Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Big School

The following address was prepared for the Senior Dinner, held at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School on June 8, 2010

When I learned that I was to be the speaker at Senior Dinner, which I regard as one of the great honors of my career, my first reaction was joy. My second, of course, was dread, dread of the sort I’ve been inflicting on my students for years. Now it’s my turn to try and be interesting. Touché, kids. That’s a French term. It means "also awake at 3 a.m."

One thing I’m always telling my students when they sit down to write for me is that they should always begin with a question of audience: To whom are you speaking? This is a simple question, but a necessary one. The answer for this particular assignment seems obvious enough: I’ve been chosen by the student body to address the student body. But insofar as it’s true, I’m not only addressing the student body. As my students know, if I was only addressing the student body, this speech would have a great many four letter words in it. But that would get me into a bit of trouble with some of the people John Love generously calls “grownups.” Of course, it should be said that my penchant for using four letter words is a piece of pedagogic stagecraft I learned from one of the important grownups in my life, my father. I don’t know whether my dad acquired his distinctive patois from his years on the New York Fire Department, or whether he got it from his father, a longshoreman down at Chelsea Piers, also known, thanks to our good friends the Bernsteins, as ECF South. Now, there, ladies and gentlemen, was a workingmen’s school. I will also tell you, good students of Fieldston, that if your apartment was on fire, my Dad would be cursing you every step of the way as he carried you from the burning building. That’s just the kind of guy he is. (When I mentioned this to him, he laughed and said, “Goddamn liberals.”)

Now, my dad isn’t here tonight. But of course your parents are here tonight. That’s why, as part of a Senior Dinner speech, I probably should be using phrases here like “precious cargo,” and expressing thanks on behalf of the faculty for lending us your children, and all that crap. This is also the place where I insert a joke about how writing that check to Wash U is going to feel downright painless compared to all these years of paying Fieldston tuition. Then I can cross parents off the checklist.

 Then it’s on to the faculty and staff. This is the point in my speech where I gently rib my colleagues by wondering how long it takes the inimitable Bob Montera to metabolize a cannoli (in some ways, probably about fifteen seconds). This is also where I reveal, on good authority, that Felix Adler loved Broadway theater, because Bill Werner used to take him to backstage to meet people like Eugene O’Neill and Lena Horne. “Act like you’ve been here before,” Bill would whisper to the starstruck Adler.

Then we come to the audience participation part of the speech.  I say, “blah blah blah Dotty Hanson, ladies and gentlemen, let’s give her a hand.” (Please applaud.)  I say “blah blah blah Mark Stanek. (Please applaud.)” I will now demonstrate my good progressive credentials: “Blah blah blah catering crew.” (Gesture.)  We’re like family, right, Liz? Never around when it’s time to clean up.

That done, I will pivot and turn my focus to the people who are texting about the party that will be starting about an hour from now, and that of course is you, soon to be ex-Fieldstonians. (Semiolon; close parentheses.) But insofar as I can possibly make things interesting tonight, I thought I’d tweak the formula by addressing you not as who you are tonight, but instead as the people you will be in ten years, because I think that’s about the length of the next segment of life course you’ve now embarked upon, that increasingly long stretch in our society  between when childhood ends and adulthood begins.

I want to begin the process of talking to your future selves, however, by first inviting you for a quick trip down memory lane and asking you to remember that long ago time when you were just starting the college process. Actually, as some of the people in this room know, I happen to be the father of a Form V Fieldston student, and this spring break we began that journey that you all recently finished. You remember how that goes: You start by thinking in terms of broad categories: near versus far; city versus country, and, of course, big versus small. From the start, my son Jay has been very open-minded about the process, but he was also clear at the outset that he wasn’t much interested in a small liberal arts college. Can’t be small. No Williams, no Amherst, no Sarah Lawrence, where his mother teaches (God forbid he should avail himself of the free tuition.) Small is been there, done that. Jay has loved going to Fieldston, but let’s face it: Fieldston is small – my own graduating class was one and a half times the size of this whole high school. Now Jay is a good kid, and he indulged his father and his college counselor Harry Dawe by paying a visit to Davidson College down in North Carolina three months ago, which is, by liberal arts college standards, on the small side. As it turned out, he really likes it, and he plans to apply. As you know, experiences like these can be formative ones in the life of a family. So it is only natural that a father like myself will bring his paternal instincts to bear and helpfully say, “I told you so.”

We of course have no idea what will happen with Jay and the whole college process. Though I will say that if all goes well, this time next year I’ll be sitting where you are now, glancing surreptitiously at my watch, and grousing that at least at Fieldston you don’t have to pay housing fees.

Now by that point, you all will have your first year of college behind you. You will have had that bizarre experience of freshman orientation, meeting and befriending people for little reason other than the fact that they happen to live two matchbox-sized rooms away from you and don’t like their roommate any more than you like yours. And in the coming days, you will find yourself standing beside one of these people at three o’clock in the morning, lending your moral support as she vomits profusely beside you behind the frat house. And as she retches, you will marvel how it is that you find yourself placing a gentle hand on her back – that in a life that has been so much a matter of deciding what you want, of choice, that you find yourself in relationships that are not entirely a matter of your control. Five years from now, you’ll be a cherished guest at the wedding of this cookie-tosser. Twenty years from now, you’ll be writing a check for her kid’s bar mitzvah. He’s a spoiled brat, but what can you do? This is what friendship means.

 But I’m getting ahead of myself. About four years from now, you’ll be graduating from college. It will turn out to be much easier than you expected, because after surviving a year of intensive chemistry with Compton Mahase, pretty much anything seems easy by comparison. And so your parents will once again be trudging through another set of rituals not unlike the ones you’re finishing up now. They’ll be gazing surreptitiously at their watches listening to some speaker making a lame joke about how paying tuition at Duke Law School will be a breeze because it’s only be a matter of three years rather than four. You’ll bounce around for a while in the months and maybe years following your college graduation – it’s likely to be one of the more unsettling moments in your life – while you try to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself. By your late twenties, you will either have started graduate work or started kidding yourself that you might go; you’ll be married or starting to wonder why you’re not; and a few of you will actually have children of your own while the rest of you try to avoid making the same mistake. Hopefully, by the time you’re at the end of your twenties you’ll have a pretty good idea about what you want from your life. You’ll spend your thirties chasing what you want; your forties realizing you’re not going to achieve what you want; your fifties realizing you’re going to lose what you have; your sixties actually losing what you have; and your seventies trying to find your glasses. In your eighties you’ll be hallucinating that you’re back in Form IV, telling a bewildered Coach Bluth that it doesn’t matter that you suck at basketball. You’re still a good person. “He knows,” your daughter will be telling you, placing her hand gently on your back. He knows.” But again I digress.

 My real point is that over the course of the next decade, I expect you’ll be paying periodic visits to your high school alma mater. At first it will feel weird, because life will have actually gone on without you, and you’ll walk into Lorenzo Krakowsky or Nancy Banks’s office to find that the kids there actually seem to think they own them the way you did. And as you walk around the campus, you’ll think: Jeez, this place is small. Way back when you were in seventh grade – and, of course, you’re old enough to have attended Fieldston before there was a separate middle school, back in those golden days before the catastrophic decline in admissions standards – the place seemed huge. Then it seemed to fit you just right. But now it’s shrinking. And it will keep shrinking over the course of the next few years.

And then a surprising thing will start to happen: Fieldston will start to get big again. You will have spent the last decade feeling so palpably that you’re a free agent, moving from school to school, job to job, city to city, establishing yourself. It will only be then, about ten years from now, that you’ll begin to see in a way you never quite fully grasped how much you’re a product no less than an agent, that you’ve been imprinted by an institution that has defined you all the time you thought you were inventing yourself. 

But here’s the funny thing about this institution: it’s based on an idea. Actually, this doesn’t happen all that often. Survival, economic gain, pleasure: these are some of the reasons institutions, even academic institutions come into being. But this one is premised on an idea, namely that the world can, in fact, be made into a better place.  Now, I will confess to you that I, who has been educated somewhat differently than you have, am not entirely sure the world can be made into a better place. And I’m mindful, as I know many of you are, that the people who came up with this idea, and those who of us who sustain it, can be a little full of ourselves.  But it’s a proposition that I’m willing to entertain, particularly because it’s one that has somehow conjured up a building in which toilets flush, emails get sent, and meals get eaten every day. Not bad for an idea.

But that’s not all this notion that the world can be a better has conjured. It’s also conjured up an institution where you can find a teacher whose work has been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (That’s Nancy Fried; check it out.) It’s conjured up a place where an adolescent can not simply participate, but design, a community service action project that actually helps people. It’s conjured up things called MADs and FADs and ALPs.

All of this was in place when you arrived. But there are other things which, as you reflect on them in the decade since you graduated, were of your time, and which are now beginning to seem more striking. Perhaps that’s because they’ll seem ahead of their time, or perhaps it’s because they will be the kind of thing people make fun of, though more likely than not the people who do so will be ones you don’t like that much, like the idiot president we will no doubt soon have. (Because, let’s face it, kids: it’s all downhill from here.) I’m talking about things like fact that you had a “green dean” way back in 2009. Or that in a time when gay people were still being demonized in public life, you had a gay head of school, about whom the most relevant facts were how good he was at his job and how sorry everyone was to see him go.

And you’ll ask yourself: What does this mean for me? Who does this mean I am? And it’s at this point that I’m going to have to bail out on the prediction side of things.  Nor, since I am now a former teacher as far as you’re concerned, will I be dispensing any pearls of wisdom, which was never my strong suit anyway. Instead, I will end by expressing a series of hopes. One, that you will prosper in your chosen endeavors. Two, that you will savor the joy of friendship – which, among other things, will involve placing a reassuring hand on the back of a barfing friend at three a.m. behind a frat house. (You can always use the opportunity to reminisce at length about a speech you once heard by an old History teacher back at your high school, which I’m sure will go over very well.) And finally, that you will always have room for an idea – a good idea – a possibility that will remain alive because at the start of a life in which you remain blessedly young, you had the good fortune to attend a surprisingly big school.

All right, kids. That’s all for now. See you on Facebook.