It’s not just the kids we urge to take the rhetoric from class to their everyday lives. We teachers practice what we preach. I remember feeling so moved several years ago when a teacher who had taken one of my APSIs told me that when her father passed away, she delivered the eulogy—and put her rhetorical tools to work to pay a heartfelt tribute.
I thought of her recently when my coauthor Robin Aufses shared her eloquent graduation speech, delivered on 11 June at her school, the Lycee Francais in New York City. From the personal narrative to the weaving of favorite authors to the powerful logic of kindness, Robin demonstrates with such grace how well she knows her audience—and how much she will miss them as she wishes them well.
To the Class of 2019
by Robin Aufses
Good afternoon class of 2019 and your families, good afternoon faculty, Ms. Peverelli, members of the board and special guests. I’m honored to address you today at your graduation from Lycee Francais de New York and to join the ranks of commencement speakers everywhere. I love commencement speeches; when they’re good, they’re so good. In preparing to write this one, I found some wonderful words of wisdom to pass on: Dorothy Wickenden, publisher of The New Yorker and an alumna of my college, William Smith, offered her perspective on the world we live in now. She said, “Every generation has terrors to stare down. My great great grandparents had the Civil War; my grandmother ...the Great Depression; my parents, World War II; the Baby Boomers ... had Vietnam and Watergate.” She advised graduates, “The best way to find yourself is by leaving yourself behind. Move out of your safe spaces, beyond self-care and selfies...We need to open doors, not shut them, and recall what all Americans have in common.”
I read the francophile New York Times columnist Roger Cohen on his daughter’s recent graduation from USC. He quoted the commencement speaker, novelist and psychologist Jonathan Kellerman, who said, “Be nice.” Cohen adds, “That put me in mind of a line sometimes attributed to Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I could quote from one terrific commencement speech after another (check out David Foster Wallace’s famous address at Kenyon College or Nora Ephron’s 1996 speech at Wellesley), but you’re here to take something away from your own graduation speaker–me.
Here's what I have to offer. Find things in your life that remind you of what's important. I'm not telling you to find your passion. You'll do that plenty. But find a couple of touchstones that take you both out of yourself and back in. It took me well into adulthood to understand how important this is and, oddly enough, it happened on the occasion of my daughter's graduation from high school–her prom, actually.
I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say I had foolishly agreed to host–and by host, I mean invisible host–the prom after-party. After a long frustrating day, fraught with the kind of first world problems that people like me are fortunate enough to have, I finally came to roost in a place where the sound system was playing a duet by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. It was “They Can’t Take That Away,” a song about savoring the small moments. It stopped me in my tracks. I took a breath and as if by magic I remembered what was important–this rite of passage, my healthy children, my lovely husband. And even more: it connected me to my parents who loved this music. It reminded me of the simplicity and democratic nature of jazz - the piano, two vocalists, the trumpet, all given equal time. It connected me to the common human experiences of love, of celebration, family and friends. I know it sounds like a lot to put on one song, but since then, when I need to feel grounded or appreciate the blessings I have, when, as William Wordsworth says, the "world is too much with us," I remember what’s important by listening to music like Ella and Louis or by looking at art.
A mysterious painting that hangs at the Frick Collection, right here in our neighborhood, speaks to me similarly. Despite the title of Giovanni Bellini’s "St. Francis of the Desert," painted around 1480, St. Francis is hardly front and center, and the landscape is hardly desert. A scene of central Italy in early spring or late fall, the painting is beautifully executed–every detail transcendentally precise, but it also has a spiritual vision. Critics have said that looking at this painting of the enigmatic Italian saint makes you want to be a better person. I don't know if that's so, but when I stand before it, I'm taken out of myself–even though I live in the 21st century, I’m not religious, and I'm not even an animal lover. St. Francis reminds me of what's important: the search for beauty, and the common hope that a pattern or meaning to the world–maybe a higher good–can make sense of the joys and terrors of our lives.
Another touchstone of mine, Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” describes a drive out to the west of Ireland, the beauty of a flock of swans on the wind-blown, slate-gray lake on one side of the road and the “foam and glitter” of the ocean on the other. He says it’s “useless to think you’ll park and capture it more thoroughly.” He ends the poem this way:
“You are neither here nor there, A hurry through which known and strange things pass As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
I think Heaney is saying what I’m saying: this drive, this scenery, reminds him of what’s important. It blows his heart open.
So, my message to you on this milestone: when you're stressed by work, when you're homesick for the familiar life you led at the Lycee and with your families, when you're feeling the pressure to save the world, touchstones like these will ground you. When you’re staring down the world’s terrors, your touchstones will be there, eternally we hope, to remind you of what's important. And when you need a hand bringing people together or a reminder that everyone is fighting a hard battle, your touchstones will blow your hearts open and connect you to the most important human emotion of all: love. Feel free to get in touch with me if you need some suggestions, and congratulations, Class of 2019!