Monday, May 18, 2009

Sing Paradise, Lead Home

It's graduation season and the end of the school year. In the last four days I've been to a high school honors convocation, a university department's graduation reception, a baccalaureate service, and a full-blown university graduation ceremony.

I've listened to a lot of speeches.

Yesterday's commencement address at Valparaiso University in Indiana came from Walter Wangerin, Jr., a fiction and memoir writer of reputation who is on the faculty there. He began his speech with a proverb--I think he said it was Islamic in origin: "Paradise lies at the feet of your mother." He wandered through several tales, personal and Islamic, and ended with a story of an old classmate taking care of his elderly, demented mother, singing with her while changing her diaper.

I didn't get the "paradise at the feet" connection until several hours later. Wangerin is (IMHO) more an emotionally-indulgent storyteller than a writer. He is good at evoking emotion with visceral details, and for him, perhaps all this feeling exploding in his brain is sensation enough to declare the world meaningful. Doesn't work for me. I want an emotional lift from a connection, from the "aha" experience when I discover that God is not just in the details themselves, but in how the details hook up. Coherence counts, despite the prevailing incoherence of much of what happens in our lives.

The university president's homily at the Valpo baccalaureate service was coherent. He took the Psalm for the day, "Sing a new song," and hooked it up to John 15, "By this you shall know that you are my disciples, that you love one another." He sent the graduates out to sing new songs in service. A good "take-with."

Last Thursday's high school honors convocation ended with an intimate little speech from the high school superintendent, Attila Wenninger. He thanked the parents for making the kind of home for their students that made their achievement possible. In doing so--without saying it, he reminded these kids and their families of how privileged they are and of how others do not have this most wonderful of blessings. At the end of his speech, he asked students to choose a person in one of their classes, someone they didn't know very well, and help that person to achieve next year and become a leader. A simple idea, but one well-tuned to the hearts and minds of teenagers.

In the middle of the speech, he talked of his own three children, now adults, and their different abilities and different paths to success. From all of this, one could see why the high school board hired this guy--a white, blue-eyed older male--over candidates who would have been more pleasing to the folks pressing for diversity in the school administration. He didn't just talk diversity. He understood it in his heart and in his life.

Next to me at the high school honors convocation was my daughter Eliza, an eighteen-year-old young woman with Down syndrome, who was not too happy to be dragged to school a half-hour early because of her brother. It's unlikely that she'll ever be honored for achievement outside of Special Olympics or "special" something else. But she sat next to me and went through all the names in the program, picking out the kids she knew. Pretty impressive--did I know, back when I was told she had Down syndrome, that she would ever be able to do that? Or that I would think those other kids were privileged to know her?

One of the superintendant's kids became a special ed teacher, like my own graduating college senior. Kris was not among the graduates wearing honors cords or graduating cum laude, but he graduated! In four years, from a school where statistically he was in the bottom quartile when he was accepted. He got through. He did well in his education classes. Student teaching was fun for him, and he will be a good teacher. At the department's reception for graduating seniors, he joked around with professors who seemed genuinely proud and happy to know him.

Wangerin ended his commencement speech by telling the graduates that when they got their degrees they should think, this is for my parents. I'm not sure what he meant exactly--the parents sitting in the bleachers watching for their child's moment to cross the stage and shake the hand of the university president, or the parents who would someday need these young graduates to ease them through the indignities of old age. My children have already done that for one parent. My pride in them is shaped by the song they sang in those hard years and ever since.

I listened to parents yesterday boasting of their children's achievements and ambitions for graduate school, for more honors in the future. It seemed hollow. I am proud of who my kids are, right now.

1 comment:

susan said...

Amen, Gwen. Amen! From one whose son is a smidgen short of being done...but oh so close.