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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