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

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

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.  

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