Mr. Williams, trustees, guests, colleagues, and you, class of 2016, thank you for asking me to speak to you today. It is, as someone just wrote me in an email, a truly inconvenient honor.
When I was growing up in New York City, I went to an all boy’s Catholic school on the upper east side – admittedly -- in a slender red-brick building with a chapel tucked inside and a church across the street. It wasn’t a big school. Twenty students per class, all in ties and blazers. Except on Wednesdays, there’d always be one or two kids who would show up in their Knickerbocker Greys.
Specifically, this referred to a pair of grey flannel pants -- peg legged, with a silk stripe down the side seam -- and a matching long-sleeve button-down, with cuffs and collar and chevrons and stars and what have you. Tucked tie. Shiny black shoes. Polished belt buckle. Sometimes a garrison cap.
Pretty spiffy look for an eight-year-old, but I wouldn’t say the rest of us were particularly envious. I think the general consensus was that it was a little weird, coming to school like this, mostly because we didn’t really know what the Knickerbocker Greys were for. Training these kids to be young officers presumably. Something between that and a citified version of the Boy Scouts, which meant what? Merit badges for flagging a cab? Or dealing with the caterer?
So the other thing you need to know about me is that I wasn’t a very social kid. All my report cards had some line in there about how “Brooks should be encouraged to play more with the other children.” It’s not like I had no friends. I just didn’t do the play-date thing. I liked to keep it between the lines, if you know what I mean. Go to school, have my fun. Come home. Do my homework. Bite to eat, then settle down in front of Rangers game, maybe with a little piece chocolate, an orange, drawing pad. Who has a problem with this?
But my parents read the report cards and so every so often I’d get pressured into going over to someone’s house. It was like my version of paying taxes.
So this kid named Brooke Mitchell invites me over this one time, and I liked Brooke. Nice smile. Straight part. He looked like a little Ken Berry, for those who might remember. So we set it up for a Saturday afternoon. My mother dropped me off around lunchtime. And Brooke’s mother is there. Very gracious, lovely woman. Nice little beehive. We sit right down for lunch, and Brooke comes out, and he’s wearing his Knickerbocker Greys. Which I think is a little weird, but okay. I figure he must have gone this morning, and he just got back. Fine. He’ll change after lunch, we’ll get out the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, and I can be outta here by three.
But so we’re eating, and they’re being very kind. You know: “We’re so glad you could come. Brooke was so excited could make it.” And I’ve got my little tuna sandwich, sliced apple. Everything’s fine. But then Mrs. Mitchell says, “So we forgot when we asked you, but Brooke has the Knickerbocker Grays this afternoon. We were thinking maybe you could just go along with him.”
And my first thought is, you know, ‘No...And that this exactly why I don’t do this sort of thing, this bait-and-switch baloney you people pull.’ But what am I going to do? They’re being very nice. I’m eating their food, so I say, “Okay, sure.”
And I don’t remember how we got there -- cab, bus – but right after lunch we head down to 66th and Madison, the Armory, which is this giant fortress-like building that takes up half a block, no windows. And you know how when you’ve kind of been picturing something in your head that you know nothing about, and then you finally get to see it, and you think, “Wow, this is completely not what I thought it was going to be”… Well, this was pretty much exactly like what I thought it was going to be.
We go in, and it’s this enormous, open space like a track gym, except I think there might have been some kind of artificial hill in the middle, made out of Styrofoam or asbestos or something. (It was the ‘70s.) But everywhere else there are these regiments of little boys, marching around in formation, divided up by age, or excuse me, “rank” – little troop of five-years-old-here, nine-year-olds over there, all the way up to fourteen or so, and they’re the cool ones, because they’ve got the visored hats and actual swords with sheaths, which are pretty cool, I gotta admit.
But again, I am not feeling one angstrom of envy or authentic interest. This is all, as far as I’m concerned, an absolute freak show, and I’m just working on the speech I’m going to give my mother when I get home, about the fact that this is buying three months at least of leave-me-the-hell-alone; like, I should be good through the end of playoffs.
But then it gets worse. Mrs. Mitchell leaves us there; she’ll come pick us up when it’s over. So it’s just me and Brooke, but now Brooke turns to me like (shrug) “So…I think I gotta go now. I’ve got to go march with my troop. See ya.”
So he goes off, in his twerpy little uniform, and I’m left there with all the newbies, and the reason you know we’re newbies is because we’re standing there in our alligator shirts and blue jeans, or the khaki shorts with the metal hooks on them.
So we all get led over into this alcove, and they stand us in formation, and then this man marches up in front of us, and he’s in the adult version of a Knickerbocker Grey. He’s the ‘Colonel’ or something, and for all intents and purposes, he is George C Scott. He’s got the buzz cut and the attitude, the riding crop, and he goes into this spiel: “Gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to our august institution, dating back 150 years, yadayadayada – “ I’m not really listening. I’m beside myself. “And I want to thank you for the interest you’ve expressed in coming out here today.”
(And I’m thinking, waitTime-out signal: “I had absolutely no interest…”)
And he says, “But let me not assume. If you are here because you’d like to join the Knickerbocker Greys, please step forward.”
And so every other kid around me takes a step forward. “Yes, sir!”
And the colonel says, “Good. So everyone.”
At this point, I think I just went blank. Or I actually think my life may have flashed before my eyes, only not my life leading up to that moment; my life afterwards. Like I think I saw myself on Porkchop Hill, taking twelve slugs in the chest in slo-mo, all because of this freakin’ play-date my teachers for some reason wanted me to go on.
So I don’t really know what happened after that. This is where my memory fails me, but my educated guess would be that about three seconds after the Colonel was done talking, I raised my hand to ask where the bathroom was. Then I went and spent the next hour-and-a-half hiding out in a toilet stall. That seems like the soundest approach under the circumstances.
But I also have to confess that, in addition to not know what actually happened next, I also don’t really know why I wanted to tell you this story this morning -- or this semi story. And I still don’t. But I guess one of the things that strikes me about it -- I think the reason I find it kind of entertaining, but also so deeply distressing -- is just how firm my sense was back then of what I was willing to do, and what I was not willing to do. Right there at the age of eight or nine, I seemed to have had a pretty clear picture of who I was.
So maybe that’s what I want to talk to you about…
…Because right now, you’re a pretty primed group, and you’re about to take a giant step out into a world charged with purpose – you are, and the world is, spurred by some very real problems that need addressing, but also by an extraordinary amount of progress that’s been made in relatively short space of time, I’m not sure you’re aware how quickly, on certain significant social issues.
And there can be no question that a lot of that progress has derived its energy from -- but also focused a lot of energy on -- this idea of identity. In fact, it almost begins to feel like maybe that should be our collective purpose now, to encourage and to celebrate the ultimate realization of ourselves as individuals. Maybe that’s how we advance not just as a society, but as a species. This is actually not such a new idea, but we seem more determined now than at any time I can recall to establish the specific terms according to which we recognize and affirm our own particular identities. I’m talking about race, of course, and gender, and gender identity, and sexual orientation, and political orientation, and nationality, and class, and religion, and culture, and cultural legacy, language, food preference, medical conditions…The list goes on, and doesn’t even include those secondary indicators such as: What do we ‘like’? What do we share? What do we purchase? What do we click? Because that’s the other thing to keep in mind: the fact that these choices we’re making, or the identities we’re confirming, are (a lot of them) being etched into a tablet that cannot be erased. For the first time ever, there shall be no forgetting our answers – only, god-willing in certain cases, ignoring them.
The point is, as active and engaged members of the 21st century, we are helpless not to see ourselves reflected in these terms, and therefore helpless – or almost helpless -- not to conclude that this is who we are.
And I’m certainly not here to try to blow up the project on that account, or tell you not to participate. On the contrary, I see the good and the sense of empowerment that comes from being able to name and to claim the various aspects of your identity. I see the value of recognizing how others perceive you, and I believe that as an engine of social change, your voices must be heard on these subjects, as a way to influence attitudes, and to influence policy as well -- public policy, private policy, education policies, the law and social justice. For all of these causes, it is vital that you stand, that you identify, clarify, and testify.
So what is my concern? Because I definitely seem to have one…
I guess it’s this: that by the same token as the world needs you to do these thing in order to keep changing in all the positive ways it has begun to, I just want to make sure you give yourself that same opportunity.
The concern, you see -- and I don’t address this exclusively just to you. I address it to you (the audience) and to myself , the boy we all left in the bathroom at the Knickerbocker Greys -- the concern is that in the process of identifying ourselves according to this increasingly particular, insistent, and politically charged set of markers and indicators, we risk doing to ourselves precisely what it is that we want to stop others from doing to us: that is, limiting us. We risk treating ourselves, and those around us, as maybe only being capable of seeing the world in this way. Or that way. From that angle. Through that lens. Because of who they are. Or who we are.
The concern is that these newly burnished and robust senses of identity become almost like suits of armor: they help protect us, sure, and they empower us, and they embolden us in a lot of important ways. But if we’re not careful, they might trap us, too.
Why is this my concern? Because no matter how articulate, how forceful, or how magnificent the identity you claim for yourself may be, I say it still underestimate you. Vastly.
So let me give you a couple reasons why I believe this and then I’ll leave.
Reason #1: I write. Fiction. And anyone who writes fiction is -- whether they admit it or not -- constitutionally opposed to the idea there are places they can’t go, feelings they can’t imagine, scenes they can’t enter, or perspectives they can’t occupy. We don’t buy that. Quite the contrary, the fiction writer of a certain stripe – or any artist of that same stripe -- operates on an alternate premise: that the whole universe and all history, and everything that’s ever happened, and every feeling anyone has ever had, is available to you – of course it is -- and the only thing standing between you and that exhaustive record of human, animal, and even botanical experience is…yourself. If you can somehow manage to get that grandstanding piece of crud out of the way, tell it to be quiet and go sit in the corner – or better, just get out of the office completely, go – well, then, all the world and everything in it is only too happy to come in and fill the vacuum.
Do I really believe this? 100%. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Take it from John Keats, take it Virginia Woolf. Take it from William Shakespeare, or Miles Davis, or Jacqueline Du Pres. Take it from Stef Curry. What do all of their favorite and most brilliant moments on earth have in common?
They weren’t there.
Reason #2: I teach. You. Like all these people sitting here to my right.
You ever ask yourself what they’re doing here? Is it because they love their various fields of study? To an extent, but if that’s what they were most interested in -- the scholarship -- then presumably they’d be teaching it at the university level, right? They got the PhD’s, a lot of them.
So why are they here?…other than the salad bar.
I’d suggest they’re here because what really excites them -- even more than history or biology, Japanese, statistics, or poetry -- is change. That’s what gets them up in the morning, is the opportunity to participate in human transformation. And they’ve figured out that there’s no better fix for that particular addiction than being around you all at this stage of your life. That’s why they’re here, and to your credit, you justify that choice – not every day, let’s not get crazy – but season-in, season-out, you do; and you know that’s true, because you know who you were when you got here, and you know who you are now.
But so it would be really weird to think that -- after all the effort that we’ve put in here together, to turn you from that person into this person -- that our hope looking forward would be for you to go finish the job. Right? Go lock it down. Figure out exactly who you really are once and for all --
No. Again, you might as well be trapped inside toilet stall waiting for the play-date to end (and I promise that’s the last time I’ll go there).
I submit to you that the hope looking forward is the same as it’s been since you got here. We want you to go out and keep changing, keep adjusting, and revising; only you have to do it on your own initiative now, and under your own guidance with the tools we hope we’ve given you. But please keep surprising yourself, keep challenging yourself, let yourself fail, let yourself miss, let yourself be dumb, and wrong. That’s how you grow.
In fact, I would submit to you that that is our even higher hope: that you treat this process – of ongoing transformation -- as one of constant expansion and inclusion.
And what the heck, might as well say it while we’re on the subject . No one’s going to hold you to it, seeing as only a handful of humans have ever pulled this one off, but it’s still worth stating for the record that the very highest hope that we or anyone could have for you (this being the utmost aspiration of the human spirit) would be that you transcend that barrier entirely – and I’m still talking about your ‘identity’ here. Move beyond the mindset that can only view the world in terms of category, differentiation, subdivision and opposition. Look at the word “universe.” Consider the possibility that maybe that’s right -- maybe everything really is, at essence, just one thing…
…And identify with that.
You have your assignment, class of 2016. Go in peace. Clearly, and happily, you will be in our thoughts, and in each other’s thoughts, for a long time to come.