To the Class of 2021 at Commencement
June 11, 2021
One of the liberties–and great pleasures–you may take as a head of school is to say a few words to the graduates, a liberty, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll take now.
Among the things keeping me going during this last lap of the longest school year in history, I’ve been listening to Snow Patrol. I first heard them at a conference in Belfast many years ago, and stumbling across their music again reminded me of that trip and of the return there with Jennifer on the spring Eweek in 2016. They sing a line, “Light up, light up, as if you have a choice.” I’m troubled by this lyric because I read the latter half of it two ways, and I’m not quite sure if I’m meant to take it one, or both at the same time. Light up, light up, as if you have a choice. “Light up, light up” seems easy enough. The imperative case. instructions to us, the listeners: emit light. Exude light. Be beacons. Provide others with the capacity to see, as a result of what we do. But what are we to make of the line, “As if you have a choice?” Does it call us to light up in such a fashion that those seeing us believe we have the choice to do so or not, do in fact choose to, and therefore do it with a greater significance because it is a result of our conscious intent, not merely an animal impulse? In this analysis, light up, light up… as an activist. There’s something beautiful about this way of being–of intentionality, conscientiousness, agency, self-empowerment. But there’s something perhaps more beautiful in the other reading of the line, “As if you had a choice.” A simile nonetheless, the alternative reading or denotation of these words–their note, their tone, in an a-grammatical sense–is dismissive of your volition, your choice. You light up, light up because you are incapable of doing otherwise. You are unable to accede to the darkness pressing ‘round. Something raw and wild and untamable within you is filled with light lurking under the surface, waiting to burst forth at any–at all–moments. You cannot help yourself. Despair, discouragement, drudgery, downtroddenness, these are not the natural state of things; but light, rather, hope, a beacon guiding through rough waters and around rocky shores. Uncontrollable, unrestrainable.
You see, the mistake would be to let oneself be confused by the challenges of the last 15 months, to be tricked into thinking that this was wasted time, lost time, that we are somehow now irreparably off the path, that we’ve forgotten each other or will forever be tied to and mediated by a glowing, small or large, rectangular piece of glass and wires. Nonsense. Nothing is wasted. No experience is lost. Nothing is fixed, stuck, finished, immoveable. Even in misfortune we learn, grow, move forward.
Don’t be misled by naysayers into thinking of what you haven’t done this last year, but instead think of what you have done. Are you the same being you were a year ago? Have you or have you not grown and changed and learned and felt and dreamed? Are you not filled with light–made of the dust of stars at your very core–every single morning you wake, regardless of whether or not you feel it or see it or need to be reminded of it by a loved one’s smile? Are you not a beacon for others, for us sitting here with you today, shining into our lives, into us, filling us with your light, bringing us to joy? Light up with abandon, I say to you. Let yourselves go: fill this awaiting, eager world with your wondrous light. As if you have a choice.