delivered by Shayna Appel '78
Beautiful and beloved members of the class of 2018 - how you doin’?
It is such a joy and an indescribable honor to offer this commencement address today, this day, that each and every one of you has worked so hard for. I’m flattered to have been invited to speak today because I have also had the honor of giving Convocation addresses here at Stoneleigh-Burnham School for the last eight years. Which means, for those of you graduating today, I have been cheering you on for as long as you’ve been here! I just never thought I’d have the chance to cross the finish line with you. Thank you for giving me that honor.
Good news? You’re about to be set loose into a world filled with new voices and new ideas, and I hope you cross paths with all of them! Bad news? It would seem that I have been entrusted to keep you from your diplomas for a little while longer…
So… let’s go back in time. WAY back in time. Forty years back in time to be precise. On that day, I was sitting where you are now. Like many of you, I had been waiting for this day for a very long time. In fact, in my eighteen year-old opinion, the day could not have come soon enough! SBS was a different school then in many respects. Some things were the same. For instance, after four years here I recall feeling utterly ensnared by the main building itself, and I was ready to have fewer than 160 gender-female only roommates! I was done with ten o’clock week-day check-in’s, and even more done with eleven o’clock weekend check-in’s! I wanted my car! I wanted all of it, and so much more. So, when the day of my graduation arrived, I couldn’t wait to get the san h&*% out of here!
But, some of my classmates were less anxious to break free. These classmates, otherwise known as "the smart kids," tended to be a bit more reflective than the rest of us. They - you know - thought about stuff! What I learned from them a few years after graduation was that it actually HAD occurred to them that this day would mark the end of our time together. We were, in 1978, the largest four-year class to graduate… and four years was all you could attend back then. The lot of us had spent four of the most defining years of our lives together, celebrated triumphs together, had our hearts shattered together, mended them together, got into heaps of trouble together, and while we promised to stay in touch, graduation meant that the lives we had known together for the last four years were over and this little community we had shared was, effectively, done.
The point is, on graduation day, right here, 40 years ago, some of us couldn’t have been happier to get out of here, and some of us were a bit more somber. Didn’t matter. We all had to go anyhow. Time was up, academic credits were totaled, our diplomas were signed… and there were these pesky juniors breathing down our necks to get out of the way so they could finally become seniors! So, whether we were happy about it or not, excited or terrified, reaching for our futures with anticipation or grasping onto our past with nostalgic fervor - it didn’t matter! We had to go, anyhow.
Now it’s your turn, class of 2018. Happy about it or sad, ready or not, futures known and unknown are beckoning, and you gotta go. And, it’s a really - …interesting - time to be setting out on this journey. But I think you are all fully aware of that. I had the chance to be in communication with your senior advisor, Sara Gibbons, in preparation for this address, and I asked her what you all thought you might want to hear today. You said you wanted some life advice, some ideas about how to reach life-goals, and some insight into how to carry yourselves in a world that seems to be against you. And you wanted some stories, and they should, preferably, be funny.
O.K! I asked!
Let’s begin with a couple of short stories. Stories from a favorite book I’ve been reading fairly regularly now for about two and a half decades. It’s actually a collection of little books. Perhaps you have heard of it. Perhaps you’ve done a little dabbling in this book yourselves!
The first book in the collection invites us to imagine the beginning of earth and every living thing that dwells upon Her. The Source of All this Creation eventually gets around to creating the first human and tenderly sets him in a garden that’s perfect. Everything the human needed was provided for him by the Creator of the garden. He could eat from any tree in the garden he wished, but not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil for the Creator said unto Adam, “You must not eat from this tree.”
Fast forward a few verses. Adam was lonely, so God took a rib from him and turned it into a life partner named of Eve. Keep in mind that Eve entered the story after Adam and the garden had been raised up and after God gave Adam the instructions regarding that one very special tree he must not eat from. Time went by and we are told that Adam and Eve were happy together and happy in the garden. Until one day when this serpent told Eve to grab some of that fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which she did and, with one bite of an apple, she and Adam were on a crash course that would have them expelled from the garden.
Now, many who read this story will tell you it’s about a foolish girl who disobeyed the LORD, got duped by a serpent, and was responsible for the first couple’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But I say, Eve was framed! Furthermore, I would like to suggest that, if Adam had been responsible for the first couple’s expulsion, it would have been considered an act of liberation!
So today, Class of 2018, I want to offer you lessons from Eve, The Mother of Free Thought. She was brought in to fix a problem, given incomplete information, led astray by a middle manager, and then universally blamed for, not only the failure of the garden experiment, but the fall of all of humanity. I say, thanks to Eve, humanity is not condemned to life running around naked and dumb in a garden. Does life beyond the garden come with challenges? It does. And in fairness to God, and your parents, who wouldn’t want to protect their children from some of those. But here we are, genderheirs of the wrongly accused, or not, understood, or not, like Eve you are being cast into life, we hope awake to the notions of good and evil, and, ready or not, you have to go, anyhow.
Fast forward to the next little book in the BIG book and we meet a character named Moses. Now, Moses was raised in foster care and had a terrible speech impediment. But he was, nonetheless, called by God to free the enslaved Israelites. (The moral here, God doesn’t just call the perfect people to serve!) Moses argued with God. He pleaded with God. “Surely, Oh LORD, there is someone out there with better qualifications.” God finally relented and gave Moses a wing man named Aaron, but ultimately, Moses went anyhow. He convinced Pharaoh to let his people go, he led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. And, how do you imagine he was thanked for his efforts? The people immediately began complaining/kvetching about how much better the "knowns" of slavery were once seen against the "unknowns" of freedom. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have, at the very least, been tempted to drop kick the whole lot of them right back over the Red Sea and back into slavery. But not Moses. Nope. He heard a Word calling him onward and that Word was louder than the one calling him backward, so he went anyhow, and brought an entire nation along with him.
The lessons from Moses are many, but today let’s just consider this one: groups of people need leaders in order to get anywhere. They rarely appreciate them, but they need them. If you are called to lead, lead… but do it with humility, and if possible, a trusted “wing-person.” There are always better qualified people out there, but it may be you who gets called anyhow!
Forward again in our book of books. More than half a century after Moses, a young Rabbi by the name of Jesus would make a fateful decision to turn his face towards Jerusalem. He would return to Jerusalem even though it was the Passover and the place was crawling with Roman troops itching to put an immediate end to anything or anyone they suspected was against them or the oppressive regime they represented. Jesus of Nazareth, who unwaveringly and consistently acted on the side of love, who taught his followers to reach out to, and on behalf of, those at societies margins - Jesus, Son of Mary, the first non-violent revolutionary, turned his face towards Jerusalem even though it would likely not go well for him, and he went anyhow.
Moral of this story? Authority rarely appreciates being challenged. Challenge it anyhow. And always make sure those around you are capable of carrying on the work, just in case you can not.
Almost six centuries after Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon Him, received the Divine Word in a cave. He felt called to share it with others, and so he did. And, when he was met with hostility from his neighbors, he didn’t let that stop him. At great risk to himself, he persisted. He and His followers ultimately had to leave their home in Mecca and migrate to Medina, but the Meccans persisted in their attacks on the Prophet and his followers and followed them to their new home in Medina. So Mohammad responded by recruiting 10,000 Muslim converts who had faith enough to march back into the city of Mecca. The story is told that their numbers were so large, they were able to take the city with very little bloodshed. Moral of the story? When the task before you is huge or dangerous remember, grass-roots organizing works! You don’t have to do it alone, but you do have to do it! Go anyhow!
Rolling through history and "herstory," we see how these stories, these archetypal stories of old, have stood the test of time and stood as a bulwark of strength, hope and inspiration for many through the ages. It’s hard for me to imagine that these stories did not inspire the heroic lives of people like Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery herself in 1849, and then made nearly 20 trips back into slave territory in order to lead some 300 other enslaved persons to freedom. It was dangerous, to put it mildly, yet she went anyhow. And, of course, we know that these ancient and archetypal stories inspired this nation's movement for Civil Rights in the mid-twentieth century. On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King invoked the journey of Moses and the Israelites when he stood before the gathered congregation at Mason Temple on a sweltering night in Memphis, Tennessee. He said to those gathered, in the face of a very uncertain future, that he was not afraid because he had seen the promised land, and while he might not get there with them, he had every hope they would. King went, anyhow. And who can forget 18 year old Emma González marching in Washington DC to protest gun violence in America a few short months ago? With tears streaming down her cheeks she stood motionless, holding the long silence for her fallen classmates while a nation held its breath. There were those who said the challenge of gun violence in America was too big to tackle. Emma and her classmates organized, and they went anyhow.
Beautiful and beloved members of the class of 2018, we ARE living in interesting times. And, in many respects this academic community fostering an international perspective and inspiring you all to pursue meaningful lives based on honor, respect, and intellectual curiosity has been a sort of Garden of Eden, but now you’ve gotta go. Is there a mountain of struggle ahead? You bet. Go anyhow. They’ll tell you building an economically just nation can’t be done. Build it anyhow. They’ll tell you a living wage will hurt business. Fight for it anyhow. They’ll try and convince you that certain organizations are too big to take down. But, if they threaten our safety, ignore our democracy, and think they are the only people in this land with any unalienable rights, take ‘em down anyhow. They’ll call you a skin-head, lesbian, communist. Smile. Because you are in good company, they are ridiculous, and that personality trifecta makes no sense anyhow. They’ll tell you the opposition has more money than we do. Oppose them anyhow. They’ll threaten to withdraw your tax exempt status for offering to shelter the undocumented. Shelter them anyhow. They’ll twist your words when you have the audacity to suggest that Black Lives Matter, as if you are the ones who don’t know that all lives matter. Suggest it anyhow. They’ll tell you it all comes down to, “he said, she said.” Repeat what she said anyhow. They’ll try and tell you what is and is not appropriate behavior for those who identify as gender female. Tell them, when they begin to identify as gender female, you’ll pay closer attention. Do your own thing, do it your way, and do it with pride, but do it anyhow!
World renowned author and psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.” Despite this she asks us, urges us, gently implores us, “to please not spend [our spirits] dry by bewailing these difficult times.” And especially, writes Estes, “Especially do not lose hope… For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.”
Estes grew up on the Great Lakes and she talks about the ability to recognize a seaworthy vessel when she sees one, and she observes that, “Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.”
So, look out over the prow, graduates of the class of 2018, and see there millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. Though your veneers may shiver and your timbers may creak, you’re up for this. The long-grained lumber of this blessed little community has weathered many a storm, and I want you to know you are wonderfully capable of doing likewise.
Beautiful and beloved members of the class of 2018, “…When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe; there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.” Now is the time for you to sail forth. Go in peace, believe in peace, and create peace.
One more thing… while today you gotta go, don’t forget to also come on back now and again.
Go anyhow, and go in peace.