Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Place And Privilege

(Alissa Costello, J.K. Moran)

On Sunday June 8, 2008, I attended my thirty-fifth high school graduation ceremony as a teacher. These are always poignant late afternoons, suffused as they are with the joys of youth and the moment and the melancholy of goodbyes that only age can comprehend.

This year's graduation at Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, California - my professional home these many years - was graced by an extraordinary valedictory address by an extraordinary young lady. Alissa Costello was elected senior class president for the Class of '08 a year ago, and the chief and final duty of this position at our school is to deliver an address to and on behalf of her classmates at graduation, the only student to speak at the ceremony. Alissa, one of the most distinguished students in her class and one of the most impressive I have ever encountered in the long decades of my career, rose to the moment with an address that was at once playful and heartfelt, emotional and intellectual - just exactly what a graduation speech should be. That her classmates and the assembled audience appreciated it goes without saying.

Its larger significance, though, I believe to be the credit it reflects by extension on many young people too often belittled, minimized, and disregarded by their elders for their perceived behavior, attitudes, preferences, tastes in music and entertainment, and just about everything else - "slackers," they are often called and depicted as. The generational hubris of doing so is appalling - as if millions of individuals could be lumped into or expressed by any term, be it "Boomer" or "Gen X" or "Greatest Generation" or any other such nonsense.

Alissa Costello is none of these. She is simply a gifted and thoughtful young woman who will be developing her considerable abilities at Harvard come autumn. She speaks here for herself and her classmates only - but for me, her voice in these words resounds with a kind of hope and affirmation that suggest to me that when the torch is passed, it will be eagerly received by some very capable hands. This is what she said.

Good Evening, and Welcome......

In considering the significance of today, I am led to what John Steinbeck said of the morning dawn: “It is the hour of the pearl. The interval between day and night, when time stops and examines itself.”

For the 76 Mayfield students on this platform, it is our “hour of the pearl.” Today, we are called to examine ourselves—the ‘was, is, and will be’— in preparation for the dawn.

When I pause to inspect the range of desires and impulses, the variety of insecurities and hesitations, the many moments of confusion and success, no surprise— it’s daunting.

I realize now that high school

is ceaseless yearning,

is profound uncertainty,

is joyous disorder,

and is adolescent shouts, like that of John Cusack in Say Anything, when he yells:

“I’m [just] looking for a dare-to-be-great situation.”

And yet, in spite of all this, here we stand, fully intact and looking ahead.

2008 poses a new season of conflict for us. So maybe, in this hour of the pearl, we can identify just what gives us the audacity to question our own futures, the daring to seek our own greatness.

To outsiders, Mayfield a gated campus with manicured lawns; a marble entryway with trimmed foliage. When you pass through the front gate, you are instantly aware of Privilege. Considering the opportunities given to us, the profound care and attention provided, I am drawn to wonder at this hour of the pearl:

What is the essence of Privilege?

If you were to ask the students what Mayfield is, a number of standard responses might be delivered:

Freshman might say: 300 girls.

Sophomores might say: no boys.

Juniors might say: no sleep.

But, I see Mayfield—through our uniforms

I have a Sue Mills uniform shirt sitting on my dresser—still in the plastic package. Folded, crisp—unworn…

At Mayfield, seniors are liberated from their uniforms for the final 3 weeks of school, encouraged to donate those un-sharpied, un-stapled, untattered items to the Used Uniform Sale.

So— why do I still have an unused white oxford?

Somehow, I managed to avoid opening this final package all year. When I finally acknowledged this evasion, I realized, that I was unable to face its implications.

It has become, over the year, the constant reminder of a waning childhood—

the indicator of a Privilege it took me 18 years to understand.

When I pack for college, I will encounter my Mills oxford shirt, still wrapped. I will run my eyes over its contents, and indulge for a moment in the lingering echoes of Monday morning reunions— always as if a weekend merits reunion.

Each one of us has been identified as a Mayfield student, at least once, by our uniform.

As a matter of fact, on my second day at Mayfield, while walking home, an unknown white car pulled up next to me, and the driver said, “Hop in, I’ll give you a lift.” Although I didn’t recognize the car, I immediately recognized the face.

Sr. Barbara… did not know me, but she knew my uniform...

Sometimes, when I walk down the street under the blare of my headphones, I’ve felt eyes on me, and turned to see stares.
The glance only grazes my face, quickly proceeding to my white Oxford and red Pleats.

I can feel the silent conclusions being drawn: prep, protected, sheltered, wealthy, naïve, and finally, the kicker, Privileged.

Tucked away under the pulse of Jimi Hendrix, I would cast my eyes back to the cement wondering,

“what is this privilege they project on to my uniform?”

I had been categorized and dismissed.

Eventually, I found myself staring back, challenging them for what they assumed.

Over the years I realized that what the stares failed to see was the truth behind the uniform. Privilege? Absolutely.

But not in the way they had imagined. Not even in the way I had imagined.

Ours—was the privilege of relationship,

the privilege of expectation

the privilege of choice.

I have come to understand that the white oxford and red pleats DO in fact, characterize Privilege.

This gated community of majestic buildings and manicured lawns is NOT a reflection of indulgence, but rather of the conscious and deliberate decision to provide freedom.

The Privilege suggested in my uniform, is an offer of freedom to transcend and to thrive—the freedom to desire and then to choose.

I now recognize— that the undeniable Privilege bestowed upon our adolescence is an offer of possibility.

We have been given the Privilege to pause—the Privilege to dream in preparation for choice;

Through the sacrifice and intention of parents who were available far beyond tuition payments— available to make countless trips

late at night to Kinko’s for project deadlines,

or early in the morning to Party City for birthday balloons.

But more than that— parents are here everyday for board meetings, committee meetings, breakfasts, teas, lunches, barbeques;

available to attend performances, openings, concerts, games;

available to engage in extended dialogues about our future, and our plans.

Our voices are encouraged; our voices are heard.

We have been afforded privilege through the determination and wonder of an astonishing faculty, who would

come in at lunch for an emergency review of cellular mitosis,

or pass around licorice during a test to ease the mental strain.

We have experienced privilege at the hands of a dedicated and selfless maintenance and security team.

Ultimately, it is to them that I dedicate this commencement speech from the class of 2008, because I think they are the metaphor at the essence of privilege.

Though usually unseen, they construct runways on the lawn for ceremonies and fashion shows, and of course— Graduations;

they battle spring storms with sheets of tent plastic, protecting afternoon tea parties. They are here to greet me when I drive in, and to say goodbye when I leave.

But where does this Privilege lead? At the core of what we have been provided through the purpose and generosity of our parents, faculty, maintenance, security, administration and staff, is the privilege to seek— To seek our own pearl.

An identity has NOT been thrust upon us here. Rather, we have been challenged and guided, we have been privileged, to create the self, that may now be reflected upon in this hour.

Essentially, Mayfield recognizes that supreme protection must be guaranteed if choice is to become possible.

Roz Kaveney notes that in the modern age, “our imaginations have been colonized.” Mayfield has battled this occupation by granting us the Privilege to be fearless;

fearless to investigate and construct an identity through expansive imagination.

The Privilege we have been offered, can only be seen through our authenticity. When the Great ‘08 is out in the community, Mayfield radiates from within them, and all anyone can see, is the resulting light.

Surrounded by the community of young women I have come to take absolute solace in, I could sit here— on the gate forever.

But as dawn turns to day, the hour of the pearl draws to a close.

While we cannot be entirely sure what to do with the possibility beyond those gates, we must pass through them.

Only now that I must exit the gates, can I truly appreciate entering them.

When I recall meeting my classmates freshman year, I do not remember appearances, because those were shared— simple white oxford and red pleats.

I remember the sounds of their voices—the nature of their ideas and beliefs.

Long after I have left Mayfield, when I reflect upon the group of girls I spent my adolescence with, I will not remember the surfaces.

I will remember who they were.

I will remember who they became.

I can now confess— that I am a reluctant traveler.

While my eyes sparkle at the idea of what’s to come, and the choices that await— I am SO happy here.

I am attached to my town—my coffee-shop, record store, video-store—

my friends, my Mom—my life.

But Privilege has prepared us to leave.

And I will go.

We will go.

But my heart— my heart will always be here.

Thank you Mayfield.

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