Welcome, Seniors, to your last English lecture, which will be the first in a long series of lasts. Welcome to exam limbo, a three week purgatorial drift. You will drift into school for exams, drift out for lunch. You’ll study — or not — and then, finally, it’ll be time to go to graduation rehearsal. Or time to take that one last exam, if you happen to take music or Environmental Systems. There’s good news: You won’t be in class as often. There’s a challenge, too: you won’t be in class as often. Whatever will you to? There may be times when you feel like you’re in a Beckett play — that you can’t go anywhere because you’re waiting for something…
Some of you are waiting for your long trip home. To those who journeyed here from a different part of the world, I’d like to say thank you for taking two or more years to learn about American culture and language. You took a big risk in coming here and you assumed an enormous challenge to study literature in your second or third language. Living in this culture and learning how people move through our society was an admirable choice. Studying our literature, and getting acquainted with the way our greatest writers have expressed our greatest hopes and desires and fears brings you inside the English speaking soul. You’ve entered a new world of astounding depth. I hope that you’ll keep swimming. To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations! You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else. In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example. So as you get ready to begin your exams — the process of sharing and declaring what you’ve learned over the past year or two — it’s worthwhile to take a look at what you did during these years. That process may have begun for you in late February, when you revisited last year’s written assignments, and perhaps rethought what you wanted to say about Dotoevsky or Mishima or Borjes. Culturally speaking, this exercise was your chance to see the world through the eyes of people from different times, places, and linguistic backgrounds. By looking back at what you wrote, you also may have noticed that your thinking and expression matured a bit over the course of ten months. Your Oral presentations last year were almost all about 20th century poets, and I hope that reading and presenting about the likes of Mary Oliver and Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens, and Emily Dickinson helped you to live and share the adventure of being human with these poets, who dedicated themselves to setting life into words. Perhaps you also found mirrors of your own lives — or windows to others — as you read the short stories of John Barth, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor. Last fall began with a bang — or perhaps, better said, a firestorm. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five put you in touch with one of the great — and angry — voices of the 20th century. When someone handed me a copy of that book (when I was a senior in high school) I didn’t know what to make of it. Today, however, it makes more sense to me.
Vonnegut’s description of Dresden during and after the bombing, and his depiction of Billy Pilgrim, who felt totally powerless in the face of these enormous forces, showed me not only the despair that being human can involve, but also the outrage that must accompany these tragedies. Incidentally, more than 4000 people in Nepal died the day before yesterday in a horrible earthquake. So it goes. A week before that, more than a thousand migrants from Northern Africa, who were leaving everything behind because the wars were too horrible, or there wasn’t any food, or they couldn’t make any money to take care of their families, all died when the ship they were on capsized near Sicily. So it goes. That “so it goes” helps me pay attention and reminds me that as a human being, I need to act beyond my very small world. So do you. You’re graduating from high school. You’re adults. The world needs you. Perhaps, as you search for something to do in these coming weeks, you can find a way to help some of the many people who suffer in this world. As Didi said,
“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.”
Incidentally, Didi missed an important point. It is every day that you’re needed. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to solve all of the world’s problems all of the time. There’s more to the world and life than the outrages. I’m particularly glad that we read Seamus Heaney’s poetry this year because he’s such a great example of a person who grew up in very difficult circumstances and shared with the world a voice of optimism.
He lived through a war, but like many other inspirational writers — like Fugard, who saw a just future for South Africa — Heaney believed that people are capable of creating a better, more beautiful world. He knew, even living in an unjust world, that
Once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up.
And hope and history rhyme.
As the accident willed, your group is the first that I’ve taught many of this year’s works with. I hope that our look at different approaches to reading poetry — especially modern poetry — gave you some views to life. I’m very glad that we read A Mercy. Morrison’s style is as intricate as Vonnegut’s and her prose flows beautifully. The different narrators combine to tell a story of the early American experience that I couldn’t have conceived of before I read it. I hope you’ll have another look at some point. Speaking of second looks, a dear friend of mine told me that an English teacher’s success isn’t determined by whether his students understand Shakespeare or not — It’s based on whether or not the students go to see a play ten or twenty years later. I hope that you’ll re-read A Mercy at some point. Or pick up a collection of Heaney’s poems. Trust me, they’re worth another look. I also hope that you’ll see a production of The Tempest — or any other Shakespeare, or Death of a Salesman, The Importance of Being Earnest, or Master Harold and the Boys, if the accident will. By the way, I just said “if the accident will” because I knew you’d catch the reference to Vonnegut. But here’s an important truth: Art will not come to you by accident. Nobody can read books for you, see art for you. It’s out there, available to you, and as soon as you reach out to it, you’ll feel the greatest welcome that the human spirit can offer. A personal, and true story: I never read a Shakespeare play until college, and I never understood one until I taught Macbeth — for the second time. Twenty years later I’ve taught 8 plays, directed one, seen many productions, and won month-long fellowships to study at the Folger Shakespeare Library and at the Globe Theater in London. My point: The opportunities to read and discover will be there for you until you’re an old man like me. But for the moment, If you’re looking for something to do in these next weeks, find some art. Go to the student art show this week. Go to a gallery. See a great film. Check out a play. Go to a concert. The world needs beauty, and beauty needs an audience. By participating, you actually make the world better.
So here we are, near the end of the school road. As I mentioned earlier, you might feel a bit like Didi and Gogo, waiting in the road for something to happen. Don’t wait too long. Instead, remember the end of Vladimir’s statement regarding life: Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”
Live a great life.