“Fields of Gold” (Eva Cassidy)
“Up on the Roof” (The Drifters)
Good morning and welcome back. I want to offer a special welcome to those students who are returning from semester-away programs:
Armando Herreria and Rhea Manwani are back with us from CITYterm; Beth Stoddard from the High Mountain Institute; and Caroline Tsui from the Chewonki Semester School in Maine.
A number of other students will be away for the spring semester: Verda Bursal will study in Turkey, I believe at Robert College in Istanbul; Kiely Mugford and Anita Onyimah at CITYterm; Esther Kim at the High Mountain Institute; Izzy Bush and Elly Veloria at the Chewonki Semester School; and Winslow Ferris and J.C. Pinales at The Mountain School.
And last but certainly not least, Quess Green is away all year while studying in Italy with SYA.
It’s great to see all of you here at the beginning of 2015 and the mid-point of the decade. A new year and a new semester seem a good time to look both back and forward. In looking back, I want to congratulate all of you for a really good fall. For those of you who are new to CA this year, you made it through one of the biggest challenges you will face during your time here – the transition to a new school and a new community. Congratulations – you’re no longer “new” to CA. This is not to say that you will not have hurdles in the coming months and years. You will – and you will certainly identify – in fact, I imagine that many if not most of you, perhaps with the help of your teachers and advisors, have already identified – things that you need to continue to improve upon. (We are into the “looking forward” part, in case you were wondering.) This cycle – of learning new things, sometimes failing and falling, and trying again – is at the core of your education. But take heart, in your teachers and advisors and classmates and most of all yourselves, you have all that you need to succeed here and beyond. Do not forget that.
I also want to congratulate the members of our senior class for the great job they have done in setting a positive tone, leading by example. In your wisdom and humor from your chapel talks, and in the many ways that you have shared your talents and passions and caring with us, you have helped to make us a community, and we are grateful to you. And while I know that thoughts about what comes next, after CA, that is, will begin – perhaps have already begun – to assert themselves in your minds, I hope that you can enjoy, even savor, these next few months with your friends and teachers and this entire community to which you have given so much during your time here. I am sure it might be tempting to leap forward, past the months, the weeks, the days, the hours that lie between you and that last Friday in May. Standing with one foot here and the other somewhere else is inherently difficult, and you will certainly feel the urge to step more fully into that new place, that new life beyond Concord Academy before your stay here is quite done. But what comes next will wait, and in fact, when the time comes to begin that next chapter, you will be better prepared for it if you have wrung all that you can from your experience here. Given what you have already shown us, I am sure that you will do just that.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have found myself reflecting on a question Amy Spencer posed during her Convocation remarks in September: “Did you ever take a step down a path, not knowing where or just how far that road would lead you?” That question put me in mind of an experience I had last Thursday, New Year’s Day. I had gotten a text on New Year’s Eve from a fellow member of the Concord Runners – it read “Happy New Year – we’re running at 9 am.” Short and to the point – a typical message from this running friend. At 9 am the next day, I jogged downtown to Monument Square and joined four others for a run to Walden Pond, one of my favorite places in Concord. As we set out, one member of the group reminded me that the tradition on this day, for at least some of the runners, was to take a plunge into the pond to mark the New Year. It was about 20 degrees above zero last Thursday morning, and truly, though I had worn a pair of shorts under my running pants, I had little intention of joining the swimmers. One of them had even packed a hammer to break the ice if necessary. On our way to Walden we ran easily, joking about what a ridiculous idea it was to swim in such cold: we could suffer frostbite; once in the water, we could find ourselves unable to make it back to shore; perhaps worst of all, we could end up on the front page of the Concord Journal.
Nevertheless, as Walden Pond came into view with the sun reflecting off the skirt of ice at its edges, I began to entertain the idea. We ran down to the water’s edge and began to circle the pond, moving at a steady pace. In the shade, it was very cold, but where the sun shone, it was surprisingly comfortable, despite the fact that we could still see our own breath.
We neared the preferred spot, passing a sheet of ice and stopping in front of open water. I thought, ‘It’s darned cold. This is crazy. But why not? I have company, so if anything happens one of them can fish me out. Besides, when will I have the chance to do this again?’ Before I knew it, I had unlaced my running shoes and socks, piled my jacket, pants, shirt, and hat on a rock and was wading into icy Walden Pond in my shorts. As I got further in, I could feel just how cold the water was. I turned toward shore and projected myself backward into the water. I groaned at the cold, but I paddled one stroke and drifted gently away. I kept up a running dialogue with my friends, mainly exclamations and names of deities taken in vain. I started back, feeling heavy and slow; at last, I felt the muddy bottom and waded out, hit this time by the cold air. And yet, I have to admit, I felt invigorated standing on the beach, drying in the cold and the sun, though when I ran a hand over my head I felt icicles. As I put my running clothes back on, I was warm and happy. I double-knotted my shoes, zipped my jacket, covered my icy hair with my thin wool hat, then followed the leader up the trail and away from Walden.
Life is full of such moments. When one arrives, you will know it. And when it does, take hold of it. You will be glad you did.
In a less literal sense, Amy’s question brought back the memory of a person I first met when I was seventeen and working as a laborer for a landscaping company. Her name was Edith Carter, and though she was in her 70s when I met her, she had more energy than most of my co-workers who were a fraction of her age. And unlike most of our company’s clients, who preferred to garden from their living rooms, Mrs. Carter often worked alongside us. She would kneel in the cold morning to weed the perennial beds, or muck out leaves from the frog pond, or prune the apple trees in the orchard. Through her I came to understand how work, up until then to me mainly a means to an end, namely a paycheck, could be much more.
I got the chance to collaborate with her on what she called a “reclamation project” on a vacant lot beside the new library in Nashua. A longtime city benefactor, she had purchased this narrow piece of real estate from its owner with a plan to make something of it. Every Friday and Saturday for a month I showed up at this vacant lot and climbed the slope for the day’s work, hard, bone-jarring labor, driving my shovel into that stony ground, while the most agile 70-something I had ever known scrambled up and down the slope and trilled orders to me. Over the course of those weeks we cleared trash, broken glass, and pieces of old asphalt, and then covered the sloping lot with countless yards of fresh loam. We planted dozens of young trees, saplings no bigger than switches; we rolled and seeded the slope; then we carved out a curving perennial bed that we would cultivate the following spring. The object was simple—Mrs. Carter thought people visiting the library might like a little green space where they could read or simply sit for a few minutes. Together, we made something beautiful out of that neglected, hilly lot wedged between city buildings, and it became what she had hoped it would become: a bit of nature, simple beauty in the midst of buildings and asphalt.
Some years later, when I was heading back to college for my senior year, I told Mrs. Carter that this was likely my last summer working for the landscaping company. She wished me well and then shared some advice. She said that I should not be afraid of being poor; there was nobility in it. Besides, she told me, one could get by on tomatoes and cheese and the occasional egg, and for a scholar, that should suffice. I smiled. Then she said one more thing that has stayed with me. Mrs. Carter said “The work of the world is endless. We need everyone. There is so much to be done, and we cannot spare a single person.”
In the years since, I have tried to hold on to her advice. The world, whether we are talking about faraway places where disease or war runs rampant and shatters lives, or whether we mean our own backyard, where the lack of good education is still a barrier to many individuals and families, needs every single one of us. Mrs. Carter had from the first been teaching me that work was so much more than just earning a wage; it was about making something, and perhaps, if we were fortunate, it was about making a difference.
Finally, today, I’d like to read a poem by Martin Espada. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Espada some years ago. He is a funny, generous, and thoughtful man whose poetry and essays are as beautiful as they are provocative. They have even at times made people angry. A few years ago, his book of essays, Zapata’s Disciple, which focuses on the struggles of the Latino community, made the attorney general in Arizona very angry. The attorney general banned Espada’s book of essays, along with the rest of the city of Tucson’s acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, in 2012. Espada’s response to having a book banned was annoyance and delight. While he described the experience as shocking, he said it also put him the company of some of the greatest writers in history, so how could he not be honored? Still, it is amazing that, during a time when we are seeing so much encouraging progress in the area of human rights in this country, we are also seeing steps backward, such as Arizona’s banning of this ethnic studies program. It is a reminder, I suppose, as Mrs. Carter told me many years ago, that the world’s work is never done. For all of you, for now, your work as students is to prepare to take active roles in the world beyond this campus: to hone your thinking, your speaking, your writing, and to broaden your understanding of other people, all in service of finding your work, of making a difference in the world.
Here is a world that Martin Espada imagines:
The Republic of Poetry
In the republic of poetry,
a train full of poets
rolls south in the rain
as plum trees rock
and horses kick the air,
and village bands
parade down the aisle
with trumpets, with bowler hats,
followed by the president
of the republic,
shaking every hand.
In the republic of poetry,
monks print verses about the night
on boxes of monastery chocolate,
kitchens in restaurants
use odes for recipes
from eel to artichoke,
and poets eat for free.
In the republic of poetry,
poets read to the baboons
at the zoo, and all the primates,
poets and baboons alike, scream for joy.
In the republic of poetry,
poets rent a helicopter
to bombard the national palace
with poems on bookmarks,
and everyone in the courtyard
rushes to grab a poem
fluttering from the sky,
blinded by weeping.
In the republic of poetry,
the guard at the airport
will not allow you to leave the country
until you declaim a poem for her
and she says Ah! Beautiful.
Thank you for listening, everyone. Here’s to the new semester and the New Year.
“Aguas de Marco” (Quatuor Ebene)