There’s a part of me that wonders if I’m not crazy to think that in today’s volatile environment that I could write to you a short few days before the election to tell you about how I think about you and our world. Luckily, there’s a larger part that wants to share the hope and promise we believe lives in each of you. In a matter of years, each of you will be able to vote; some of you can do so now. Regardless, each of you will soon hold a responsibility both to yourself and to others in ways that will absolutely make a difference, and that makes me think of Clara Spence, who in 1898 wrote about our common responsibility as fellow citizens, not only to our school but to the world. “If the school has been faithful to its charge, each one of you should have an earnest desire to help others, and remember that with the desire always comes the power.” How can we still and always remind ourselves that this power of helping others can make a transformative difference in the way we walk through our hallways and the world…even today?
Here’s what we know. We are at an historic moment, one fraught with division and defined by polemics. We recognize our country as a home to some people who love to hate as well as those who believe as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Common ground is hard to find when our democratic institutions seem under attack from almost every angle, when our politics ignore civility and when that very discourse is conditioned by the low standards of social media. And all this while living in a pandemic that holds us hostage in ways that make coming together difficult at best. Sometimes it feels as if our hearts are being squeezed. It’s hard to think of Clara’s words about helping others. But we need to.
I want you to stay open and pay close attention. Find out what you don’t know, and pay attention to that, maybe even more than to what you already know. Study the issues and find the facts. Don’t listen to just one voice, one medium, one speaker. You know how to do this; your teachers have been asking it of you for years. Scholar and critic Frank Kermode wrote in his book, Forms of Attention, that paying close attention will “lead you not to the book you’re looking for but the one you need.” Metaphorically, find that book you need…and pay attention to it.
Recognize, too, that as the feminist scholar Carol Hanisch wrote, “the personal is political.” There really isn’t any taking them apart, and that’s a good thing. Some of us can’t depersonalize what we sometimes call the political, even if we wanted to. As one senior wrote to me at the senior retreat, the Black Lives Matter movement is not just political, “but humane.” She’s reminding me, and well that she does, that for her this is not about the politics of racial injustice, but about the life she leads as a woman of color because of that injustice, day in and day out. The personal is the political, and the political is the personal, and we all have to acknowledge this before we even begin to engage. Remember that quotation I always share with you from Cornel West: “Be prepared to enter the conversation, and be prepared to be changed by it.” It’s all about being prepared to have that conversation, while recognizing that power in helping others.
And then there’s taking action, big or small. Join an organization, a peaceful protest or a committee. Join the many Spence clubs that focus on learning about politics, learn how our local government works and find out the youth chapters open for your participation. Take stock of the difference between knowing something and actually doing something about it. You’re not too young, and even though some of you are voting in this election, the rest of you don’t have to wait to vote to make a difference. As Václav Havel wrote in 1992 about his homeland of Czechoslovakia, “If we don’t try within ourselves to discover or rediscover or cultivate what I call ‘higher responsibility,’ things will turn out very badly, indeed, for our country.” I think we’re right back to Clara’s words…and this country of ours, right now, is in front of us all.
While I can only imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes right now, I know that words can only go so far…even big words such as “purpose, passion and perspective,” even words such as “Not for school but for life we learn.” But the simple words from Clara about taking care of each other as a power unlike any other can be transformative. Each of you gives me strong hope for our future, and while you challenge the status-quo and recognize that both conflict and empathy are necessary to making a difference, I salute you. You’re strong, extraordinarily well educated and have a better foothold than many to render change, to marshal forces for good, and I trust that you will do something with these gifts. I leave you with the good words of Toni Morrison, who also turns to the strength that lies within.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though
it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical
to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure,
chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—