Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Hero Within

Convocation Address: Centennial High, 2011: The Hero Within. By R. Michelle-Pentelbury
(Wheels to microphone; gathers entire audience of some 4,000+ in; takes a deep breath: )
Hello, one and all!... My thanks to each who nominated me to give this address; I’m deeply honored.
You know, Canadians love to ask, “How are you, eh?” Well, in this thing? ~ I get to say: “I’m doing wheely well.” (Ha!) My speech is supposed to be 15 or so minutes, so, I brought my own chair. Only, mine’s better padded. (grins, raises eyebrows) Jealous?
Now then:                                                                                                                                           
Dr. Christison, Members of the Graduation Faculty, Centennial Staff, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls and Souls of All Ages, welcome to: Convocation!
Your convocation. As Justin Laverdure, one of our thirteen valedictorian nominees put it: we ought “to take in every moment.” Yet another graduate groaned, “What’s so special? Just so many names called up.” Yes, but how to make things interesting? How does one create a sense of wonder? My graduation wish for you comes from the Bob Dylan song: (sings) “May you stay-ay-ay, Forever Young”. (speaks) Inside you, that is; Dylan loves metaphors! The reality is, one day you will be my age, tall, dark, and handsome (ha!) But how to keep life interesting? Staying youthful, as we know, is not dependent on age, appearance, or the amount of one’s struggles. Already, despite many untoward struggles, I know so many of you that remain vibrant, giving.
When I was a little boy of six or seven in Northern Rhodesia, central Africa, where I was born and raised, a lesson of dealing with struggle came to me in the form of a long black snake. It was a deadly African cobra. Limp, with a thumb behind its head, it was held up to my face in the thick fist of a hopeful tribesman. My Guardian Mother was indignant. “Ag no man. The thing is dead. We do not pay for dead animals.” The man became defensive: “Isee not my faultee, N’kosika. Aikona! This snakee; it too much struggle.”
“It too much struggle” got me thinking. We collected wild animals for distribution to zoos. Many came to us badly wounded. The struggle of life if you pushed back too hard, I learned, hurt too much, could kill you. Work with things, bend with things, but stay yourself! Go along with the pressure, but keep alert for your own opportunities. As John Wheler, our valedictorian nominee so eloquently put it: “It is about taking action to develop the potential within.”
Well, you’ve done that! You’ve taken the squeeze of some thirteen years of schooling and soon are about to be free! As valedictorian nominee Christine Liddell, of Student Voice, asks: “What’s your power, what’s your passion; what do you want of life?”
The theme of this graduation, as you know, is: “The Hero Within”. Well, heroism itself is usually a most public thing. We see a hero. But, The Hero Within?  We all have to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Sometimes, endurance has to happen in the personal and private grace of our own space. We sometimes hurt where others do not see, and where the loneliness of suffering, and more importantly, enduring, is managed by our greater sense of accepting, including, integrating, and persevering. As the saying goes; pain is inevitable, but suffering? That is optional. Now, we all know that living life is about choosing our attitude. And now you are here! You! You. You made it. You surmounted all difficulties and YOU are here. Congratulations![app!]
Still, like a microcosm of graduations all over the world, here we sit in our gowns, looking rather like so many similar tadpoles. Ha! Well, despite our individual potential, are we each aware of making our own change? Do we consciously choose our changing? Or do we just let our natural metamorphosis into fully fledged adults just happen? As valedictorian nominee, Courtney Hockaday challenges: “Take risks, have courage, use your potential!”
Unexpected things will and do happen. Back in ‘64, as I turned twelve, we had to leave Northern Rhodesia before it became Zambia. A year later, in the Junior High graduation assembly of my poor-neighborhood school in Pretoria, South Africa, the headmaster said something that has stuck with me all my life. Ready for it? He said: “A gentleman, or a Lady, is defined not by what he or she does in front of others, but by what one does and thinks when all by oneself.”
“What one does and thinks when all by oneself!” That might have us checking into our private thoughts! To think about one’s thinking. Meta-cognition. Now, [snap!], thinking about one’s thinking is an evolutionary process. It prevents us from merely mimicking those around us, precludes us from becoming an unquestioning part of the group, the club, the clan. As nominee Natasha Baziuk puts it: “The world needs differences; each of us is unique.” That sentiment was also echoed by nominee Samantha Forsyth, as she stated: “Each and every one of us is special.”
Special. Yet we work well with partners, the team, others. This is what graduates from the Art Department did for so many Charities. Team spirit is why Centennial won the gold for Band and for Choir festivals. Gold for Robotics too, with graduates Zane Olson and Kevin Luttman, according to Coach Brown, being excellent ambassadors. A team! That’s why we won Provincial Gold for Volleyball and for City Basketball, thanks to coach Zelez, Lewis, and assistants. As valedictorian nominee Jessica Newman stated: “We follow coach Hebb’s tool-box theory; we use different tools for different situations.” Thanks to coaches Riddle, Sandbeck, and Weimer, wrestler Ryan Burns won the City Championship. In cross country, Matt Galea won City too. And thanks to coach Al Holm, Emma Morgan won gold in the triple jump and relay, along with team mates Thea Batel, Daniel Coy, and Meghan McKay. Nominee Jaclyn Olson reminds us, thanks to coaches Hebb and Cartier: “We won the rugby last year!” In Badminton graduates Crystal Lamb and Logan Man won Gold, thanks to coaches Hill, Doerksen, and Wong! Yet as Coach Wong so humbly put it: “It’s not about us teachers, it’s about the students.” The Art Department’s multi-involved Mr. Wolski said: “I just provide and hold open doors for students.” And you, and you, and you are those students! Indeed, once a dream has been attained, whether as a team or an individual, have yourself another, and another! Only, choose carefully your dreams! They should be much bigger than just your next date! Ha! In fact, at my age, if there was one thing I would caution you about your future lives, it would be always to make a careful choice, for way indeed leads onto way.
Choice. The South African Army gave me none. Conscripted into the army in 1970, after graduating High School, I was repeatedly drafted in and out of service over the next five years, call-up after call-up. You see, South Africa had this ugly and legalized system of racial discrimination called Apartheid. Communist backed guerilla-fighters were infiltrating the borders, so graduates like me, boys your own age, were conscripted to war. Conscription. We had no choice. Remember the lesson of the snake? Get trapped, squeezed too hard, go with it, don’t fight back; wait your opportunity. Well, after five years I went AWOL, absent without leave. (And no, it’s not quite the same as skipping school, ha!) I stowed away aboard a ship bound for England, the S.A. Oranje, then bicycled up Britain, hid in the Orkney Islands above Scotland, and eventually came to Canada as a political refugee. But there were serious consequences. I did not see my mother again for over 25 years. I missed my dad’s death by ten days. The price we pay for our choices can have huge ramifications; they affect others. Am I saying I should have stayed in the strife of Africa? No. But I might have been more considerate, more forgiving, more compassionate, and altogether less self-righteous toward my family had I not just thought so much about myself.
It is difficult for a young man and woman all on one’s own, as you may think you are about to become, not to think chiefly about one self. As you get ready to leave your families, please, think of your choices. Think of the consequences. Choose carefully, even as you go out from here today, and you perhaps want to party until you drop, or you perhaps are tempted to do things you may not ordinarily do; please, for all our sakes, please, think about the possible consequences to others. Always! Just this last October, at my South African high school’s 40-year Reunion, I saw my old friends again for the first time. Forty years ago we each had gone our separate ways. So many of us wished we’d stayed in contact. Close friends, John van Niekerk, Nick Hedenskog, had died; I did not even know. Indeed, the things one does, privately or publicly, affects others.
Back in 1994, here’s what a most forgiving Nelson Mandela, coming out of 27 years in a South African political jail, quoted at his inauguration as President of a Racially Free South Africa:          [by Marianne Williamson]
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.                                                                                  
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.                                                     
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.                                                       
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?           
Actually, who are you not to be?                                                                                              
You are a child of God.                                                                                                   
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.                                                                                      
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. 
As we are liberated from our own fear, our very presence automatically liberates others.
“Liberating others.” Well, does it signify that despite constant pain I very seldom take even an aspirin? All movement, the slightest bump, costs me. My mother was bedridden with this same chronic degenerative condition from her mid-twenties. Her need for more and more drugs frightened me. Now, I’ve had several surgeries since I was thirteen, but then weaned myself off the drugs afterwards. Think about it, does someone else’s reliance on drugs and substance-abuse frighten you too? As graduate Mico Migilarese [Mill-ya-re-say], our Italian Stallion, imitating not Centennial play’s Mr. Darcy, but Rocky Balboa says it: “Adrian… you have to go the distance.”
Every one of us here has a story to tell. Each of us is pulled from within to become something yet more.
Yet where would we be without a little help from our friends? Valedictorian nominee Ledja Pengu, with gratitude, mentions: “…our families, all of our teachers, administrators, secretarial staff, teacher-librarians, guidance department, caretaking staff, teachers’ assistants, and student teachers too.” In fact, where would I be without Mr. Ed. and Mr. T.? Or all of us without Ms. Schaffer? Nominee Kaitlyn Kerr said that each of us is like a gemstone, and that inner “heroism lies also in being good listeners, supportive friends.” Indeed, as good friends we sometimes have to persist beyond our own self-interest. As good listeners we sometimes persevere beyond our own impatience. Like right now, ha! Patience. Remember that trapped snake? It reminds me of a thing I like to teach: We can only practice patience when we’re impatient; practice courage when we’re fearful; and given the freedom you are about to experience, I trust you’ll really find this one interesting: We can only practice responsibility… when we’re free. 
True, only some of us get big breaks. Awarded persons. Awarded teachers. Awarded students. One valedictorian, thirteen nominated, over 500 graduates. One excellence in teaching award winner, well over one hundred teachers. Mr. Minaz Janmohamed, who received an excellence in teaching award this year, noted how dependent it was on someone nominating him. Coaches and players too: like our Mr. Rob Hunter, winning the Prestigious Lawrence King Baskeball Coaching Award. We all know so very many great teachers; we could nominate them for so many awards. Valedictorian nominee, Amy Leedham, would have us find gratitude for each and every teacher here. That truly includes our triple-H organizers: Team Hovan, Hep and Haney!
Yet as it says in the poem, Desiderata: “Above all else, do not compare yourselves with others, for always there will be lesser and greater persons than yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees or the stars, you have a right to be here!” Indeed, recalling Natasha Bazuik’s words: “Each of us is unique”
Unique. Like Robert Zimmerman. Back in the 60’s he would have been like one of you, sitting here. He most likely was told that he cannot sing; that his style was lousy; that he’d never amount to anything. But he persevered. He believed in himself. He found his authenticity and practiced his gift and gave of himself, to all of us. And he has become legend. Robert Zimmerman, known by all, as: Bob Dylan. His 70th birthday, in fact, was yesterday. Some here, I know from my drama classes do not recognize the name, but almost all will recognize his voice (sings Dylanesque-like):     Yeah, and how many times must the cannonball fly, before they’re forever banned? The answer my friend, the answer my friend, the answer is… blowing in the wind.”
Well, imagine if Dylan, really Robert Zimmerman, had allowed his light to be hidden, sublimated, or himself to be affected by the naysayers and gainsayers around him? His believing, or perhaps even more importantly, his accepting of himself gave license to all of us to be. This is what is meant by the famous Hamlet quote: “To be, or not to be?” To be you! To be authentic. To have the courage to live ~ with heart! Remember Christine Liddell’s words? “What’s your power; what’s your passion; what do you want?” After all, for each of us, there is no one like you! When you were born you beat out a billion other hopefuls. You made it to the golden egg and your very being, your very soul eventually found the light.
A quote I just have to share comes from a play called, “Man and Superman,” by George Bernard Shaw. It is a title quite appropriate for our theme of “The Hero Within”.  Written in 1903, a whole 30 years before the comic book Superman was invented, Shaw said:
“This is the true joy of life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown out on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
True, you and I may well have to cross the jungles of Africa, swim the seas, fight off the lions and tigers and bears, oh my, but we have to take it step by step, and in each step we must find the purpose. It would have helped that poor struggling snake to know the famous prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” And your purpose? It is to do well. Or as our valedictorian, Suraj Sridharan, so succinctly puts it: “I don’t mean do well; do GOOD.”
Good, like the honest and fearless graduate, Naomi Eaton, who re-created the script, Pride and Prejudice, and involved over one-hundred students in the performance. Good, like graduate Janai Haupapa who midway through grade eleven came from BC, and keeps giving with her music. Good, like the always contributing graduate, Jacob Parris. And good, like the continually contributing Chelsea Herman, Anna Heiter, Ashley Haimila, Sarah Schultz, and Jess Cooper, who always give and give without looking for recognition. So do graduates like Sidney Fleury, Dani Paulich, Caitlin Black, and the ever helpful Duncan Hendrick. They do Good; like the constant contributions of graduates McKenna Stewart, Charlotte Myles, Brenna McIvor, Connor Chisholm, and Zlata Fridman. Good, like graduate Caitlyn Kashman, who this year published “Words of a Journey,” her book to help out teenagers. Good. It’s in your hands, for in such an act or thought lies the real hero within. As valedictorian nominee Dan Hansen put it, “to be the person who helps; to make the choice to help.” That is what the gentlemanly graduate, Steven Barber, always does. That is what our continually caring graduate, Amy Totten does. Good. It is in the acts and thoughts of a true Lady, or Gentleman. That’s what Danica Power, graduate and lead role of next week’s musical, Once on This Island, means by her Facebook listing of the essential qualities of a Lady or a Gentleman; it is a quality, you’ll recall, defined by what we think and do… when all by ourselves. Could I not keep on naming virtually every one of you?
In making caring choices, in overcoming difficulties, in supporting and giving to others beyond our own interests, we are indeed exercising the hero within. Each of you sitting here has done that. You each are busy climbing a personal and private ladder to the stars.  Imagine if good old Robert Zimmerman had felt “less than”? Imagine if his parents or teachers or friends had persuaded him not to sing? And so, to close off, as Bob Dylan would wish for us, let us indeed stay, forever young. In fact, (looks over). Mr. Boutin, my guitar if you please.
(Mike Boutin sets me up; I don hat, sunglasses, and sing, using Dylanesque voice:)                         
 May God bless and keep you,                                                                                                                                                               May your wishes all come true,                                                                                                                                                        
May you always do for others,                                                                                                                                                         
 And let others do for you…. [stops, takes off hat and glasses}
Wait a bit. Let’s have others up here to help. (calls to back) Ready Mr, Edmonds? (Mr. Edmonds gets choir ready at back) Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Mike Boutin! Mr. Jorge Ramirez! and Mr. Stan Sibbald! (they each come up with their guitars, plug in, while I sing, in my voice:)
1)       May God bless and keep you,           May your wishes all come true,                                        
May you always do for others, And let others do for you,                                                         
May you build a ladder to the stars, And climb on every rung;                                 
May you stay, forever young            (x2; on repeat Stan, Jorge, and Mike join)                                                     .
2)       May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true,                                              
May you always know the truth, And see the light come shining through,                             
May you always be courageous, Stand upright and be strong:
May you stay, forever young (x2 on repeat Stan, Jorge, and Mike join)

3)       May your hands always be busy, May your feet always be swift,                                            
May you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift,                    
May your heart always be joyful, May your song always be strong:
May you stay, forever young (x2) [calls: Mr Edmonds!]
            (Choir repeats verse 2) May you grow up to be righteous, (etc.)                                                                                              ….. (I pick up last repeat): May you stay forever young.
4)      (me) May you have a sense of wonder, keep up your interest too,                                
        (Stan, Jorge, and Mike join) May you stay, forever young                                               (me) May you stay-ay-ay-forever young!