Friday, June 16, 2017

Commencement Speech 2017

Class of 2017

I had the privilege of teaching a poetry lesson in some of your English classes in the fall.  We read a poem by William Carlos Williams, called "The Red Wheelbarrow":  
It reads, simply:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

We talked about how perhaps this was the first Instagram poem--a simple image, zoom on the rain drops, with a filter that highlights the white chickens. I’m thinking this particular poem would attract a lot of likes, as well as what the hecks.

But we discussed that maybe this poem wasn't truly about the dependability of a wheelbarrow, or how important rain water is to a farm, or about chickens laying eggs for breakfast.  Maybe this poem was just about a moment.  A moment as beautiful and momentous in its own way as a graduation, a birth, a marriage.  Made memorable, perhaps, because the poet stopped to notice, downloading the image to memory and then translating it into verse.

It's tempting, students, to proclaim that the last four years were a blur, and for you, parents, to feel like it was only yesterday you were holding their hands to cross the street.  But our lives are series of wheelbarrow moments punctuated by momentous events, like tonight.  In class that day I asked you to recall a moment in your recent lives upon which so much seemed to depend.  One of you described driving over the bridge to school that morning with your sister.  It was sunny, and you were having a great conversation, getting along.  I think we all found that moment relatable.   You'll surely remember tonight, but the sweetest memories are likely similar episodes of connections, deep talks with loved ones, random trips with friends.   Most wheelbarrow moments are times we are in the company of people we adore or the wonder of nature.   

My toddler actually stops to smell the roses when she and I take the dog for a walk.   To her, so much depends on the things she notices and celebrates and points out--spikes on a cactus, a colorful rock, the snail painstakingly crossing the path.  She stops to look at me and say, I love spending time with you, Mom.  No selfie properly captures that wheelbarrow moment, and there's a chance I could miss it if I’m too busy to go for a walk or looking at my phone.  Paying attention to her is what makes it different.  

So I’m suggesting we more often swap selfies for "sensies"--times you observe keenly, listen carefully, feel deeply, taste mindfully, and breathe in the smells.  Exalt in the moments and the characters sharing them with you—recognize the sonder, if you will.  In just a few of my wheelbarrow moments with you, so much depended upon pancakes from a George Foreman grill, 185 doctors walking into a bar, Jamaican curry recipes, seafoam perfectly captured in a painting, and sitting the bench in the faculty basketball game. 

Before you fly away from this place you’ve shared, reflect on some of those wonderful moments together. 


Thank you, Class of 2017, for all the moments culminating in this graduation.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Keep Moving Forward



A month ago at our school district's meeting of the Board of Trustees, our teacher's union president presented on various clubs our teachers sponsor at our elementary, middle, and high school campuses.  She showed photos of the students and teachers in action, building robots, playing board games and bonding at lunch, providing community service, and jogging.  The elementary school running club was the one that stuck with me, though; they meet in the mornings before school with the simple goal to "keep moving forward for 30 minutes."

I love this idea of focusing energy positively for a discrete period of time.  It seems so doable.

But truth is, in my non-working hours the past month or more, I've had trouble moving forward.  Household chores, social events, exercise--even my own soccer games--have felt undesirable and inordinately challenging.  Depression does that.  Anxiety ups the ante.

I haven't gone running in a couple weeks.  Running is a solo venture, and it requires my own motivation.  I easily recall a few years ago, when I attempted to jog in the nadir of my post-partum depression and I ran/walked and cried, fantasizing about lying down on the side of the road and just staying there.

Busy weekends and weekdays have provided ample excuses for not even trying to venture forth.  Nervous and anxious energy, coupled with an increased resting heart rate and blood pressure, made it seem safer to Just Not.

But this morning we would arrive early for Big Sis's soccer game.  And I felt like running.  So I wore sweats and running shoes and low expectations.  I gave myself plenty of outs.

Big Sis's soccer tournament was at a park on a big block.  I could just run around that block. One mile, max.  So I started out slowly.  I hit half a mile, satisfied that to get back to our parking spot would be about one mile, a distance that I could nod at.  I kept going.  And all the way around the block turned out to be 1.5 miles.  Do it one more time, I urged myself when I was back at the start.  And I felt like it.

Not all runs are equal:  I've run marathons and logged qualifying times.  I've run cross country races and half marathons.  I've run fast and free and jubilantly.  Today I ran a slow 5K by myself on suburban streets, cautiously, but with increasing speed and confidence.  I didn't break any of my own records and I impressed no one but myself.  But my little run today made all of today so much better.  I felt strong and accomplished, and then unusually normal later today, without even noticing.

Tonight at dinner, instead of sharing The Best Part of Our Day, we told each other what made us each most proud today.  Big Sis, who scored a goal in one of today's tournament games which ended with her team as champions, shared that welcoming a new teammate and befriending her made her most proud of herself.  I talked about my little run.

Pride is relative, we are reminded.  The moments of which we are most proud don't have to be fastest times, goals, or championships or awards.  They're best when they're acknowledgements of when we are reaching outside or beyond or despite ourselves or the doubt of others.

I won't fit in a run tomorrow morning.  It's Monday and I have carpool and a parent meeting in the office first thing and then Senior Awards and a long to-do list in between.  I hope to draft off yesterday and feel good about myself but I know it's not that simple.  Nevertheless, I have proof it's possible and within reach of running shoes.  But I'm not going to pressure myself.

In the meantime, I will keep on moving forward for the next five minutes.  Or four or three or two or one.  At least.