Letter to a Graduating Senior

And I am still going to imaginary places. Perhaps the reason all this wandering started was because I never quite felt close to my family in hobbies or pastimes. Besides one such occasion, where I scored a touchdown pass in middle school, sports were painful to me. Where I would have preferred dance, I had to wait until high school musicals. Where I had an affection for art, I was never taken to any museums. It was the way of things.

I was first given the opportunity to explore imaginary places with Dr. Seuss, though my parents read that and only that. My grandmother instead gave me Redwall by Brian Jacques, which started one of the deepest literary adventures of my life. Matthias attempts to solve the case of Martin as the leader of Redwall ages ago. Cluny the Scourge is at the gates, along with an army of cutthroats, thieves, and swindlers. The peaceful reign of Redwall would have ended that day had the mice and badgers and voles and otters and rabbits not banded together. When I was a child I read books, many from Jacques’s Redwall series. Why this is I do not know: likely it was because I found the sights and sounds that approached me to be so overwhelming, so cacophonous, that I would have always fared better away from civilized society, like they always seem to do with sick characters in Studio Ghibli films. I had a sickness too, one of reality.

In my mind, since being a student and now a teacher, there have always been two schools. One school is the imaginary one. It is a safe place, full of a robust desire and inquiry to learn new things, to have every wall propping up books, to have questions answered provisionally until a counter sends us rushing back to a whiteboard, outlining what I’ll never truly find out. This is the school I always kept in my head in my years as a student, even when I saw a friend named Drew get stabbed in the boy’s locker room with a pencil by some older football player (this is when I decided football was no longer for me, if you must know).

But of course there is very much a real school. This one is the place of standardized tests and parochial ideology. It is the one of fast fashion and the Mean Girls quotes we do not like examining for too long. It is the land of the out-of-touch principal with deadlines and quotas and curriculum to follow. It is embedded in a weird conflict, where our country spends more per capita on students than any other, yet school lunches are so miserable, we wonder where the money ends up. Rest assured, this question about reality will keep you up at night…

You and I were able to imagine for a long time, weren’t we? Short stories and novels, reading and writing as best we could in spite of real school, and as much as we wanted those two worlds to meld peacefully, the truth was you were always trying as a member of the principal’s cabinet to steady the school from draconian measures. Deputizing students to police for dress code? Had he read Lord of the Flies? Or even, much more recently, Stephen King’s Under the Dome?

Once, when my grandmother gave me another book, The Crystal Cave my father saw me with it in my possession. He took it from me and said I could not read it. At all times, reality continues to impose itself upon us violently. But instead of some intended effect, my father’s plan actually backfired. I thought to myself, “What was it about books that had such scandalous information?” Rather than suffer for it, my father taking that book that day was the best thing he could have done. Now I read voraciously.

Clearly this year you had been placed in such a situation. Often you tried to state your case for a better school and each time they continued to reject it. Rather than build something together, rather than listen and respond with what David Whyte calls a “conversational nature of reality,” they instead do what authorities have always done, which is to dictate. A school that responded to you in that way was never interested in learning and discovery, but on power and control. I can only hope what comes out of this for you is post-traumatic growth, and the opportunity to take these events and apply them to a version of yourself you would like to present to the world from this moment hence.

As T.S. Eliot has written, and as I’ve come to discover about myself time and time again: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

But now that I am an adult, I have far better tools to imagine. Truth be told, I hated being a child. I was morose and far more sensitive than I am now, and while I do miss the open summers, I find the beauty in not needing an opinion for everything, for not having to judge each day. I now have the right to spend all day imagining the classroom that I would have wanted all those years ago.

That imagined classroom would have you in it. But unfortunately, the reality of time does not work that way. I have asked this question a lot: suppose you had a graduating class that was so brilliant, so kind and open-minded, would you keep teaching after that? I did not realize that I would be facing this question so quickly. You and those around you effortlessly inspired me. I enjoyed reading your stories each time. I learned more about myself too. For one school year, I got to imagine with you a new place. We filled it with the most elegant of intellectual furniture.

And now you have graduated. Relish in the opportunity to take such harrowing moments of reality and see that they are now little more than ideas. Than memories. Faulkner suggested that the past really does not go away. T.S. Eliot in “Burnt Norton” decrees that “what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.”

The Japanese have a saying that the man (or woman) standing in front of you is the person in the room. The past is what got us to this point, but it is not us. Our bodies renew almost entirely every seven years. These moments too shall pass, and how you choose to recall your past is up to you. But I would caution giving it more credence than it deserves. Because why spend more time in that dark and empty well than you have to? When all the world’s imaginings lie marked on parchment for us to explore?

The biggest reason that you and your classmates were some of my favorites was in the ways you recognized the exponential power of language. I have yet to meet another writer who was so able to discuss intellectual topics in simple yet subtle language. For those of us with a difficult time in reality, there will always be a friend, and each time I finish a work by some of my favorites, by Marilynne Robinson or Rachel Cusk or Karl Ove Knausgaard, I at some point and exhale and think to myself, “Finally some sanity.”

Few have kept that earnest and unwavering belief as you have throughout their academic career. For that reason, I want you to have everything, and so much of it.

Now you are about to embark upon a new shore: college. Rather than having the food brought to you, so to speak, you will now be invited to the “masked ball.” Everyone will be looking for something there, and you will too. And the wonderful thing about college is that even if you do not know what it is, eventually you find it. As Jacques Lacan wrote in psychoanalysis, “A letter always arrives at its destination.”

So here is my letter to you. Finally there are no more art posters for books to be made. Now there is simply the book itself, and the ideas therein. I will always be there to read anything you have to write, to hear anything you have to say. Thank you for giving me the chance to imagine school, and for imagining with me. You are hardworking, and that dedicated focus has gotten you here. I cannot wait to see the places you will go next, real or otherwise.

Keep in touch.

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