The Voice of a Generation

The Voice of a Generation

In the graduation speeches delivered this month by students from Brattleboro Union High School, I recognized the overarching theme of inclusion, connection, and belonging which seemed to spring from a deep well of recognition and appreciation among the student speakers and their cohorts.

When senior Malcolm Toleno referenced “What’s next?” in his address at the Baccalaureate ceremony, he cast a broad net of post-graduation paths: from starting a job to enlisting in the service to exploring gap years & travel to continuing studies, encouraging his fellow classmates to approach the world with curiosity, from a place of not “knowing.”

When class speaker Kathyrn Paige Wocell addressed the graduating class on the football field, she spoke of the “adult companions” who shaped the lives of graduates, referencing a quote from the school security guard, “Gordy,” who characterized the Class of 2019 as “spunky and determined,” certain to impact the world.

When Ari Essunfeld delivered his Valedictorian address, he spoke of the “positive influences” of a community that respects and treasures differences and values art & music, points scored & records earned, risk-taking and compassion. Among those influences, he included teammates and coaches, custodians and special education teachers, and his fellow classmates who over the past four years shared not only common physical space but collective memory, differing perspectives, hard apologies and the intertwining of stories, in which he honored the fullness of each individual story and its unique path.

These children have come of age in the chaos of climate change and school shootings and the immediacy of oppression and violence and hate.

Like no other generation, they reside within our interconnection, and in doing so, I see their capacity to create larger and larger containers of belonging, celebration and love.

To this I would add the voice of their English teacher Bennth Sauer who retired this year and offered this witty and insightful address at the Baccalaureate Ceremony, revealing the brilliance of educators whose light is often dimmed under mounds of class hours, meetings and paperwork. (Of note: Bennth doesn’t love this image but I think it captures what students found so engaging about her classes.)

ENGLISH I. & II.

I want to thank the senior class for including me tonight, as it gave me time to think about some things that really matter—which was especially meaningful during my last few weeks of teaching at a place where I have learned so much. And as I was contemplating things we all share—aside from the memes you have so generously shown and then explained to me—I started wondering about what we might have gleaned from some of the works we read in English I and II.

[My notes here say, ignore muffled groans and proceed as if I had not heard them].

[I should also note that the working title of this talk was “Why I Hate Romeo and Juliet,” but I decided that was too narrow, so it’s now called “Why We Should All Love Holden Caulfield but Shouldn’t Vote for Him.” I believe he’s running as the 24th Democratic candidate.]

So, what did we learn from them—and what didn’t we learn, which maybe we should have?

These are not idle questions. If the point of going to school is to acquire the skills that will help us become thinking citizens, ideally compassionate towards others both within our sphere and without, and engaged in the lurching-but-worthwhile experiment we call democracy, then assumedly these books were chosen to instruct us about a particular aspect of being human.

So let’s start with a book most of you probably [?] liked, To Kill a Mockingbird. In the “tired old town” of Maycomb we saw just another version of our national emergency being enacted, with Tom Robinson falsely accused of rape by the ne’er-do-well Ewells, and then shot as he tried to escape a system that was rigged against him. We all recognize that emergency, still being played out on the national stage and on our Facebook feeds. We paid heed to that emergency in our own school as we raised the “Black Lives Matter” flag amidst much controversy.

And in Jem and Scout’s burgeoning awareness of injustice we recognize our own coming to terms with the failures of our democracy: How Scout had to mull over the fact that a teacher praised the Jews by saying that “there are no better people in the world” as they faced the scourge of the Third Reich in Europe, but apparently said and did nothing about the plight of the Black citizens of her own town under Jim Crow. Jem, as we know from Scout, grew angry and withdrawn, and refused to speak about it, which I suppose is one way to cope. And of course we all admire Atticus, who was derided and spat upon for his convictions.

But there are a few less-examined moments in the novel which I would like to talk about now. You all remember the mad dog in Chapter 10–[and not just because he has the same name as a local celebrity]. When Calpurnia realizes that Tim Johnson is rabid, she runs to the Radleys’ to warn them to stay inside. In her haste, Cal goes to the front door, and watching her, Scout remarks, “She’s supposed to go around in the back.”

In the symphony of the novel, this is a moment in which the reader should notice a false note. Jem responds that it doesn’t matter in this case, as it’s an emergency—but it should matter to the reader. It’s symptomatic of growing consciousness that it comes in fits and starts, and Harper Lee is showing us how pernicious this sickness of racism is—how hard to cure. Likewise their discussion as they walk back from their church outing with Calpurnia: They are having the first really personal talk in the novel, and we realize that Scout doesn’t know when Cal’s birthday is, despite the fact that Cal has cared for her all of her life. (Worse, Calpurnia herself doesn’t know.) These lapses may seem minor but in the mosaic [this is the very definition of mixed metaphor] of “What We Can Learn from Literature,” they are like missing tiles which mar—or highlight, depending on one’s perspective—the art.

Noticing the small broken-off bits in the mosaic, of course, is not enough. We have to notice them, and then do something about them. And so I don’t want your takeaway from what I’m saying here to be that in being a careful reader you are doing your utmost—you have to not only see the places where things are broken but also work to fix them. Of course, we are not going to shout at Scout over the distance of almost 60 years that she should look up “hypocrisy” in Miss Caroline’s dictionary, but we can notice these lapses in ourselves and make amends. It requires a humility and a willingness to make mistakes—something that after a teaching career of thirty-plus years I have perhaps more experience with than most.

And speaking of humility, how about those Montagues and Capulets? Should it bother us that we never, EVER, in “the two-hours’ traffic of our stage” learn the source of their “ancient grudge”—a feud so potent that even their servants bite their thumbs at the other family’s staff when they run into one another at Price Chopper? In a time when our nation is more divided than it’s been in years, perhaps we should read this play as a warning: that we should be able to identify the sources of our polarization but more, we should work to bridge the same lest we lose what we treasure most. Romeo and Juliet’s parents planned to commission a statue of pure gold to commemorate their children’s death and the end of the adults’ strife—what kind of statue will be erected here in the future? Will it be one which future generations will have to take down, as the statues celebrating the Confederacy are slowly being toppled on their plinths? Will it be pure gold, or will it be hollow? And who will decide?

Guess what—you will. It is a sad truth that as the people who have worked hard to teach you retire and continue to lose their hair, the responsibilities for shaping a world you want to live in will be increasingly your own. Sorry, not sorry; sad, not sad—I am quietly ecstatic to think that you—with your fine minds and character, your acronyms [GOAT: “Greatest of All Time”] and silly antics— will be determining what happens in the world “out there” rather than just in our classrooms.

[Maybe leave the tractor tires at home though.]*

So what will you do when you encounter the Tom and Daisy Buchanans of the world, those who in the insulation of their own privilege have only to put up statues to themselves— those who can ignore the shadowy figures toiling in the valley of ashes as they ride through on the train to somewhere clean and safe and exclusive? An uncomfortable truth about Fitzgerald’s novel—which I thought about a lot while planning this diatribe, I mean speech—is that The Great Gatsby is almost exclusively about people who just…stink [synonym for the perfect word, which *this refers to a prank students pulled a few weeks ago I can’t use here]: their living rooms, their hotel rooms, their mansions, their icky personal lives—and so little about the world that surrounds them, which they exploit but which is beneath their notice. You will have to face the Buchanans and the lesser mortals of the world as you inherit the environment they have despoiled. In the final lines of his masterwork Fitzgerald writes that we are boats beating on but borne back ceaselessly into the past. It’s a romantic and true notion—certainly there are things we will want to hold onto from the past and even from the present—like Easy Bake Ovens, bell-bottoms, Moana, the rolling-eye-emoji—but as the caretakers of our planet you will have to think about and do things in new ways to stem the tide of apathy. Google Greta Thunberg to see what one seventeen-year-old and a sign can do.

And thus we arrive at Holden Caulfield, anti-hero of his own narrative [The Catcher in the Rye]. In my experience students are 50/50 with or against Holden—he’s Everyman, or he’s no one. As a teacher, I love him; the fact that he doesn’t do the reading is infuriating, but his heart is in the right place. And at least he has one. What is heartbreaking to me is that the adults in his life seem to have largely deserted him, except perhaps, for his English teacher (SURPRISE!), Mr. Antolini. (And no, he wasn’t creepy.) Holden doesn’t do his homework, but he has principles—he just doesn’t have power. So find your power—whether it’s beating a drum or besting your teacher in debate [shout-out to my AP students], singing your heart out on stage or stinging the vanity of those who abuse their power, wielding your sense of humor or welding alliances between people who thought they were enemies.

But in this era in which fact is continuously being called into question, what do we make of Holden’s use of the word “phony”? It’s important, because it is one of the reasons many students dislike him: “He hates phonies, but he’s a phony himself.” I mostly disagree: I think that Holden appropriately recognizes fakery but is too caught in the mesh of his own coddled upbringing to totally escape it. It’s unclear that his parents’ plan to send him to a military academy will remedy this. We all know that teenagers have the best boloney-detectors and (speaking to the parents and other significant adults here) it is wearying to have one’s own trespasses pointed out, over and over. But I thank the Buddha for my students—they are so often right, and they—YOU—have certainly kept me honest. Now you’re graduating, and I urge you to prime your baloney-meters as you enter your next sphere.

As for my own graduation, which is what we’re calling my retirement in our household…I was talking with Amelia Graff [♥] the other day about Jane Austen—how Austen’s women characters are “badass” [I can say that here because I’m quoting Amelia] even as they’re caught up in the mesh of their own severely constricted futures, in which finding a man is the ultimate end, and the “plain” sister is plain out of luck…And after Amelia left my classroom I thought to myself—I’ve made a terrible mistake! There are so many fabulous, important discussions I haven’t had! So many books to talk about! And I never taught anything by Kurt Vonnegut! etc. After those moments of panic, I calmed down and realized that the discussions and the new thoughts about familiar things will happen anyway, because you know how to have them. You don’t need me. It’s a truism of teaching (like parenting, I suppose) that the ultimate goal is to render oneself obsolete. It has been an honor to participate with you in this endeavor. I have never laughed as much as I have when spending time with “my” kids, and I have learned more than I can quantify.

When Holden is being kicked out of Pencey, his third (?) prep school, he goes to visit his former social studies teacher, “Old Spencer.” I’ll spare you the details of their interaction, but in short Spencer, in trying to make a point about Holden’s inability to “apply himself,” makes him feel even worse. As Holden is leaving, he thinks he hears Spencer shouting “Good luck!” after him, about which Holden says, “I hope [he didn’t]. I hope to hell not. I’d never yell ‘Good luck!’ at anybody. It sounds terrible, when you think about it.” So I won’t either. Like Beowulf [you know i had to work him in here somewhere], you have the power to make your own fate. Of course, I hope that all good things happen for all of you, but I know enough of your resilience and tenacity to know that you will also make good things happen.

And in a nod to Kersey, I will close with a quotation from my favorite poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote of the future—your future—in a section of Leaves of Grass:

“It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and father—it is to identify you; It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be decided; Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you, You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.“

And so you go, with all my love.
Thank you so much.

Beneth Sauer, BUHS Baccalaureate Address, June 2019

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New Year Outtakes

New Year Outtakes

Welcome Center, Tennessee

EPIPHANY

Like a dog, at my feet, beneath the table, my mind begs, shamelessly, after each & every meal, even breakfast:

“No dessert?”

After a display of disgust, I pat it on the head, and say:

“Let’s go see what we have.”

~

MID-JANUARY

To say nothing seems wrong. To say something, just to say something, seems trite.

What I felt as I drove through a snowstorm in the Blue Ridge Mountains was shock.

“Mary Oliver has died,” said the announcer on NPR, without asking if we were all sitting down.

And just like that a window shut, a door slammed, a page turned, a poem…

Her words came at a time when I was finding myself, and like she did for so many, her way of seeing lit the way, and made it softer and sweeter and whole.

~

MLK WEEKEND

“Friday is the Day of Detachment. Today we tell our children: Enjoy the journey.”

Another dreary day of winter weather, blocking my view & my mood. But after two full days of driving, I am waking up in a place I’ve never been before, to the sound of a bird I don’t know, in a stranger’s bed in Knoxville, Tennessee where my youngest and I have journeyed to celebrate the most powerful thing in the world.

Love.

~

VERMONT BOUND

The Smokies were covered today and we extended our stay to avoid the weather up ahead.

As the sun set in the west and the full moon rose in the east, we drove through the Tennessee town in which Dolly Parton was born, on this very weekend, 73 years ago.

What struck me most about this time in the “South,” almost immediately, was the pause people take, even when passing by, even when brushing shoulders with strangers, to say something kind or to smile, which we’re happy to reciprocate only we didn’t know and so we kept on going or kept it short or turned away too soon, respecting individuation & time instead of the gentility of connection. (I wonder if the North is more heavily populated by introverts.)

“Southern women are nice to your face and then talk behind your back,” our Airbnb host said.

The anomalies & attributes of another person or place are easier to see than one’s own, and so here’s what else we noticed:

Cheap gas! We filled up for $1.89 today (almost makes us want to stay and drive around some more.)

70 mph speed limit. With signs that tell you to stay in the right lane if you’re going less than 70.

BILLBOARDS. (Thank you for banning those Vermont!)

GOD: in the bathroom, on the coffee table and everywhere else along with GUNS & SEX (aka. “Adult” establishments), the bedfellows of PATRIARCHY & OPPRESSION, partnered with fireworks, bbq, knives, moonshine, distilleries & and a string of extravagant Christmas-lawn ornament light stores.

Other EXCESSES: Pedicures & sundaes–at the same time. (I was tempted.) A hunk of cornbread & 2 huge biscuits with your small order of chicken & dumplings. “You won’t starve here,” the waiter said. Price: $5.95

Loads of Arby’s & Hardy’s & Chick Fill A (as well as Waffle Houses & Krispy Kremes.)

Angular mountain ranges & ridges.

“Yes, ma’am.”

~

IN-SERVICE

Today my husband, a highschool social studies teacher, spent his half-day in-service learning how to stop the bleeding. Legs & arms mainly because apparently there’s less success with torso wounds in the classroom.

 

Understanding TRANS

Understanding TRANS


I was alarmingly reluctant to find out more about VT’s Democratic candidate for Governor Christine Hallquist, simply because I was uncomfortable with her appearance.

After she won the primary, I made a mental note to lean in, but my discomfort persisted. When I heard that she would be in town, I put the event on my calendar. I’ve learned that seeing a candidate in person is the best gauge of whether I would trust them with my vote (which held true for Bernie and Obama.)

When I heard that the Trump administration wanted to remove ‘gender’ from United Nations Human Rights documents, my attention sharpened.

Simultaneously someone who I cared about shared their unfolding transgender journey.

This was the last push I needed to realize my response-ability to be engaged more fully; because I know first-hand what it is to be marginalized, degraded and physically threatened.

On Thursday night, my husband Casey Deane and I participated in the Rally for Trans Justice | Brattleboro (for which I shyly made my very first rally signs, imagining what I might want to feel/see if I was trans: SAFETY. BELONGING. DIGNITY. ALLY.)

Students from Brattleboro Union High School appreciated seeing my husband there, as did the manager of the Latchis Hotel; while I delighted in seeing one of our favorite grocery store clerks from the Brattleboro Food Co-op with her family.

Trans people and allies from all walks joined together, including a 5th grader who identified as non-binary and a grandmother who came with her family to support her grandchild.

Where had all these people been hiding, I wondered. Why hadn’t I seen them before? Why hadn’t I wondered more about the fullness of their humanity?

This morning, my husband and I did something we rarely do. We skipped our Saturday morning yoga date with Scott Willis at Hits The Spot Yoga so that we could attend Coffee with Christine and Danica Roem along with our son who was home for the weekend from Vermont Tech.

When our son would typically be sleeping in, we headed out the door in the icy snow, just ahead of an accident, and we arrived at The Works Bakery & Cafe to 3 seats open in a row at the reserved table.

But then I realized that these seats were right beside Christine D Hallquist, which seemed inappropriate for me to claim, given everything, but also inappropriate not to claim, given everything, so I sat right down next to her and she took a pause from her bagel to introduce herself, and I, in turn, introduced her to my son and husband when they sat down with their bagels.

What brought me to this particular event (instead of the others around town where Hallquist was speaking) was the presence of Danica Roem – Virginia Delegate who I heard speak on a YouTube clip after her victory. If she could come from Virginia, I thought, I could come down from the mountain.

She was just as compelling this morning. Clear thinking. Enthusiastic. Matter of fact.

Hallquist was equally so. I began to write down some of what she said:

I AM BULLISH ABOUT VERMONT.

CLOSING RURAL SCHOOLS IS THE WORST THING TO DO.

GROWING VT’S RURAL COMMUNITIES WILL PUT PEOPLE BACK IN THOSE SCHOOLS.

WE’RE GONNA SOLVE CLIMATE CHANGE BECAUSE WE CAN.

~

I don’t need to “like” a candidate, but I do want to respect them.

Right away I liked Hallquist. Her can-do attitude. Her forward thinking. Her humor. Her authenticity. Her clear sense of being a learner. Of visiting the prison and the Brattleboro Retreat. The Canadian delegation on climate change. The former Governor of Colorado–who has joined 19 states together–around climate. Hallquist’s vision to do the same with health care. She also shared her focus on broadband internet across the state.

“I don’t accept NO as an answer,” she said. “I don’t make excuses. We CAN solve problems BECAUSE we are small.”

This she offered in defense of Vermont, after sharing how she transformed Vermont Electric Coop by bringing people together.

Before we left this morning’s gathering, we made new acquaintances and another modest second donation to the campaign (the first after the news about the UN documents.)

We left with a bumper sticker and a lawn sign and a commitment to do more to get the word out: This candidate is worthy of your vote.

“She’s been on a marathon,” Senator Becca Balint, Vermont Senate Majority leader said of Hallquist’s campaign, “And now’s she’s in a sprint,” encouraging us to encourage others to make donations to help bolster the campaign in these last weeks.

“Here’s what I’d like to say to my grandchildren one day,” said Hallquist in her closing:

2018 WAS THE YEAR WE MADE HISTORY.

ps. i love her logo.

pps. Both my husband and I–to our son’s constant dismay–mistakenly referred to Christine as “he” even as I wrote this piece.

“I don’t understand,” my son said, “Why do you keep doing it?!

“Our brains aren’t as flexible as yours,” I explained. “We’ll need more practice.”

Dear Bernie,

Dear Bernie,

I moved to Vermont in 1993, the year before I turned thirty, two years before my husband & I became parents.
 
It was in Vermont that something else was conceived inside–a growing awareness & engagement in politics; Because it was in Vermont that I first discovered politics beyond the pocketbook.
 
Bernie, it was in our early years in Vermont that my young family sat beside you at the Chicken Supper when you were our Congressman, and where we later watched with pride as our son joined you in the Strolling of the Heifers parade down Main Street during your campaign for Senate; and when time sped forward and that same son went off to school at the University of Vermont, my youngest son and I were with you on the waterfront as you announced your campaign for President; which is to say that Bernie Sanders & Vermont are inextricably linked in my understanding of both the rights & responsibilities of citizenship.
 
But it’s not that for which I’d like to thank you now, Bernie. It’s something larger than one family. It’s the way your presidential campaign gave young people, not just in Vermont, but around this nation, hope. It’s the way you tethered their hearts and minds to a purpose larger than themselves, and to the possibility of something more than the cultural shadow assigned them–ignorance, irrelevance, consumerism & self-absorption.
 
Bernie, your campaign, your voice, your tenacious heart woke the heart of a nation and seeded a sense of possibility that is taking root in the consciousness & action of our youngest citizens in this most troubling time for our democracy.
 
Bernie, you have shown them how to fight the good fight.
 
You have proven to them that they are not alone.
 
This has inspired them to lead with love.
 
This has inspired them to vote with passion & purpose.
 
This has made the privilege of citizenship–whole.
 
~Kelly Salasin, age 54

Mother of Lloyd, 22, and Aidan, 17, ready to vote in the next election.
 
 
The Christmas Season that won’t end…

The Christmas Season that won’t end…

IMG_1518We tucked our celebration away at the end of December, but the holiday season has dragged into the New Year for our family–by the Merry Mulch Fundraiser.

On any given day, we receive 7 to 21 calls about Christmas trees. (Of note: Despite a progressive populace, not a one referred to theirs as a Holiday Tree.)

Our son volunteered to receive these calls to offset the cost of his highschool band trip. His mother, who did not play a band instrument, is a writer. Self-employed. In the home. Which is why it was both necessary and excruciating to succumb to this daily intrusion. (I stopped answering the phone in 1989.)

On any given evening, my son spends 20 to 60 minutes replaying (and replaying and replaying) messages; compiling information; and making follow up calls.

More than the volume of Merry Mulch activity, we are surprised by the volume of good will. This is its 27th year of the Music Department fundraiser at Brattleboro Union High School.  Some of the callers let us know that they have been participating since its inception. One woman informed my son that she was the one to conceive of it.

Our hearts are equally touched or tickled or annoyed by the characters we find on our  answering machine. The warm and gravelly sound of an older man. The busy staccato of the cell phone caller. The confused caller. The comedic one. The irritated. The kind. The repetitive. The overly informative. Their quirky names. Corky. Junio. A woman named Mann. (My son wishes he could meet them all!)

When Aidan showed up at school that first week with close to 100 orders, the band director offered to place our phone number last on the radio and newspaper call list instead of first.

I am almost certain that we will never (or always) do this again.

~

Note: if you live in Brattleboro, here is the link to more information. There is one more pick up Saturday remaining. Calls must be placed by Thursday. Please don’t call the first number. http://buhs.wsesu.org/merry-mulch