Assistant Head of School and English teacher William S. Speers delivered this talk in the A. Felix duPont, Jr. Memorial Chapel on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.
Last Sunday I read an article in The New York Times titled "The Border is Always Open," by the Libyan writer, Hisham Matar. Matar argues that reading books allows us to cross borders not only to other people and cultures, but also to ourselves. For an English teacher studying books about people from Russia, South America, Ireland, Nigeria, the Southside of Chicago, the Dominican Republic and 19th century England, this assertion was a rousing affirmation of why we read. Here is Matar's central claim:
...the most magical moments in reading occur not when I encounter something unknown but when I happen upon myself, when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along. I am reminded then that I am really no different from anyone else.
Perhaps that is the secret motive behind every library: to stumble upon ourselves in the lives and lands and tongues of others...
How many times, and in ways that did not seem to require my consent, have I suddenly and in my own bed found myself to be Russian or French or Japanese? How many times have I been a peasant or an aristocrat? How many times have I been a woman? I have been free and without liberty, gay, disabled, old, loved and loathed.
All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self. These occurrences aren't merely amusing or disorientating or interesting experiments in "virtual reality." They are moments of genuine expansion. They are at the heart of our humanity. Our future depends on them. We couldn't have gotten here without them. ("Sunday Review," p. 9, March 19, 2017)
How does this discovery happen? At the end of Toni Morrison's Beloved, one character is told: "Know it. And go on out the yard." This person fears leaving her home; to her, the house is a retreat from the terrifying madness surrounding her. But her grandmother – who is dead, breaking another barrier through the act of communion and communication – tells her she first has to "know" the border: see it, understand it, accept it. So by acknowledging what imprisons us, we can use that awareness to navigate the threshold; we gain the strength and vision to "go out," go over, go into. Knowledge bestows understanding, which leads to empathy, which leads to recognition and acceptance of others, and paradoxically, to recognition and acceptance of ourselves.
The first time I stumbled upon myself "in the lives and lands and tongues of others" happened my senior year in high school, when I read Anna Karenina. Never before had I encountered a character who felt like me, who was me. This novel was my biography: like me, Levin, the central male figure, stumbled in love, fumbled with words, was a pathetic romantic, rejoiced being outdoors, lost his sense of time and self in physical tasks, wrestled with doubt and belief. My first copy of that book is embarrassingly annotated with exclamations of "Me!" and "Me too!" in the margins when Levin escapes to the woods in spring, or plays the letter game with Kitty, or confronts confounding questions about the meaning of life, especially in the final two paragraphs of the novel which I still have somewhat memorized. This experience was so intense I didn't even realize I had become a Russian, a person from the land of Communism, the Cold War, the Evil Empire, the country that may have tried to hack our presidential election. But by reading Anna Karenina, I blasted through this border. When I read it again, I realized I was also like Anna, and then perceived myself in her husband, in her brother, in Kitty. Hisham Matar is right: "when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along [,] I am reminded then that I am really no different from anyone else." Indeed, reading Matar's article was the clearest expression of the power of books I've read in 38 years of teaching; his words became my belief, his vision my creed. So now I'm also Libyan.
Additionally, Hisham Matar's argument about how books can span borders is part of our current debate on how to protect a country's physical boundaries. While America has from its beginnings been a country of refugees, a political experiment fleeing repression in other lands, we are also a nation worried and afraid about people crossing our borders to hurt and kill us, to destroy our way of life through terrorist attacks, cyber-attacks, security breaches, and, some would claim, stolen jobs. There are heated arguments about literal and figurative walls; as one of Robert Frost's characters contends, "'Good fences make good neighbors.'"
I've also been thinking about borders because some of you went to Nicaragua over spring break, and I can only imagine what borders you traversed, confronted, built, bridged. When we meet people who are different from us, we can become confused, uncertain, afraid; we fall back upon what is comfortable, known, familiar; we hide, exclude, segregate, protect. Furthermore, we are a now country divided by politics, race, ideas, economic status. It's a struggle to follow Bryan Stevenson's hope for us, to "get proximate" to what's uncomfortable and unknown and different.
While it's characteristic of human nature to retreat when we feel threatened by difference, these can be also moments for connection and identification. A week ago, Mr. Roach invited me on a long road trip to Buffalo, his hometown and one of the sites for March Madness. We saw six basketball games in three days; we cheered for Miles Stephens '15 in the Princeton – Notre Dame contest in round one. On Friday, with no games to watch, we went to the Buffalo public library to work – but we noticed immediately this library was a borderless microcosm of the whole city: scholars and homeless people working side by side; rich and poor; brown, white and black; people with jobs and others looking for employment; all types of parents with their children; adults filling out tax forms; teenagers coming for after-school programs. The library was a nexus of books, relief, information, activity, shelter. So many different people, all using the same space – for a few hours that day, the playing field was a little more level. Yes, there wasn't a lot of talking, or direct interacting between all these disparate individuals; but they were seeing each other, sharing tables, bathrooms, newspapers, water fountains, café counters, hallways, resources, air.
Of course, the great ongoing experiment of St. Andrew's has been to offer the opportunity of education to all, "regardless of means." We have intentionally created a community that obliterates borders between the rich and the middle class and the poor; between races; between countries; between genders and orientations; between cultures and beliefs. Central to what we are as a school, as an educational experience, as a residential community, is our diversity, is the chance to live with people unlike us. It becomes messy, confusing, complicated; it sometimes raises uncomfortable and complex questions. But ultimately, it gifts us a more meaningful awareness of our own world and ourselves. Schools like St. Andrew's can open borders through discussions, through listening to and inquiring about others, to affirming contrary opinions with grace and humility. Our first words should be, "Tell me more." Each trip on Tuesday to mentor, to tutor, to the pool transcends a border; each van ride to Andrew's Place or Epiphany House erases another boundary. Classes, dining room tables, dormitory common rooms, teams and advisee groups become smaller versions of the United Nations. We are allies, not isolationists.
I've also been thinking about boundaries because, unintentionally, so many of my teaching books seem to focus on borders between people, races, identities – but especially that frightening, universal divide around which we've created religions and belief systems: the barrier between life and death. Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Beloved, Song of Solomon, Anna Karenina, House of Spirits, The Brothers Karamazov, As I Lay Dying, Salvage the Bones, The Chaneysville Incident – each of these books challenges the supposedly stark and impenetrable wall between life and death. In these books there are ghosts or people who come back to life; there's Hamlet who constantly questions what's on the other side of life; Heathcliff and Cathy can only love in the next world; characters like Esch's mother in Salvage the Bones or the grandfather in Song of Solomon or Baby Suggs and Sixo in Beloved keep reappearing and sending messages long after they've died. In The Chaneysville Incident, escaped slaves are still running through the woods, a hundred years later: we can hear them in the wind, in the telephone wires, just beyond the trees, "whining, crying, panting, humming, moaning like a live thing" (p. 1). These authors explore that membrane between what we can see, touch, understand, and what we can only imagine, believe in, hope for.
Here's a final thought about borders. Right before Christmas, we held the Sunday School pageant service in Chapel. I was sitting up front against the wall, with a wonderful view of the energetic, chaotic, and creative retelling of the Christmas story. You may recall that there were three narrators, Will, Liam and Gabby. Gabby had struggled with some of his lines, and from where I sat, I could sense he was frustrated with himself because he hadn't performed what he had rehearsed so much. We've all been there, and I found myself watching Gabby from the side. Toward the end of the service, as we sang "Silent Night," Gabby, still a bit nervous and alone, but bravely facing the whole congregation, glanced over at me. Our eyes locked momentarily, and then, as if to reassure me and my concerns, Gabby smiled back at me, a gentle, humble smile.
But as I looked at him, something magical, mysterious, electrifying happened: Gabby's eyes became my father's eyes – and for a fleeting moment, I saw my father again, alive in Gabby's wondrous face. My father died in 2011, yet I saw him looking at me through Gabby – those were his sparkling eyes and beaming face, alive and present and gazing at me as he did throughout his lifetime. Did an angel transform his face for me? Was I tired? Did Gabby have a message for me? All I know is that I received Christmas that night, through Gabby.
That evening I felt what Hamlet, Pilate, Heathcliff, John Washington and Sethe, among many others, experienced when that border between this world and the next dissolves. By connecting with another, I found my father, supposedly dead for six years. He came back to me through the generous and transforming soul of a 9-year-old.
I admit that national security is a serious, valid concern; I know that evil exists in this world; I agree there needs to be a safe, fair and just process which brings refugees into a new country.
But we don't have to fear borders, fear "the other," make the other an alien. Fear breeds separation, isolation, ignorance. Our humanity and civilization depend on us turning to each other, not against. For me, a border announces discovery because there's something on the other side – an invitation to learn, a mystery to unearth, an insight that will vibrantly bond me to others in affirming ways. "Tell me more." "Get proximate." When we let that barrier become an invitation, a transference instead of a restraint, we divine a host of people and spirits, seen and unseen, in this world and also powerfully speaking to us from the other side, eager to celebrate our affinity to those around us, and to ourselves.