Sunday, May 15, 2011

Address: Cranbrook Kingswood Baccalaureate [May 15, 2011]

It is both a wonderful and weird experience for me to be the Baccalaureate speaker today. It’s wonderful because I have a long and deep relationship with Cranbrook and Kingswood. In the late 1970s and early 1980s (a time when even your parents were children) I served as both a priest on the parish staff here and as the chaplain across the street at the schools. It is weird because this is the second time I have been the Baccalaureate speaker. My first foray into this venture was on May 20, 1979. I thought of dusting that speech off for reuse today, but it had too many references to disco lyrics.

When I think about my time as chaplain and teacher at Cranbrook in the 1970s, my mind goes back to a student named Kurt, a 13th year boy (what the English call “gap year” and we used to call PG year) at Cranbrook. He was a superior athlete but had some challenges as a student. He had a big heart but always seemed to get in his own way. He was in my Religion class. In those days I used to run around the Cranbrook track after school, and Kurt came up to me as I was running one day, and because I was his teacher he clearly wanted to get on my good side. He said, “Mr. Hall, I’ll bet all that running you do keeps you looking younger.” “Gee, thanks, Kurt.” “Yeah,” he said, “Anyone can tell from your face that you’re 40, but your body only looks 35.” I was 28 at the time.

When I left Cranbrook in 1981 I returned to California, and after graduate school and teaching at UCLA I was for several years on the faculty at an independent school in Los Angeles, Oakwood School. I taught 11th grade American Literature there, and the day I gave my first test in my first year there I was surprised to see a girl named Carly reach into her purse and pull out a large crystal that she then put on her desk. I asked her why she did that. She replied that she had been out late the night before and hadn’t had time to study. So, because she had a New Age belief in the power of crystals, she was going to trust in the harmonic convergence to lead her to superior test performance.

Because I’m both a priest and a teacher, people always ask me about the separation of church and state, specifically if I believe in prayer in schools, I reply: believe it? I’ve seen it! I see prayer in school before every test, every performance, and every competition. Those prayers may be addressed to God, to Jesus, to Buddha, to Allah, even to a rock; but they’re still prayers. And here’s the strange thing. They seem to work Both Kurt and Carly got A’s in my classes. And I’m a hard grader. Maybe there’s more to this crystal thing and sucking up than I realized.

Some of you may be familiar with the work of the writer Anne Lamott , author most famously of a book on writing called Bird by Bird. She begins her new novel, Imperfect Birds, with this provocative line: "There are so many evils that pull on our children.” Imperfect Birds is set in the affluent California suburb of Marin County, and it tells the story of a high school girl protagonist named Rosie and her descent into a morass of self-destructive behavior. Perhaps the biggest problem faced by the novel’s central family is the way they collude with each other not to see what they don’t want to see. The parents are in denial about the problems faced by their children. The children read back to the parents a false, idealized version of what the parents what to believe about themselves. It is a perfect feedback loop of false appearance and despair.

I recently heard Anne Lamott interviewed about this novel. Here is what she said:

I always wanted to write about my life as a competitive tennis player. I played tennis in tournaments in Northern California. When I had been a kid I was under so much pressure to do well that I cheated for a whole summer. I cheated in tournaments, which is odd because I’m such a nice person. I’m a black belt co-dependent, I want to help everyone, but I was cheating these little girls and taking points that weren’t mine. I had always wanted to write about kids who have too much pressure on them and how it pushes them into shadow parts of themselves that maybe scar them. I felt it scarred me. [Studio 360, NPR, April 29, 2011]

Anne Lamott’s own experience as a competitive athlete trying to grow up in a culture of pressure and denial led to her writing a book about a girl who tries to cope with similar challenges. There are so many evils that pull on our children: family dysfunction, the pressure to succeed at any cost, the constantly increasing demands of school life, the temptations of sex, drugs, alcohol, the college admissions process. Being a teenager has always been a challenge. These days it’s an obstacle course.

We’re gathered today as a senior class and families and teachers and staff celebrating the real accomplishments of an extraordinary group of young women and men. You are coming to the end of one phase of your educational journey and preparing to start another. As we come together today to bless and celebrate you, I’m curious about the pressures you’re under, how they shape you, how they scar you, how they make you stronger. Sigmund Freud said that life is lived under conditions of stress. Though we all fantasize about a stress-free existence, such a life is not really possible. Life even on a desert island would be stressful. Imagine trying to feed and shelter and clothe yourself with nothing but coconuts. Even Gilligan had to put up with the Skipper and Mr. and Mrs. Howell—though he did have Ginger and Mary Anne as compensations. (Ask your parents to explain Gilligan's Island to you.)

So stress is a given. Responded to creatively, it can help us become creative, productive, engaged, generous, compassionate people. Responded to fearfully, it can drive us into shadow parts of ourselves, turning to sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or hateful narratives about others to ease the pain we experience. As you think about moving from high school to college, you will be moving from one kind of stress to another. The question is: how are you going to handle that stress? Are you going to let it shape you creatively, or will you let it drive you into the shadow parts of yourself?

As you consider that question, I ask you to think with me about two aspects of your education here and to see them as resources for working with life’s stresses creatively. I invite you to think about how this school has shaped your mind. And I invite you to think about how this school has nourished your heart.

There’s so much mental activity in schoolwork that it seems natural to think about how learning has shaped your mind. Just think of all those hours you have spent reading, writing, memorizing paradigms, theorems, and tables. A large part of education, though, involves taking into oneself the strategies that the people before us have adopted for coping with a stressful world. We are not the first people on the planet to confront what seem like intractable problems—war, disease, injustice, oppression on the social level, and frustration, competition, failure, loneliness on the personal level. In your elementary and secondary years, your schools have engaged in what we in the Christian tradition call “formation” and philosophers like Aristotle called “habituation”. Over time an attitude, a set of habits, some values, some strategies—all these have shaped and formed themselves within you and habituated your mind to be able to size up whatever challenge you face and respond effectively to it. So as you think about the stresses and challenges you have faced as elementary and middle and upper school students, I hope you can begin to see how they have equipped you to address the stresses and challenges of college and beyond. Whether you know it or not, you really are mentally ready to engage the world. You’ve seen and internalized how others have done it. You are ready now to do it yourselves.

It is also true—though less obviously clear on the surface—that your time at Cranbrook has shaped your heart. It has shaped it in some overt and covert ways. Overtly, you have built important relationships over time here—some of those with your classmates, some with your teachers, some even with your siblings and parents. The death of Wills Barnett earlier this year made evident how deeply students and teachers and administrators and staff care about each other in a place like this. As heartbreaking as Wills’ death was, it demonstrated the depth of connection that has helped make you who you are.

But I believe that your hearts have been shaped in other ways, and this gets back to the classroom, the performance space, the playing field. Because by engaging the central aspects of human endeavor, you’ve also had the chance to discover and love the things people do that make us distinctively human: the elegance of a mathematical equation, the sound and rhythm of a line of poetry, the symmetry of an athletic gesture or the inner logic of a game, the joy of artistic creation and performance, the discovery of scientific evidence, the beauty of a conjugation or declension in a foreign language. We cope with the stress of life not only mentally but emotionally. And one of the great ways of engaging life is to turn our work into play. The great secret of education is that the world is deeply beautiful. The discovery of that beauty opens up not only our heads but our hearts. It enables us to love the world, each other, and ourselves.

I am a Christian, and I know that there are people in the school community from all of the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions. We read today from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Lotus Sutra. One holy text we did not hear from is the Qur’an. Few members of my own tradition know that the Jewish patriarchs and Jesus appear in Islam’s holy book. As I thought about what I would say to you today, I remembered a Jesus story that is not in the Bible but is in the Qur’an. Here it is. Jesus said:

“I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord. In that I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah’s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken (raise) the dead, by Allah’s leave; And I declare to you what ye eat and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if you did believe; (Holy Qur’an 3:49-51).

The Qur’an’s Jesus makes a clay bird and breathes life into it. When you come to think of it, that’s what all of the world’s nourishing structures—our families, our religious communities, and yes, our schools—that’s what they do for us. We do not invent ourselves. We are all the products of countless gifts and gestures of love and compassion and guidance and forgiveness.

I began with Anne Lamott’s birds and have come full circle to Jesus’s bird. So let me leave you with one more avian image. Anne Lamott got her title, Imperfect Birds, from a line by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: “Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.” Your education will have been meaningless if it did not open your heart. Because what every world religious tradition agrees on is this: the way through life, the joyous, peaceful, powerful way through life, is by way of the open heart. We’re all imperfect birds, and together we make of life the best we can. As life’s stresses come your way, you will be tempted to close in on yourself and go it alone, seeing others as your adversaries rather than your allies. The whole point of the enterprise that you celebrate today has been to open you another way, the way of the heart, as the key to abundant living. Know and accept yourself as precious and unique. Know and accept that about others, even your parents. Forgive, heal, and bless. Take on and respond to the pain and injustice of the world. All we have to offer each other are the imperfect nests we imperfectly make. There is joy and beauty and hope in that knowledge. With an open mind and an open heart, go forth to love, serve, and change the world. Congratulations and blessings to the class of 2011 and their families.

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