This week I finished a year-long commitment working individually with the eighty students presenting senior convocation speeches. Most mornings, before the start of the regular school day, I sat in the theater listening to a senior rehearse her convocation speech, a graduation requirement, in preparation for presenting to the entire Upper School. Each senior convocation was a rite of passage, a unique opportunity for the speaker to share her own narrative of discovery and individuality. Some speeches were amusing and light-hearted, and others were challenging, introspective, or evocative. As the senior convocation leader, I listened and took notes for the student and considered the impact of her words in the unpredictable nature of community. We talked together about what questions she might be asked in the open discussion that followed each prepared speech, and depending on the speech topic, there was sometimes follow-up actions in support of the student, or in consideration of others. Throughout the year, I felt honored and humbled to be in this work, hoping to share an important sense of community and the joys of deep intellectual pursuits as I served and supported the seniors in this capstone experience. Before the cycle of the senior speeches began, I delivered my own speech, known as the “convocation about convocation.” I’m including a slightly edited version of the speech here. The original speech was delivered on Sept. 7, 2017. Today, I’m looking back on my words that began an incredibly transformative year for me as artist and educator.

“Guided by Love, Learning to Live in Community”

To speak is also to risk being known, to step more clearly into the space we share together. To listen is to witness, to care and learn. This is the dance of community. Being present together.

My questions repeatedly lead me back to the writings of bell hooks, one of the great leaders in developing an understanding of intersectional feminism. Today, I reflect on a call to love that bell hooks names in her essay, “Faith, Writing, and Intellectual Work,” she states: “To be guided by Love is to live in community with all life. A culture of domination like ours does not strive to teach individuals how to live in community. As a consequence, this must become a core practice for all of us who desire to transform society in ways that will bring justice, enable peace and well-being – learning to live in community.”

I repeat her powerful intentions again: “…guided by Love. …learning to live in community…”

…In her book, Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler, the impressive and challenging American philosopher and influential gender and queer theorist asks, “If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognizable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life.” Butler suggests we are asked to account for ourselves, and in doing so, the starting place is personal, a unique narrative of self. She cautions that these narratives are always partial and ever-changing, she writes: “Perhaps most importantly, we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human… ”

I think many seniors find themselves on this very stage revisiting what they believe or know about themselves and this place and how it shaped them, as they consider the unknowingness of the future.

An account of myself.

Most of my life I’ve identified as a gay male person found mostly in the places and social circles of women. I believe this sense of belonging in the world invited me in at an early age when I was the only boy in a Wonder Woman club that met at recess during elementary school. Not the Wonder Woman of this summer’s blockbuster movie, but the iconic and somewhat awful television show starring Linda Carter.

As I remember it, and I will admit that memory often glimmers the past with its own artistry, we met in the center of what we called “the woods” which was really a small grouping of trees at the dividing line between the half of the playground for boys and the half of the playground for girls. Perhaps this was only a social construct of children and not enforced by the teachers, but it is also absolutely possible that recess was segregated by gender in those days of my childhood at a suburban public school. And so, we met in the space that was kind of a venn diagram, that managed to accept my inclusion into the circle of wanna-be Wonder Women, strong and opinionated girls I found significantly more interesting than the playground sports and bullying of the boy-side of the world that awaited me there.

I wanted to dance, but at school I was told that boys weren’t allowed to be in the dance club…

The consequences of being less gender normative in a small town left me targeted for verbal and even physical violence. I “escaped” to an intimate, small liberal arts school, Bennington College, formerly a women’s college, and though it went co-educational in 1969, in the 80’s it was mostly women.

That first semester, I finally took my first dance classes.

That younger me is still Here, found in a joy of dance, especially when I am seated in the darkened theater during Dance Company tech week rehearsals, and I catch myself anticipating the choreography, watching but also slightly joining the dance phrases with a gentle turn of my head, following the combinations and connections shared between the dancers on stage.

Adrienne Rich, the renowned poet, grew up in pre-civil rights Baltimore and graduated from the Roland Park School in 1947, though it was not yet our neighbor in those years. In her 2012 Baltimore Sun obituary, Rich is described as “one of the country’s most honored and influential poets, whose finely tuned verse explored her identity as a feminist, a lesbian and an agent for political change…” Her intimate essay, entitled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” explores the concept of “an honorable human relationship.” In 1975, when she wrote this essay, second wave feminists sought to define lives and work apart from the gender expectations of the generations before them. A focus on relationships shared by women is at the center of her work. She challenges her readers, stating, “This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler… We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even with our own lives.”

Another amazing writer from Baltimore, the contemporary playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, discusses the work of building trust as beginning in ourselves. In her Letters to a Young Artist, she makes the point of promoting small steps, suggesting: “In order to keep trust alive, we must start with ourselves. We start with making ourselves trustworthy… Real substantial trust will come from real substantial doings. It can be as simple as being on time, being honest, being discreet, doing the work you say you’ll do, keeping promises… It requires self-knowledge. It requires clarity about your own principles…”

The willingness to engage others truthfully, even in disagreement, with a commitment to shared ground and respect, is part of Rich’s concept of a honorable relationship practice. Her essay finishes with the following commitment: “It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities between us. The possibility of life between us.”

…Imagine a connecting line to the seniors of the past, some now sitting here in this present time with us again as faculty members, and keep imagining that connection stretching back even further to a time on campus that did not include this theater of today.  …We are a very different community than the origins of this school, grown with the experience and lives of many, many more innovators than just the founding women whose names we repeat in our annual celebrations… Somewhere in this incredible timeline of this institution marched students and faculty breaking previously held religious barriers, brought this school forward past the days of racial segregation, and recently, taught us lessons about being gender nonconforming or transgender at an all-girls school. These are only some of the ways this place learned to change, changed by the challenges and love and care of individuals, in leadership, families, faculty and students, and we are the better for these truths, for these ongoing opportunities to learn and widen the authenticity of a more diverse learning community.

In his book, The Art of Communicating, the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Han, describes the work of community with such beautiful imagery: “Be your community and let your community be you. This is true practice. Be like the river when it arrives at the ocean; be like the bees and birds that fly together. See yourself in the community and see the community in you. This is a process of transforming your way of seeing, and it will transform how, and how effectively, you communicate.”

This was a story that only I might tell, brought together through the craft of writing and rewriting and reading out loud and revising and practicing, until the written words met all of us here in this living present moment, shared with the hope that you too will stand in your own inspiring self and bring forward the wisdom of your own journey.

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