By Jeffrey Hipolito
The following address was given at the graduation for the fifteen members of the Class of 2016 at the Seattle Waldorf High School.
Dear friends, family, alumni, colleagues, beloved community,
It is a difficult assignment to give you a picture of what it is like to work with this class as a group. So much of the experience is in the intangible, effervescent texture of our classes together. Not that they were particularly attentive. A typical day might begin with many of them shambling in sleepily, more or less on time, variously prepared, holding on to their tea mugs like teddy bears they were afraid to lose, apparently competing to see who could walk with the least distance between their feet and the floor. However, as we got started, a lightness unfolded in the space between us, and time itself took on a blissful sparkle so that again and again, just as we were getting underway, we said, “Oh, time’s up!” That they invited me into this joyful, lethargically-energetic way of relating to each other, even if they weren’t fully aware of the invitation, is one of their great gifts. It’s a subject I plan to come back to, as is their undertow of lethargy. Anyway, I despaired about how to bring this talk to you, until they gave me an instruction, in the midst of one of our Russian literature lessons. It was a lesson that focused on approaching life from the standpoint of one’s death, imagining the life you hope you have lived when you arrive at the moment of your death; and then trying to live that life from this moment forward. During that class, they said to me “we want you to speak about us only in cliches.” For the first time, I thought: “Maybe I can do this.”
“We want you to speak about us only in cliches.” In a way, that simple request tells you everything you need know about this group. Compact within it is a desire to be known, a yearning to be seen and to be described meaningfully; and a worry that language is dried out, that nothing meaningful can be seen or said or felt any more. There is a craving for sincerity, and yet a worry not only that sincerity is dead, but that the craving for it is itself a pathetic cliché. And, that if one can be seen, if something sincere and insightful can be said or felt, it might be too much to bear, so anemic have we become on our strict diet of insincerity and self-deception.
This brings me to my first cliche: sitting before you are young adults hungry for meaning despite themselves; and ready, against their better judgment, to take up the search for it. You might remember the mythic beast the basilisk, the mother of serpents whose direct gaze is lethal and whose body is made up of hard metallic scales. I think of this mythical creature when I contemplate these dear, beloved students facing with different degrees of anxious unease, the prospect of entering the world on their own. For me, those hard scales represent our culture’s many glimmering invitations to avoid self-knowledge; to find ease and comfort and painless sedation in its myriad amusements; to find definitions of oneself in wealth or power; to root one’s self-esteem in the esteem of others, measured in “likes” and “retweets” and “friends” and “followers.” This meaning-killing aspect of our culture resembles the mirrored scales of the basilisk’s dragon-like body, offering reflections of ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors that are harsh, distorted, alienating, and infinitely thin. How then to find and bear a direct gaze, to know and be known, to find meaning and live meaningfully when the very language of sincerity and meaning has been co-opted, colonized, and commercialized?
I have two pieces of very humble advice for you in this regard: first, that you discover who you are, not in those serpentine scales, but in the mirror of what you do. It is the surest way I know to find yourself, so long as it is paired with my second piece of advice, one well-known to you: that you always, in every moment, try to be honest with yourselves and others, for only in this way can you respect yourselves and others, and therefore love yourselves and others.
You already know this, but it leads me to my second cliche: you are a family. Not the sort that is duty bound to go to Thanksgiving dinner in Wenatchee, or spend that week in July with their awful cousins at the cabin. But the kind that could walk away at any time, and yet still chooses to be together out of love; the kind that is loyal and respectful and filled with integrity. It hasn’t always been easy; you still have your tense moments, but you are able to see each other as you are and still choose kindness and acceptance. That is a very rare and precious accomplishment. Perhaps it is what you were really learning as you chatted your way through some of your classes. Some would say that your choice to grow this capacity is the defining feature of adulthood, one that many so-called adults are never able to develop. It is also an antidote to the tendency of our self-regarding age to indulge in the small cruelties of casual indifference. It is a powerful thing to know you belong to such a circle when the storms of tragedy rage around you, as for some of you they already have. You have linked your hands to friends who can help hold you up at such times, and I think you will have them for many years to come. More than that, you are already apprenticed in the art of active love; each in your own way, you already know how to soothe the subtle suffering of your friends by simply noticing it. It is almost as if what roots you to the earth is your care and concern for one another.
To give you a sense of how far you have come, and how far there is still to go, I’d like to remind you of something a bit unflattering that happened about nine months ago. We were in our study of Transcendentalism, on a cold and blustery autumn day, talking about Thoreau's notion that we should approach each other with the eyes of compassion. In fact, we had just begun to discuss a free-writing essay assignment you had finished on that topic, when there appeared out of the gray and soggy gloom a haggard woman with matted hair, clothes caked in grime, trying to find a way out to the road by going up the steep hill behind our classroom. She held up her muddy sweat pants with one hand while she struggled with the other to work her way up the steep, slippery hill, until she gave up, turned around and moved on to something more promising. Some of you may not remember this day, but I was struck by the way none of us acted, none of us helped her, and in fact one or two people laughed. I call this woman to mind from time to time, as a reminder of my own shortcomings, and as an inspiration to have my own eyes of compassion more consistently open and awake. I remind you of her now so that you might do the same. After all, attention is itself an act. If it’s true that what you do is a mirror in which you see who you are, you may discover more and more fully that you are what I already know you to be: kind, loving, grounded, compassionate people, with a tendency still to love humanity more in the romantic abstract than in all of its demanding, messy, dysfunctional, difficult (and all-too-human) particulars.
This leads to my third and final cliche: you are all teachers. The imagination arose for me during your senior projects, that as my dear colleagues and I stumble toward decrepitude you might replace us all at once, Hogwarts-style. I know, that might be terrifying. It might be like hearing that you’re doomed to turn into your parents, and that the more you resist the faster it will happen... if someone were to tell you that, which I’m not. It’s a long ceremony so I can’t say what subjects I think each of you might teach here, but let’s just say that fine arts, practical arts, movement, world languages, math, physics, life sciences, history, and civics classes would be in good shape.
That isn’t actually what I have in mind, though. I mean this: each of you has a vibrant curiosity about some corner of the wider world. For some it demands travel to different cultures, or swimming with dolphins in some tropical ocean, or mastering the properties of different metals. I could do this for almost all of you, but what stands out isn’t just the joy of curiosity, wonderful as that is, but the joy you take in sharing the joy your passions give you. That is what I mean when I call you teachers: not just that you love this or that, but that you are excited to share, and capable of sharing, that love with as many people as will listen. The joyful kinetic energy you have shared with me in the classroom is something you begin to create for yourselves every time you reach out to others in this way. This takes me back to my first cliche, about your hunger for a meaningful life. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s definition of happiness. Happiness, he said, is what gives meaning to our lives. When you search for meaning you are searching for happiness, and vice versa; and happiness is simply the harmonious, balanced unfolding of your gifts to their full potential. And, among your gifts, perhaps the first among them, is the joyful sharing of your gifts. You can help to create within any group you care to join the sort of family you have learned to create among yourselves, and in doing so add to the meaning and beauty and goodness of the world you’re reaching out to.
Have you noticed that my three cliches are actually just a single massive cliche with three aspects, a single rose with three enormous petals, and that the petals might be named “the true, the beautiful, and the good”? There is a German fairy tale about a young man who searched the world for a particular blue flower, only to find that it grew within his heart the whole time. I think this story is about you. In the joy of sharing your gifts you create the extended families in the mirror of which you discover who and what and why you are. However, this requires of you that you act: no more shuffling feet or sleepy slouching. Embrace the pain that growth requires. This endangered, fragile world of ours is in need of your sincere search for meaning, your ability to take and return the basilisk’s gaze; it needs your active love and your joyful offering of the full diversity of all of your gifts. May you find yourself by giving of yourself; may you become who you are by helping others become who they are; and may you start tomorrow, carried forward by the active love of everyone who is with you here tonight. Thank you.
Jeffrey Hipolito lives in Seattle. He is a humanities teacher at the Seattle Waldorf High School and sometime poet. He is currently working on a book about Owen Barfield.