Commencement looked different this year. No bagpipes echoing in the performing arts center, no lines of graduates in robes, faculty packed shoulder to shoulder on stage, or flowers in front of a podium. With COVID-19 keeping us distanced from each other we had to find new ways of doing things: a drive through experience where graduates could decorate their cars and motor through the parking lot to the physically distanced cheers of the staff, delivering balloons to the valedictorian, and signs to every senior. But commencement… that’s a different story.
We planned for a drive-in experience, but the curve wouldn’t flatten and good sense meant we ought to put together a celebration of the Class of 2020 on film, which we did, complete with amazing student speakers, a heartfelt message from the teacher they’d chosen to address the class, and the obligatory few words from the principal.
I’ve made it through two years without giving a conventional speech at graduation. My first year at ACMA I read C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca” and last June I opted for a nine word address, well three words repeated three times. This year, with such uncertainty in the air, it felt like I ought to be reassuring, not too goofy, so I opted to record some remarks straight from the heart.
I started with a poem, nothing fancy, just a few lines I jotted out on a yellow legal pad as I thought about what my seniors had been through, and were still going through now.
I thought about them as people and as artists, as important members of our school community, and as a collective force for change. The poem I wrote to read to them this year went like this.
This was supposed to be
a graduation speech, but…
You’ve seen behind the curtain
and it’s different now.
You saw disarray.
You saw a stage
without room to dance
or make music
or maybe even read a poem.
So you looked around
and took a deep breath
and struck out to the world beyond
our little stage.
You’d probably gotten tired of the
over thirty crowd
telling you about “the real world”
you know you’ve already been living in
the real world.
So you stepped outside
our school and saw
Things were different there too.
You realized that there is still art to be made
films to shoot, songs to write, plays to perform.
And it’s up to you to do that.
I’ve often said “ACMA isn’t a building”
…boy the universe took me up on that one.
But I hope that ACMA can be a beacon,
a place of memories,
and of inspiration.
I hope ACMA can always be home.
Because you are ACMA,
and just because you’ve seen behind the curtain
to that world of chaos and disorder,
(or maybe because of it)
doesn’t mean you’ve been robbed;
it means you’ve been catapulted into a world
that needs you.
And you’re up to the task.
So go out and make art
and make a difference.
We’ll be here, wherever ACMA is, cheering you on.
I filmed myself delivering the poem, using a green screen to toggle between our current campus (at an unused middle school while they’re building our new school building) and our established performing art center, a place that all of us miss very much.
I will miss the students who made up ACMA’s Class of 2020; in fact, I’ve been missing them since we left campus on March 13th. I know I’ll see many of them again, whether on campus or off, once all this is over, but that only goes part way in softening the blow of losing them too soon.
But I believe what I said to them in that video: they are up to the task of making art, making friends, and making a difference, and we here back at home will be cheering them on.