I’m thinking about a poem. We’re elbow deep in plans for graduation and a part of most ceremonies is the guy in a tie addressing the class. In my time as a principal, and on the pages of this collection of thoughts (tagged “graduation”), I’ve wrestled with what to say, weighed and reweighed the importance of the event, and relished the approach one deliciously iconoclastic school took to the commencement ceremony. This year, at the helm of a wildly creative school filled with wonderfully curious students, the prospect of a speech, and more specifically what words to offer these artistic souls, is heavy on my mind.
So on an April afternoon when I was reading Eliot’s Four Quartets I found myself moved by a passage that made me think about graduation. Sentimental by nature, and made even more so by the approach of the end of the school year, I found resonance in the lines:
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.”
Our students are like those passengers on Eliot’s poetic train. They stay suspended in the moment of graduation, separated from their past years at a familiar school and the wide opening of the future before them. In these moments, as they listen to speeches, hear music made by peers, and sit in robes they’ll wear on only this one occasion, they are invited to consider the past and future with “equal mind.”
As I look out at them from the podium on stage I know I’ll think: “You are not the same people who left the station…” They are, in fact, pure possibility. They are our voyagers, embarking on new adventures, even as they have traveled so far together. They are faring forward.
I’m thinking about a poem.
Emily Dickinson, that poet of slanted light and buzzing flies, in a moment steeped with spring described:
Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested on a Beam—
And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—
Though never yet, in any Port—
Their coming mentioned—be—
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—”
How like those butterflies our graduating students are, waltzing, resting, bearing away. As they prepare to step “straight through the Firmament” what more can we do than watch and wonder, hope and celebrate, and see in them the future?
I’m thinking about a poem.
That day of commencement, a day when I’ll step to the mic and after three or four other speakers, many of whom will have grand advice and relevant anecdotes for the graduates, it will be my turn. Any big ideas or semblance of wisdom I’ve wanted to pass on the students will have already heard.
My “Art unites us” speech? Check.
My “Three things matter in life: to be kind, to be kind, to be kind” speech? They’ve heard it.
My fatherly advice about being safe and looking out for one another? I’ve given them that too.
So I think about what I might add to a ceremony rich with student performances, pomp, and pageantry, and I keep coming back to the brevity, beauty, and power of verse.
I won’t go with TS Eliot, though his voyagers were the ones to first inspire the notion of a poem. I’ll leave Emily Dickinson for them to find on their own when they get to college. But I have something in mind that might just work, a short piece that captures the swell of emotions that typify graduations and offers the sort of advice an older generation should offer the young.
Who knows, maybe it says something right that graduation day sees the principal walk in with a volume of poetry tucked under his arm. We’ll see.
I can almost hear the whisper in my ear: “Not fare well,/ but fare forward, voyagers.”