Music: “Goose Snow Cone” and “Rollercoasters” (written and performed by Aimee Mann)
Welcome back, everyone, and here’s to a new year, indeed a new decade. May it bring us wisdom and joy in equal measure, and hope — perhaps this most of all. A special welcome back to students who are returning to CA for the spring semester after being away in the fall: Kendall Bartel returns to us from HMI; Piper Franckum and Hayden Jennings from CITYterm; and Piper Gordon from Oxbow. Leaving us for the spring semester are Isadora Goldman Leviton for SEGL, South Africa; and Tianah Gooden for CITYterm. Continuing her year-long study abroad is Kaothara Morakinyo at SYA France.
I hope all of you had a restful and enjoyable winter break, and are ready for the start of a new semester. Even as we turn our attention to the days ahead, we should also acknowledge that 2019–20 has been a very good year so far. That’s due in no small part to the senior class, who have been terrific in leading this school and embodying CA’s mission in everything they do. We are grateful to them, and we look forward to hearing more of their stories here in this chapel, and to celebrating them this coming spring.
I also would like to thank the faculty and staff here at CA, who have guided and supported you, partnered with and inspired you. During my career in education, I have been fortunate to work with some great colleagues, but none more dedicated or caring than the adults here at CA. Their patience and their commitment to teaching and learning are matched by their belief in you, their students and advisees. They know that learning is typically, as Jon Waldron reminded us at the start of the year, a long and slow process, one filled with difficulties; and yet, those difficulties are what we need most, if we are to learn the most important lessons in our lives: those that teach us who we are. Your teachers, coaches, and advisors know this, and they will help you immeasurably along your journey. Thank you to all of them.
Winter break, I have found, is an excellent time to allow my brain to wander away for a bit from the “to do” list that tends to rule my daily life. I imagine most of you try to do the same thing. Most days during this just finished break, for instance, I observed a simple structure for my waking hours: wake early, drink coffee, read the New York Times, eat a light breakfast, take a long walk or a short run, stroll to the grocery store for a few provisions (usually, my dinner menu), be present for the last light of day (especially important during these winter months, when the days are so short), prepare a simple dinner, eat slowly, perhaps watch a program on Netflix, perform my nightly ablutions, read for a few minutes more, then turn my light out before 10 p.m. I might dip a toe into email here and there, but I try very hard not to yield to that voice telling me what I should be doing, but instead bid that voice adieu — for a while. It’s good for the spirit to do this from time to time.
It also enabled me to find the brain space to reflect, and then to write my mid-year chapel. I’d like to share this morning a brief talk in three parts.
Two months ago, I had an experience that I found unsettling. Perhaps some of you have had a similar experience. Let me tell you about it. It was late afternoon and I stopped into a restaurant I’d never been to before for a light dinner; I’d read a few reviews and the praise for the food and ambiance was effusive, so I thought I’d try it out. A young woman took my order, but left soon after with the evening shift change; two young men took her place, but neither engaged with me in any way. The kitchen staff brought my dinner — three small plates, in the tapas style — and the food was indeed very good. I had a notion to sample something from the dessert menu, but two young women had taken seats at the far end of the bar and the two male bartenders were engrossed in conversation with them. I had become invisible, it seemed.
I was annoyed at being ignored. I had become invisible by dint of my gender — I was clearly less interesting to these young men than the young women were — but also because of my age. As annoyed as I felt, I also had to acknowledge that this was a rare experience for me. I’m white, tall, and male, and in this country, those attributes make me highly visible and therefore highly privileged in the vast majority of circumstances. I found myself wondering how many times I had been unaware of someone else’s invisibility, or whether I’d made someone invisible myself, just as these young men had done to me. After a few minutes, I decided against coffee and dessert, and I beckoned for my check. After paying the bill, I spoke quietly to one of the bartenders, sharing what I’d experienced over the past half hour. He apologized profusely, and he seemed quite upset and embarrassed; I told him not to feel bad, but said I hoped he would try very hard to see every person around and in front of him. I remind myself of the same thing, and I hope that we can all make the same commitment here at CA. It’s a reminder to check ourselves, and often, in order not to lose sight of the people around us.
Being a person is humbling. Day to day, sometimes hour to hour, you can feel yourself floating happily along, and then you say or do something without thinking, and bam — you’re asking yourself how you could be so stupid or insensitive. We’re all capable of making mistakes and hurting others. Even Pope Francis had a moment recently. So let’s agree to do our best — to acknowledge that when we live in a community we have a responsibility to both ourselves and others, and when something we’ve said or done lands badly, let’s own it and try to make amends. We will not be perfect, but perfection is most assuredly not the point.
The week before last, I had the chance to see a play that I’d been hoping to see for some time. It’s called Waitress, and it’s about a woman confronting an abusive marriage and an unwanted pregnancy, and then finding the courage, despite her circumstances, to be the hero of her own life. The play is a musical, so it has that delightful air of unreality that all such plays have. (Imagine if daily life were a musical — when a casual conversation while walking down a school hallway could lead to a big song and dance number! But I digress.) Yet as unreal as it may seem, it begins as all experiences in the theater do — in that moment when the house lights dim, the curtain rises, and a play comes to vivid life before your eyes.
There’s something powerful and elemental in experiences like this one. Sitting in the audience with several hundred other like-minded people while a troupe of performers, purely for our enjoyment, create something before our eyes. Something that did not exist a moment before, and that departs as it emerged, with a curtain dropping and silence in the hall. It’s a miracle that art — any form of art — offers to us, and that phenomenon — sharing the experience of art with other people — is balm for the soul. To laugh and hear others’ laughter, too; to be moved to tears and feel others wiping their eyes as well; to savor that experience of felt life with other human beings is an affirmation of all that is right in the world.
My favorite moment in Waitress, among a great many, is a song sung by the curmudgeonly Old Joe, a man who, contrary to his gruff exterior, is tender and protective of Jenna, the title character. He tells her,
“I believe there’s something in you.
Something good is trying to break through.
You might have to fight the good fight,
and when you think you can’t, you can.
Take it from an old man.”
When I hear that song and those lines, I hear similar words from those that encouraged me in my life. I’m reminded of where I came from, of who I am, and I’m grateful for those that helped me.
A few days ago, I received an email from a graduate, and I’d like to read it to you.
I hope you are well. I received the fall edition of the CA magazine, and it was a great read. I became very nostalgic about CA and the amazing community I had there. I really appreciated your letter on CA’s new mission, from describing the Reconstruction era and the rise of white supremacy (which I learned about in U.S. history with Stephanie Manzella and I had wondered at the time why that wasn’t covered in my elementary school history books) to asking what that means for us now. I rarely see institutions, especially universities, speak to understanding our role and responsibility in addressing systemic wrongs, and it was refreshing to see you speaking to this.
I think CA did a great job with Community & Equity, challenging us to have difficult conversations about gender, sexuality, race, ability, income status, and other identities, so it brings me a lot of joy to see you all doing even more. As a student at that time, I felt I had to appreciate what I was given because I was on scholarship, and was too scared to speak out about what we still needed to do to accommodate students of color and low-income students. I also knew that students who received the same scholarship as me at other boarding schools didn’t even have these discussions or talks, so I always felt that maybe that we were already doing enough. But now I see more and more students at CA speaking up, demanding, organizing, and having deeper conversations with the community, and that is inspiring. I didn’t feel I could do that until I went to Northwestern and was more confident and had more vocabulary and knowledge — so I’m happy to see our students growing even earlier.
I also saw the story on Feeding the Need, and I plan to stop by the San Francisco soup kitchen, located right in my neighborhood to learn more about how I can volunteer! Congrats to CA on the new sustainability initiatives and completing the CA housing initiative. My mom says hi, and we still want to say thank you for your hospitality.
Happy new year!
Here’s to the new decade, the new year, the new semester. A fresh start, and another opportunity. Let’s do our best. Thanks for listening, everyone.
Music: “She Used to Be Mine” (from Waitress; composed by Sara Bareilles, performed by Jessie Mueller)