Voices from the Past

So I was hunting through the computer’s files again. Actually, I was hunting other places as well. I’ve located all sorts of old material—some of which I thought was totally lost, some of which I’ve told you was totally lost (but I turn out to be wrong). And here’s one such document.

Until the early 1990s, during graduations at Andrew Community School, an adult was often chosen—a high acknowledgment—to deliver an address to the graduating class. Usually some teacher, a favorite of the students in the class, received the honor of making the speech. My long-time colleague Robert Everding has earned that recognition more often than anyone else, I believe, and I have heard him give some interesting speeches at those occasions. Nowadays the superintendent, the school board president and sometimes visiting dignitaries about to award a scholarship make what remarks there are—above the two de rigueur presentations by graduating students: the don’t-you-remember-all-those-good-old-days-we-used-to-have-starting-in-preschool speech and its partner, The Senior Class Today (which for about fifteen years has become a PowerPoint presentation).

a gray Ford Escort wagon

A quarter of a century ago for the only time in my career, I got to give the commencement address. I believe I received my invitation to deliver the speech some time about now or maybe in a month or so during the school year, so I had a few months—even with speech practices and contests and the spring play—to gather my thoughts and prepare my remarks. Of course being me, not much work occurred until about the middle of May. I can still remember trying out ideas and phrases while driving to work and home again in the evening. In those days I was driving the one car that I ever bought new—a 1984 gray Ford Escort mini station wagon (that car got a real workout carrying all kinds of oversized props and set pieces to and from school; I think I killed the shocks and springs with one trip). A pottery mug from the Shakopee Minnesota Renaissance Fair, which I used for coffee, barely fit in the little flat place on the dashboard on the passenger side, and for some reason my briefcase of papers, either read or about to be read, rested on the seat behind me.

Anyway. Fairly early on, probably sometime in late April, before the spring play production, I got the idea to talk about Australian Aborigine circumcision rituals as a rite of passage in comparison or contrast with commencement ceremonies. It’s an idea I had expressed in various classes, at least up to that time. So all I had to work out was what to say about it and what kind of a point to make. About a week before graduation, roughly Memorial Day, this more-or-less final version took shape.

It exists until now as a handwritten set of notes and text in an old dot-matrix computer printout—the original Apple II-era file is long-gone. But I dictated it into my word processor recently so you can endure it today.

Some elements of the beginning may strike you as familiar, in light of the retirement speech I gave last June.

Andrew and Aborigines

the 1985 AHS Commencement Address

…uh… the speech is due—today?! …uh how many points off will it be if I give it on… Monday?

Actually, when you, through Bruno, first asked me to address this gathering, I was really flattered. And that was my big mistake—I agreed. Then all my problems started: two months of wondering, “What should I talk about?” Well, the big night is here, and I guess I’ll find out now.

I thought about reminiscing over the humorous events of your past—but Rodney wouldn’t let me. I considered discussing the rough road that lies ahead—but there’s time enough for you to suffer your mistakes yourselves; we all must. I thought about being entertaining and funny, but… who could equal Mr. Lichtenwaldt a year ago? I could tell you about your class motto—which I thought was pretty impressive—but I have heard all day the rewards of having dared to try the most. Someone suggested the topic, “the biggest night of your life,” but I would hate to curse you with this—however splendid—evening, especially this speech, as the ultimate highlight of your entire existence.

Of course, in some ways, this is a very important night—it marks what our society considers to be the symbolic boundary between childhood and adult life. Tonight is what anthropologists call a of “rite of passage.” You see, every culture has some kind of ritual to symbolize the end of childhood, to show that a young person has completed the training to be an adult.

For example, in the Australian outback, on a boy’s transitional birthday, Aborigine tribesmen disguise themselves as spirits by chalking their bodies white head to toe, and then, at sunset, whirling loud bullroarers over their heads, they summon the boy to the wilderness of ghosts. And when he comes, the ghostmen bind him hand and foot and instruct him and his peers in the history of the tribe (hmmm… sounds kind of like the way I have overheard people talk about school sometimes). They finish the ritual by using a sacred stone knife to ceremoniously incise a deep wound in a very tender part of the boy’s body: the conspicuous and bloody scar marks that young person forever after as an adult.

Of course, that’s all just primitive tribesmen. We are civilized twentieth century Americans. We just make the girls and boys put on strange satin dresses for a couple of hours and balance cloth-covered rectangular cardboard plates on your heads with a fuzzy thing dangling in your face, while the rest of us wear something like regular modern clothes and blind you with six million flash cubes exploding. You march in like soldiers to some strange music used for no other event in life, listen to somebody talk about how important all this silliness is (that would be me, you see). Then you stand up together and one by one walk across the stage while Mr. Bruce tells us your name and Mr. Sarver hands you a scrap of paper in a little folder. After that, you have to throw the fuzzy dangle to the other side of your head for some reason and give your mother a rose. Finally you all march out and you’re sort of an adult.

All very sensible, right?

You know, I was just imagining archaeologists 2500 years from now, uncovering your family photo album and puzzling over not only 36 dozen photos of you duded up in your prom clothes but almost as many—in the living room, on the front porch, marching in, marching out, getting the diploma—of this bizarre costume you’re wearing now. To understand it all, they would have to consider the long history of education—extending at least 35,000 years backward from now to prehistoric children confronting the wildlife of their world in a sudden flash of torchlight on the Paleolithic splendor of the painted caves like Altamira and Lascaux through the very earliest schools in Sumeria where people first were taught to read and write four thousand years ago, and the philosophers’ questions in the Academy and Lyceum of ancient Athens under schoolmasters like Plato and Aristotle, and the Scholastic debates of the medieval universities (from whom we inherit, 800 years later, the arcane garb you’re sporting tonight) right down to free public education (a radical idea invented just a hundred years ago) and our forty credits of coursework here in Andrew. And they’d probably shake their heads at our silly ways, just like us at the aborigines and their scars. But it’s right to compare those two situations.

In several ways what we’re doing here tonight is just like the Australian aborigines: this ceremony is a ritual to separate your child from your adult life, just as their ghost-rite is. Both are anthropologically analogous. Each Abo bears the mark of his ceremony—the scar that made him a man. In the same way, you are all waiting (somewhat anxiously by now, wondering when I’ll quit?) for your own mark of transition—your diploma (or your tassel to hang upon your rearview mirror for all to see). And, like the Abo, you’ll be proud of your sign and exhibit it with honor.

But of what are you proud? Of a scrap of paper? —What is your diploma? Well, like the Aborigine’s scar, it is a symbol. That scar means nothing in itself—in fact to us, the whole thing might sound rather gruesome. But the Abo shows his scar with pride! Why? Because it symbolizes his accomplishments, all that he has achieved in becoming an adult. And so does your diploma. Without all the hard work, study and learning of the past dozen years, your diploma’s just another potential spitball in a fancy wrapper. But for each and every one of you it symbolizes… not just hours of toil—that’s what counts the least. Your diploma stands for the skills you have acquired, how you have changed, what you’ve learned. It says this person is a new citizen of our culture, capable of reading, performing math, writing intelligently, knowledgeable of the long history and complex, evolving culture which have made us what we are. You have the minimum adult requirements. Without the knowledge, the paper’s just kindling. And some thief or an accident can separate you from the diploma, but nothing can keep you from what you have learned. That’s yours. It’s you. And that’s what all the rigmarole is all about tonight.

There is no magic here tonight. No hoodoo hocus-pocus is going to happen, no Pentecostal fires will descend inspiring knowledge or adultness. You will stay you, the person you’ve earned to be by what you’ve tried and accomplished these past twelve years. All this—the ironed robes, the tassels in your eyes, the fancy folders there, the photographs—are all nothing without your actual achievements. And all of history counts on you to have earned your rightful place tonight.

Thank you for the great honor of speaking tonight, and congratulations!

So there’s a second speech from my education career, a much earlier (and much shorter) one than the retirement speech. Nowadays Andrew graduation is an afternoon event, but in those days it was a Friday evening. And of course, everyone acknowledges both preschool and Kindergarten now in the 21st Century, so mentioning twelve years of education for a high school senior about to graduate is just silly.

I like several references that date this speech to the Eighties—flashcubes, for instance, and only needing forty credits to graduate. At that time Len Bruce was principal and Larry Sarver the superintendent of the school system. I’ll leave the two students mentioned in the speech to enjoy their anonymity, but Bruno was class president, I believe, and Rodney—still a friend who even dropped by for an afternoon visit about a month ago—had the honors of the now mandatory remember-those-humorous-good-old-days-we-all-shared speech. I also enjoy now the flavor of the the International Thespian Society’s initiation ritual in the big middle historical paragraph.

I hope everyone appreciates my delicacy in avoiding any direct mention in this speech of just what got cut or the location of the visible scar from the ritual circumcision among the Abos. (Now that this has gone very public indeed, I will probably learn that I was misinformed, and the Aborigines have no such ceremonies at all. Ah, the agony of secondary reading.)

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

2 thoughts on “Voices from the Past

  1. “the now mandatory remember-those-humorous-good-old-days-we-all-shared speech” was in truth (and I have the fond memories to prove it) “performed” by myself and Rodney and as I recall, we wrote our speech the day before commencement sitting in a booth at the convenience store/grill across the park from school.
    Thanks for the memories Mr. Burrow! I hope you’ll be a guest at our Class of ’85 25th reunion this year…if we ever get it on the calendar.

    • Sorry, Maureen. The 1985-sexist me obviously only thought to mention Rod by name (or he had actually strongarmed me into not doing a humorous reflections speech).

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