We are so very fond of you, Class of 2018, now graduates and members of our illustrious alumnae. And the shoes you leave today will be very, very hard to fill. Your zest, your demands for our School to be the best it can be, your willingness to explore, your individuality, your academic prowess, your commitment to learning and your appetite for engagement, all name you as extraordinary. But there is one attribute that stands out among these many others: your joy … Simply put, you love your lives and you live your days fully within the possible, and that makes all the difference.
One of the reasons for this is your ability to make the little, big and to recognize the amazing significance that breathes with the everyday. Peggy McIntosh, scholar, feminist and friend, describes this ability of making the little, big as paying attention to the horizontal as much as the vertical. It’s the back and forth of the everyday that matters most, she tells us. It’s the extraordinary in the ordinary that holds the power. Sometimes, she says, just taking the time to pet the cat is as important as getting that resume just right. Sometimes, she says, taking the time to say thank you when it is completely unexpected is as important as whatever big speech you’re writing.
Making the little, big means paying a different kind of attention to things. It means always looking and catching the wonder and beauty living in the corners of the everyday.
And here’s the thing: Making the little, big allows you to make the big a little, littler. The things that sometime loom too large can be downsized to the dimension they actually deserve. Joseph Campbell writes about a wonderful Polynesian saying that admonishes people for “standing on a whale while fishing for minnows.” Sometimes people forget that the bigger, more important thing is right there, under their feet. Sometimes the cat that needs petting is right there next to you.
In 1914, Clara Spence wrote about the importance of having a “receptive soul,” telling us that, receptivity demands a certain commitment. You have to be open, wide open to the promise of every day. You have to take the time to look. You have to cultivate seeing and naming that everyday wonder and beauty. It rarely happens on its own. It makes me think of that two-dimensional word “tender,” wonderfully both a verb and an adjective. To be tender means to be open, receptive…available, vulnerable. And to tender means you make something happen with intentionality and a plan. You act on something.
So, Class of 2018, all this captures you. Continue to be tender and tender many good, small things. Call for an open season on irony and put away that edge of judgment. And, yes, listen humbly and openly to that advice from Cornel West: “Be prepared to enter the conversation and be prepared to be changed by it.” Sounds like a small thing, and perhaps it is, but that very receptivity you have will continue to make a huge difference in that joy you take in life.
And, ironically, this little-to-big can also give you wider horizons. The everyday perspective is far from flat: it is always as wide as you can take it. Scott Turow in a New York Times book review wrote that life is really all about, “people trying to live good lives, people who believe in love, friendship, work, honor and charity—the prosaic but immense forces that dignify most our lives.”
He’s talking about those whales upon which you, Class of 2018, already stand.
We do send you off, Class of 2018, with many big things … including that diploma I just handed to each of you. But we also send you off with plenty of little things—little things that live large in your hearts and in your heads. Little things that will make you remember all the days spent behind those Red Doors … little things that will make you remember to listen, to take care, to stay open, and to pet that cat:
Urgent Middle Schoolers pushing into the elevator with trays of all white food, fearlessly ignoring your senior status
Spirit days, Merge, News 91
Going out for coffee, going to Yura’s
Dessert Thursdays, when the dessert really is a very little thing
Clara’s bust, always good for seasonal punchlines
Wednesday lunches, when no one song is ever allowed to finish
Lining up your backpack to the ID check out at the door
Your dance parties
Ellen’s coconut cake
Your mom’s texts
The laugh of your best friend echoing down the hall
Flopping on the couch on the 6th floor
Not having to finish your sentences with your best friend
The quiet on the second floor at the end of the day when most are gone
Those thousands of steps you have climbed so many times
So, bend down Class of 2018 to pet that cat. Throw open your windows. Be receptive, be tender, and know that our farewell, so richly entangled with the hello of your new world, feels like a small way in which to say a very big goodbye. Farewell, come back often, and know that your beloved School will be here waiting for your return—full of those good, little things.