feels like.  Even though then you didn’t think it would happen, let me point out that, in fact, that it is now happening.  And let me add, perhaps cruelly, that you were wrong.  You made it.  All kinds of things that used to be impossible suddenly become possible. 

Those of you who have had me as a teacher have experienced, at the start of the academic year, my lecture on Galileo Galilee.   I love talking about Galieo because, as my students know, he provided the scientific proof that Coperinicus’ model of a sun-centered planetary system of which the Earth is part, was correct, and that the then-entrenched traditional model of an Earth-centered universe was wrong.  The cosmos was not geocentric, but heliocentric.  We are not the center of the universe, but rather, moving around the edge of a great circle.  Our perspective on the world doesn’t change because everything moves around us; our perspective changes because we are moving as well.   And what fascinates me most about Galileo isn’t that he was a just a man of science or just a man of faith – he was both.  He could choose to think in both ways, in fact, he did.  When the Catholic Church, quite cruelly but quite predictably, excommunicated Galileo for his heretical ideas, he never wavered in his deep faith in God.  He lived the balance of his days, somewhat alone, in a new world he had helped create.

New worlds await you.  I remember going off to college, twenty five years ago, off to Amherst College, a liberal arts school in Western Massachusetts, as far away from my little hometown in rural Maine as I could stand.  Back home, I had been, like many of you, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a big fish in a small pond.  At college, I wanted to challenge myself, though I didn’t understand what that meant at the time.  Or rather, I had made that choice, although I didn’t fully know what that choice meant.When I arrived at Amherst, I was sort of prepared with my public school education, but not in the way many of my classmates had been – classmates who had gone to schools sort of like this one, schools with names like Deerfield, Exeter, Andover, Groton, Taft, Lawrenceville, and the like.  Although I struggled academically, the social struggle was greater, because, you see, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Amherst without financial aid – a significant amount of aid. Amherst was then and still is, need-blind in its financial aid policy, so my family paid what it could, I was given a sizable grant (as it was called), and I worked washing dishes for my classmates in the dining hall. And you know what, there were lots of students at Amherst just like me, who felt like they were a little in over their head academically and plugging away at work-study jobs to pay the balance of their bills.  I felt self-conscious about it all at first, but then I came to understand that catching up to the preppies and working in the dining hall were just parts of my particular challenge.  Or rather, this was the meaning of my choice.

But we financial-aidees figured out, after not too long, that we belonged because of what we added to the mix of students.  Because we didn’t feel entitled to our places at Amherst, most of us worked hard at everything.    Because we came from working class backgrounds, we often had different political and social views from our preppie classmates, as was evident in both the classrooms and in the dorms.  And so on, choose your framework.   I was one of four people from Maine – four out of four hundred -- and probably the only person in my entire class with my particular blend of Irish and French Catholic sensibilities.  I ran track and played intermural soccer, football, and basketball. I worked feverishly for every student publication I could and defended writers like Don DeLillo, Donald Barthelme, and Wallace Stevens.  I played guitar in a rock band and championed the music of Frank Zappa, Fishbone, and John Coltrane.  In my summers, I learned how to be a teacher by working for the Upward Bound project.  I belonged, in the end, because at Amherst I was allowed to be me.  The place shaped me and, in my small ways, I shaped the school.

And let me say, on the subject of financial aid, I am proud to work at Palmer Trinity, in great part, precisely because it offers roughly 2 million dollars in assistance to its students families.  This school is richer in the education it can offer because of its commitment to making that education available to more and more people who don’t necessarily fit the mold of a traditional prep school student.   Certainly, Palmer Trinity’s efforts in this area have made it easier for this public high school graduate to feel much better about working at an independent school.  I know that every member of the Class of 2012 has earned his or her place in the room today.  Never let a snob make you feel otherwise.  Palmer Trinity has shaped you, to be sure, but each of you – all of you -- in your ways, have shaped the school – and I know that you all leave a Palmer Trinity that is a far better place than when you first arrived.  You learned the big lessons well: responsibility, initiative, leadership, service.  As driven to succeed as so many of you are, you have come to understand that you have more to gain by working together than by working against one another.  That might be the most important lesson of all.

I know there were low points for everyone along the way.  Some we know about, and some we do not -- Not only the loss of loved ones, serious illness, natural disasters, far-reaching impact of the financial crisis, but also all those frustrating personal moments of failure, frustration, and disappointment.  But, you know, those low points, when you feel you may never make it through, are most important.  I use the superlative: most. I don’t want to trivialize loss or failure with anything as trite as “the power of positive thinking.”  I would suggest to you that a loss – and especially a failure, presents you with a moment of perspective and humility that is incredibly important.

I mentioned the name of saxophonist and composer John Coltrane earlier.  In 1957, when Coltrane was playing in the first quintet of the legendary bandleader Miles Davis, he was also struggling with heroin addiction.  At one gig in April, Coltrane was playing his saxophone, but was in such bad shape – chemically induced -- on the bandstand, that Miles Davis – who was a decent boxer – slugged him.  Coltrane and his horn were knocked literally off the stage, and Miles fired Coltrane on the spot.

Having gotten himself booted from the best jazz band in the world, with nothing to do, Coltrane made the decision to clean up his drug habit and seek a new direction in his music.  And, from the point forward, almost anyone who knows Coltrane’s music can hear a tremendously dynamic, rich, and courageous development in his playing and writing from 1957 to his death in 1967.  Coltrane also got married, had a family, and built a close group of friends and artists collaborators.  Provided with a moment of perspective and humility, Coltrane chose to reinvent himself.   I’m not saying it was easy, but it’s what he did.  As the man said, “One thought can have a million vibrations.”

Certainly, I have had moments like those – although Miles Davis never knocked me off the bandstand.  I would have remembered that.  But I can remember a point – oh, about a decade ago, when, having just moved to Miami in the last act of my first marriage, I found myself in a moment of perspective and humility.   I didn’t have much: family back in Maine of course, my friends from over the years, some clothes and furniture and books and CD’s, and my job here at Palmer Trinity.  And a green pickup truck. And although there was anger, and grief, and guilt, certainly, over my part in the mess I had created, I realized soon enough that I had to move on.   I chose to make some changes in how I thought about myself, and how I thought about my relationships with people and my relationship with the world.  And, I chose to believe in myself.  Trust me, some reinvention was in order.

Here we are, 10 years later, and I’ve made it through.  I have more in my life now that I could ever have imagined in my moment of perspective and humility, standing in my studio apartment with my boxes of stuff.  The material stuff has never mattered much to me (although I miss my truck) but I love my work and the people I work with – you guys are definitely part of that joy – and I have a beautiful wife, Pamela, and two space-traveling superhero little boys,: Evan, who’s three, and Cole, who’s almost five.  The name Cole, of course, is short for Coltrane.

Most of you know that I became a parent around the time I took this job, and the two positions – parent at home and . . . whatever it is I do here – have complemented each other.  That is, doing one has made doing the other easier, and vice versa.  When a teacher becomes a parent, I believe he or she is better able to see bits of their own children in their students, and that teacher also become much better at understanding where all parents are coming from.   Hopefully, it’s a place of love.  So, thank you, seniors, for helping me be a better father and teacher, because my life, happily, revolves around my family and my work in a way I never would have imagined possible.

My fundamental guide in most matters of parenting and education is, I’m sure, extremely obvious: Finding Nemo.  The plot, you know.  The father fish, Marlin, having lost his wife and most of his little fishy offspring to a nasty barracuda, is now the overprotective, fearful father of Nemo, he of the little flipper and the big ambition.  On the first day of school – even fish have to go to schools, ha-ha – Nemo is captured by a diver, removed from his ocean habitat, and taken to live with a motley crew of aquarium fish in a dentist’s office in Sydney.  Fearful father Marlin sets out to find his son and soon falls into the company of Dorrie, who suffers from extreme short term memory loss but is willing to help.   Dorrie lives completely in the moment, whereas Marlin lives completely in his bottomless guilt over the past and his endless worries about the future.  Together, they make a good team, as long as they just keep swimming.  And the point for parents, of course, is that you have to let your kids go out into big old the world sooner or later.  Young people can surprise you if you prepare and encourage them just enough.  It’s Nemo, after all, who saves the day.

You were all eight or nine years old when Finding Nemo came out.  Does that seem like that long ago and far away?  That was 3255 days ago, about three times the number of days you’ve spent in high school.  Time moves slowly, the earth turns, it all accumulates, but despite the distance between then and now, we can all go back to our childhood with a simple, almost random, phrase: “Shark Bait, OOH AH AH!”

When the theory of the earth’s rotation was being debated, people would sometimes ask, “Well, if it’s rotating, when we jump into the air, why don’t we shoot off toward the horizon all of a sudden?”  I’m sure Mr. Zamarippa could explain why that doesn’t happen, but I was thinking about the possibility the other day.  I was looking at some of the photos from the scavenger hunt a few weeks ago, those particular pictures of you in your advisory groups, jumping into the air, the photo snapped at the peak of the jump, the sand of Miami Beach behind you, and the shining Atlantic beyond.  I imagine that I am taking the picture.  I imagine that I am capturing that pure moment of joy and togetherness and youth.  But, though the moment is frozen in my camera,  instead of returning to earth, the force of time seizes you all in mid-jump and pulls you all up and away from me, away from each other, and you spread out, smaller and smaller against the sunny sky, waving goodbye to me and to each other, blowing kisses, eventually falling, far off, gracefully, into the ocean, where you surface, get your bearings, and swim away, each quickly in his or her own direction, away from the shore, confident and fearless.   Soon, you’re all out of sight.   The beach is empty, except for me – happy me – and the waves come and go, and the earth turns on.

So, it’s been 1350 days between our first meeting and this.  You entered Palmer Trinity as naïve, awkward, confused (sigh) 9th graders, and you leave – well, as very fine members of the very fine Class of 2012.  From a personal perspective, you have traveled a great distance, and that’s true.  1350 days – the earth twists on its axis, follows its orbit around the sun, and the sun follows its slow arc through the galaxy.  From a cosmic perspective, you haven’t come far at all, and that’s also true. I choose to see it both ways – from the personal and the cosmic, which, after all, aren’t so far apart.

When you think about the problems that the people here on Earth face, all of us, I’m sure you feel overwhelmed.  You worry about the future.  I know I do.  Ecological imbalance.  Diminishing resources.  Poverty and hunger.  Violence in all its forms.  Intolerance and bigotry.  Spiritual and moral decline.  I’m not saying that working on these problems will bel be easy, but it’s much of the work that lies ahead for us.
But after being with so many of you over these years, I worry a little less about the future.  That is, I choose to worry less about it.  I know that, as far as so many of those issues I just mentioned are concerned, you have all been well trained to think globally and act locally.  Yes, I worry less about the future knowing that our work with you here at Palmer Trinity is just about completed and that the Class of 2012 will make its way into the bigger world out there.  It’s our world.  It’s your world.  It’s both.  I hope you choose to think about the world in whatever ways that suits you best.  Almost anything is possible.

And now, I engage in another choice of my own – a deliberate act to frame my view of the world just so.  I choose to believe -- my little fishies -- I choose to believe in you.

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