Upper School English and history educator Robin Stewart’s commencement address for the 2019 ceremony.
Rachel Weiss ’19, student council president, introduced Ms. Stewart.
As human beings, we all crave the comfort of continuity and conformity, and we desire and foster feelings of confidence and safety. Every day we create and reinforce routines. Students, each day, come early to find and secure the same seat in my classroom. Everything from routines to traditions allow us to feel confident about our place in the world.
The ringing of the bell tells you that you have followed in the footsteps of hundreds of graduates before you and reassures the students coming up that they will reach that moment too. But students of the class of 2019, you are on the threshold of change. Change that likely involves moving out of your homes and in some cases moving across the country or across continents (if you haven’t already done so to attend school here as our international students have).
I imagine you are feeling both excitement and fear of the unknown. Soon enough you’ll be locating your favorite spot to study in the library and finding the regular day and time for a phone call to a parent to check in. It’s when you return to home to visit that you realize how far from home you’ve gone.
Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus declares, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” Graduates, it’s not necessarily your home that will change, it’s YOU who will change and view your home from a new perspective. Heraclitus tells us that the only thing that does not change is the certainty of change.
So you are going into the unknown, and I want to share what poet Nikki Giovanni teaches us about traveling to an unknown place with an unsure welcome and no known landmarks in her poem “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea.” In her poem, she speaks of future travel to Mars and argues that there is no other precedent in history of that fear of the unknown besides the experience of the Africans of the diaspora during the slave trade. At one point in the middle of the deep blue water of the Middle Passage, they could no longer see any signs of home.
Today, 400 years later, we rarely hear a narrative of slavery that glorifies the resolve and resilience of the Africans and their descendants as they were forced to create new homes and keep their cultures and traditions alive through syncretic religions and music and dance and food and oral tradition, all while systemic oppression fought to eradicate them.
In my World Beat class on the literature of the African diaspora, we discuss themes of home and identity. How do the generations of African Americans since 1619 and those of the African diaspora dispersed throughout the Caribbean, North and South America, how do they understand home if they no longer live on the land of their ancestors, no longer speak the language of their ancestors, perhaps never set foot on the continent of Africa? What an incredible challenge that requires a fortitude and courage that most of us cannot even imagine.
Audre Lorde, poet of the African diaspora and LGBTQ icon, captures this resilience and inspires me with the following words: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Yes, you may feel fear, but your sense of purpose in leaving home will surpass that fear. Revel in your choice to do so.
Soon you all will be creating a new, albeit temporary, home of sorts. And as one of my very wise seniors just wrote for her final project: “To identify a home is to identify yourself.” When you are searching for home amid the unknown, you do not have all the answers, so embrace humility; it leads to listening.
Take music, Nikki Giovanni suggests, to guide you in your journey, tap into your memories, and root you in a new place. Remember, Bob Marley’s assurance: “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”
Hip hop great Lauryn Hill’s album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” is one of my favorites from the 1990s. The album begins in a classroom and the teacher is taking attendance. When he calls out the name Lauryn Hill, no one responds—she is absent from school that day. In between each track on the album, the same teacher is asking his young students what they know about love.
It’s a rich discussion on a topic that is desperately important in our lives but which we rarely think of as part of our education. And so, Lauryn Hill, by missing school that day, suffers a “miseducation” and each song she sings delves into the complexities and messiness of love and human relationships. Throughout my years as an educator, I have come to realize that above all else I need and want to “Be the love in the room.”
My mother, who died when I was 21, was my entire world. She showed me the loyalty and strength of love. I thought she was impervious, so she made a strong impression on me when she told me about her regrets. She told me a story (and stories are an expression of love) about her wedding day. As she walked down the aisle of the church, her grandmother stood up and into the aisle to hug her, but my mother was so nervous about breaking the laws of convention that she walked right by her. She said she wished she had stopped to give her grandmother a hug that day.
What she conveyed to me is the importance of knowing when to break the rules, when to step out of our conventional roles. And to me, the answer is always when there is a human being who would be acknowledged and uplifted by doing so. We are often so governed by time and formula and routine that we put order and ease ahead of the person standing in front of us who threatens to complicate our day or make us late. “Be the love in the room.” My students over the years have taught me that: Be the love in the room.
You are a diverse class with varied backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences; yet you are unified by the privilege of this elite education. For many, this privilege was achieved with great sacrifices, but now that you’ve earned this diploma, it is your privilege that bolsters you and emboldens you to take intellectual risks, to pursue your dreams, and to use your voice and entry into exclusive spaces to stand up for those who are disenfranchised, those who do not yet have a seat at the table. As civil rights legend John Lewis has encouraged, I too, encourage you to get into some “good trouble.” Question convention, question your comfort, knowing that change is an underlying element and expectation of our humanity.
One of your favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “the privilege of having left home and going back home allows you to see home differently, more clearly. And eventually, you may find that home is really no longer either place, it becomes something you carry with you.”
Carry home with you. Carry this home—La Jolla Country Day School—with you. Carry my love and the love of this audience with you. And let us be the first to say “welcome home” when you return.
Thank you for the honor of speaking before you today. I will forever be indebted to you for the joy and love you have brought to my life.