Last year I posted that I had gone off the deep end, left teaching, and was swimming into unknown waters. The gods had other ideas, and by some twist of cosmic irony, I found myself back in the class, teaching Humanities (a dual-credit course offered by Los Alamos High School and UNM-LA to high-school juniors and seniors at LAHS). For the first time in over three years, I taught full-time, actually .2 more than full-time, and I was learning just a little bit faster than my students in order to keep up with the content of the course. By the end of the year, I had developed a strong literature and poetry-based philosophy curriculum. We had a great year!
Every year, the seniors vote for their "teacher-speaker" for graduation, and this year I was chosen to address the seniors at commencement. I've indulged myself on this birth-day to share the address with NMLA blog-readers:
Welcome to all of you, parents, teachers, colleagues, friends, administrators – all the people who have spent the last four years supporting, cajoling, cheering, and teaching these young folks through their high school years. Welcome graduates! Thank you for the opportunity to stand up and speak to all of you on this auspicious occasion, and look out on this little pond of green all sitting in your folding chairs on the gym floor. But the metaphor today will not be frogs in ponds, because the extension may lead to the kind of problems of identity that include princes and kissing and warts and catching bugs with your tongues, so I’ll stop with that kind of description. Though I will address the question of identity a bit later.
Before I actually begin this commencement address, I am going to take care of one item that you should have all downloaded on your syllabus from my website. Item One: As you all know, you were required to take English EoCs as part of your senior finals week. These tests came as a surprise to you, as well as to us, your teachers, so we scrambled our schedules and lesson plans, changed the syllabus – and we undertook those tests. Then, we learned that there was one more test, the reading section, that also needed to be included, so we scrambled again, and administered that section. I am here to tell you, our EoC’s are not complete. I have just been informed that there is ONE more test that you all must take before your graduation can be official, and what better time to take the Graduation EoC , than right now while we have you all here. Sal? Sal? Do you have the computers ready to distribute? …..Looks like Sal is otherwise occupied, but I have the test question with me right now! It’s a simple objective test question, but we can not commence with this commencement until this question is answered. You will answer, out loud, yes or no. Are you ready to graduate? Great! Now I will commence with my commencement speech.
At the end of this year in humanities, we put together a ceremony for each class. Thread was involved, and in one class, we stitched together swatches of material from our childhood, using embroidery floss. Students chose their thread colors and either brought the thread in or used thread I provided. Humanities students, imagine your thread, the weight of it, the color. The rest of the senior class, imagine you are holding a length of embroidery thread in your hand. Imagine the color, imagine the heft. For the purposes of this rather extended metaphor, everyone else in this room also imagine your thread. Let’s stay in this moment.
Your presence here today is a culmination of every moment and experience that has preceded your butt in that folding chair. And what you do after walking across this stage may determine the trajectory of the rest of your life. Right now, though, you are right here. Listening to me, teetering on a balance point, a bit of stasis, before you begin the next journey. Let’s be mindful.
Who are you? The caterpillar asked Alice from his perch on a mushroom, as he smoked his hookah. Who are you? Alice barely knew, because as she claimed, she was hardly herself in this strange environment of white rabbits, mad red queens, and babies that turned rather abruptly into pigs before they ran off. Our world may seem like Wonderland, yet you all have to navigate and make sense of the madness. How will you know which door to choose? Which side of the cake to nibble, or, as in the case of the Matrix – which pill to take? Unless you seek to discover who you are, and the nature of your path, your choices will be nebulous, a game of chance, constantly throwing your dice against the wall and hoping for the best.
There are no definitive answers, but the questions will guide you. The thread you hold is not an answer, just a bit of hope that you will not get lost. Live the questions and know you are not alone. Whatever path, by happenstance or choice, you find yourself on, has been travelled by many before you. Be mindful. With your thread weave your way into the tapestry that will create the world you wish to inhabit.
Remember every loss that has built the story of this graduating class, and take up the threads of your friends and classmates who would have been among you today had their stories not ended so soon. Weave their colors with yours. We all have the responsibility of memory, the work of carrying our losses as integral aspects of who we are now. As V.S. Naipul said, “In our blood and bones and brain we carry the memory of thousands of beings.” Even the heroes and heroines of myth ride inside us, so your thread becomes Ariadne’s as she makes her journey into the labyrinth to confront the monster, who in the end is simply what we fear the most. Her thread connects her to the hero, who will find her, and not just save her, but also join her as she saves herself.
Yes, I am too much the poet and philosopher to not encourage you to be the hero of your own story, to understand that you must consciously involve yourself in the process of becoming who you are. This should not be some lucky sequence of events that eventually put you in a green graduation gown, wearing that funny mortar board on your head.
What color is your thread? What is the picture you would like to create? How intricate the weave, the stitch? Gather and pull, yours is a life always in transition, and today we celebrate your leaving high school. So many threads that have contributed to the mind and spirit you carry in the body of yours. Act accordingly. Desks you sat in, classes you skipped in favor of concerts and camping, the loves you ached for and lost, the friends that must be your soul mates, and the friends who turned on you when you least expected, the races, games, debates you crushed, and those that crushed you. The songs you sang with all your heart, the lies you manufactured, complete with requisite tears, right before you walked into the classroom, the arguments that built your understanding, the equations that eventually led to epiphany, the long nights of homework, all the hours you could have been sleeping, the words of wisdom, the thesis statement you wrote when you finally realized what a thesis statement was for, the research you did that actually led to understanding, the yards of words – poems, journals, notes, annotations – in binders, on loose leaf, in files on computers, or out in the world somewhere on shelves or on line, and the yards of words you read – science, social studies, novels and non-fiction – all the warp and weave to create the story of the past four years.
You all, content in this accomplishment, rest easy right now. This is a time for reflection and hope, a congratulatory moment before you walk across this stage and into what happens next.
You may think that the rollercoaster of the sublime and ridiculous is confined to all the stories you can remember vividly from your high school experience. The world is mad. The crazy continues. In hallway conversations and during your weekend activities, the crazy of this place dominated moments of frustration and incredulity. “Can you believe the homework load in that class? That teacher is nuts, if she/he thinks…. My car was towed! Insert name of teacher or administrator – hates me. Insert name here – is crazy! How do they – the “they” that will dog you all for the rest of your lives – how do they expect me to do that?!!” Los Alamos High School reflects the same chaos and bureaucracy you will find when you leave and either become the bureaucracy or fight against it the rest of your lives. Yet, your opportunities of education, the community provided by favorite friends and classes, and the protection of adults who, no matter how you might feel sometimes, have only wished the best for you, were also part of this four-year bargain. Now, though, you must leave this safely paved path with your colorful thread in your sweaty hand, and choose among so many trails your head is going to spin.
Feel the plates shift under your feet. Mountains are rising, chasms are widening, climate is changing, even the oceans are telling a different story. Your FB page is passé. You’ve been twittering for most of your high school years, and sharing videos that have gone viral. You buy things on Ebay, sell things on Etsy, live on fast food, faster cars, and Netflix binges. You share what you want the world to see on social media, don the clothes that identify you, say the words out loud that everyone expects, because you think you know who you are. Three thousand years ago Socrates challenged his students to understand that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Your next moment is upon you. Don’t stand still, as the minor philosophers, Brian George and Mateo Cardiel, so wisely stated: “There’s so much more to life than standing around on a planet all day.” Go. Trust those who have gone before you, you can see them on the horizon gesturing you over the chasms, mountains, rivers, continents, galaxies to follow. It’s dark out there, the woods is thick, there are monsters in the middle of everything, daring you to face your fears, and accomplish your story. You’ve got your thread, gather more, weave your story. What’s next won’t be on my syllabus. Thank you!
Los Alamos High School Graduation