A Graduation Letter to My Daughter

Keara walks down the aisle after graduation.

Keara walks down the aisle after graduation.

This is a post that has been begging to be written for weeks now, but it’s something I’ve been putting off, perhaps because writing about it makes it far too real.

Two weeks ago today, my sweet Kiko, known to the world as Keara Moses Kirkpatrick, graduated from The Academy of Our Lady of Peace. In just over two months, she will be going away to college. As individuals and as a family, we are in a time of transition. There is joy and sadness, eagerness and anxiety, hope and nostalgia for all that has been and all that will be.

We attended a beautiful ceremony at her school, but I am a big believer in rituals, so we couldn’t leave it at that. While both ceremonies and rituals use words and actions to mark the significant events in our lives, they operate on different plains. Ceremonies signify the outer experience; they are the stuff of photo opportunities and awards, for public consumption on a large scale. Rituals take place in more intimate spaces, sometimes with no more than one, or two present. Ideally, they speak to the interior processes that the ceremony celebrates. Rituals can be sacramental, in the broadest sense of the word: personal, grace-filled moments that transcend our every day experiences. Ceremonies can be organized by anyone; rituals are best experienced by those we love.

One of my favorite rituals is to write my kids letters, annually on Holy Thursday, but also for significant events in their lives. It offers me an opportunity to look back at what they’ve done and who they’ve been, as well as dream about who are they are becoming and what they might do. Sharing those letters with my kids, out loud and sometimes in the presence of others, is always a sacred experience. In case they had forgotten in the course of their daily lives, they are reminded of the power and possibility of their own story.

At Keara’s graduation party, with our family and close friends gathered around us, I toasted her with the following speech. I am posting it here, not only to share my own pride and joy, but also perhaps to inspire you to find a way to “ritualize” the next milestone in the life of someone you love. You don’t need to worry about being particularly eloquent, or using a lot of words. They don’t even have to be your own. Your favorite poet, or songwriter might know just what to say. If you’re nervous, allow them to do so. The important thing is to find some special way to connect what has occurred on the outside with what is happening on the inside. An expression of your Love and perspective may be the very thing that propels them forward with greater joy, confidence and determination.

Graduation toast, given on May 30, 2015

A couple weeks ago, Keara went on retreat with her senior class at OLP and they asked her parents to write her a letter. I thought today might be a perfect day to share some of my thoughts from that letter with all of you, her family and friends, who love and support her and have watched her grow over the years.

While I was writing the letter, I was listening to “Never Grow Up” by Taylor Swift and reminiscing about all the stages and ages she’s been through over the last eighteen years. She is on the verge of going to college, moving out on her own, for a while at least, and maybe forever.

The first age Swift talks about is infanthood, with “your little hands wrapped around my finger…” I still remember those days, when I held her in my arms ALL THE TIME. She was only happy being held in my arms or Tim’s, and even then not always. But she quickly became a happy baby, big smiles, big love all around. As all of you know, Keara was a priceless gift to me – my daughter, the one I got to keep and raise and hold and love and dress and play with. Keara, even though I had your dad, until I became your mom, there was a little bit of an emptiness in me. But your presence filled me up and gave my life more meaning and purpose and great, great joy.

Taylor Swift goes on in her chorus to say,

“Oh darling don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up, just stay this little. Oh darling don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up, it could stay this simple. I won’t let nobody hurt you. Won’t let noone break your heart. No, no one will desert you. Just try to never grow up. Never grow up.”

Though the teeniest part of me sang along with Ms. Swift, I’ve never clung to the chorus, or the meaning of her song with you, or Finn, or Molly. Even when you were just toddling around, I couldn’t wait to see who you would become and what you would do with your life.

The possibility of you has always been endlessly fascinating to me.

You have become all I hoped for and more. In elementary school, it became clear how smart you were, how disciplined, how engaged, how fun-loving. Your teachers all loved you and you had good friends. Some of them moved away and some friendships faded and my heart broke a little to see your confusion and sadness at the loss of relationships you had invested in. You didn’t want to talk about it, but I knew and tried to support you with love and encouragement. And you always managed to find new friendships that were even better, because you have such a good heart, imagination and willingness to engage with people.

I know that pattern has repeated itself in high school as well and I hope you know it’s okay. Although it’s not the way friendships are “supposed to go,” according to Hollywood and TV shows, it’s actually true of most people’s life experiences. Friends come and go. If you are changing – and I hope you are always changing – then friendships will change too. People grow in different directions. When something dies, even relationships, it becomes the soil from which something new, something richer can be born. (I will stop with my usual lecture theme now. I can feel you rolling your eyes!)

When you went to middle school, I watched you step into your individuality even more, or at least try to find it. Like T Swift, I would have liked to say to you, “Don’t lose the way that you dance around in your pjs getting ready for school.” You did lose it for a little bit, but through the last four years of high school, that joyful, funny, smart, playful soul has resurfaced and you will dance around in your pjs (or anything else), at any time of day or night. It makes me so happy when I see the little girl you once were, in your smile and laughter as you move.

I wish that I could say that, like Ms. Swift claims that “No one’s ever burned you; Nothing’s ever left you scarred,” but I know that’s not true. I’ve seen you hurt, but I’ve also seen you rise again, every time. You know how to cry, but you also know how to start over. You know how to pick yourself up, put on your lipstick (the feminine sword and shield) and go back out there to be an even stronger, more resilient, and confident woman.

I hope I’ve earned your trust and that you will allow me to stand by you forever, as your mother and as the woman who loves you most in the world, as someone who will always encourage you and lift you up in Love.

I will always, we, this family, will always, always, always lift you up in Love. We will always be loyal to Keara Moses, who we fell in love with before she was born and will love beyond this life.

There are things I think you are and will be forever, Keara. The young woman I know, Love and respect is independent, funny, creative, talented, compassionate, smart, passionate and fiery. I could also include your inner strength, confidence, individuality, determination, independence, and ability to stand out in that list of qualities. None of those gifts came easily to you and I recognize the work you’ve done to become the person you want to be, the kind of woman you admire. You also have interests that I love to watch you involved in, like baking, sewing, music, costumes, makeup, hair, fashion, acting, dancing and the list goes on…

Let me just say that these lists are incomplete, for your life is only beginning. The first eighteen years of life are formative and fun and filled with memories that shape who you will become. But the next sixty and seventy years ahead are also those things. Life is incredible raw material for meaning, purpose, passion and happiness and I’ve seen what you do with raw materials: You create beauty! It’s unique, a little dark around the edges, but fantastically powerful. You’ve done it in all sorts of mediums and so I have total confidence that you will do it with your very self and the life you’ve been given.

“Never Grow Up” ends like this:

“Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room. Memorize what it sounded like when your dad gets home. Remember the footsteps; remember the words said, and all your little brother’s favorite songs…”

Take your memories with you throughout life Keara and I hope they are more good than bad, but don’t look back with longing or regret. Your future holds so much promise and joy. I could not be prouder of the daughter we’ve raised and I know you will continue to do great work. We believe in you and are here for you, always.

Cheers!

In this time of graduations and weddings, “Cheers!” says something, but your Love can say a lot more. Don’t be afraid to speak up. We need to. We assume our loved ones know how we feel about them, but they don’t, not really, unless we told them yesterday.

All of us, not just our children, long to be seen, in our joy and pain, to have our triumphs applauded and our struggles encouraged. A kiss on the cheek, a hug on the way out the door, a mumbled, “I love you,” can’t possibly communicate the depth of our feelings for the complex, beautiful people we live with and among. So when the next occasion arises, or perhaps for no occasion at all, find a way to say more than comes easily and make the moment a sacred one.

The View from the Ivory Tower

Image from www.nickagin.com

Illustration by Leslie Herman

The viral post on Huff Post Education, “Message to my Freshman Students,” really got to me, and not in a good way. As an educator, it’s easy to blame a lack of learning on the students, but it’s more honest to carry some of it ourselves. Dr. Parsons’ dualism, and tenured arrogance struck a nerve. I am not saying there aren’t major issues with student behavior and responsibility, but like most ancient institutions, universities have to adapt to the reality of the modern world in order to thrive. I don’t have all the answers for how to do that, but it is NOT by listening to the advice of gentlemen, like the one I am responding to.


This blog is definitely out of the norm for my usual postings, but I hope you will bear with me. I feel so strongly about this professor’s “Message to My Freshman Students,” that I simply must respond, publicly and passionately, to his myopic vision. As high school graduation nears, I am afraid that too many well-meaning elders, whether they are parents, principals, or teachers, will forward his speech to their college-bound graduates, as an indication of what they can expect next fall. I surely hope they are mistaken, though I am a little discouraged by the 35k Facebook shares it’s garnered. But truly, it’s been my experience that Dr. Parsons’ perspective is that of a waning number of professors whose extended time in their Ivory Towers has led to a rather distorted view of their profession.

The first half of his speech is dedicated to encouraging his young students to take responsibility for their own learning. In order to pass, they have to show up for class, pay attention, listen carefully, do the reading, and complete the assignments, on time and well. I agree 100%. Students are responsible for their own learning and the freshman year usually presents some challenges in that arena. However, he also makes it very clear that he is not their “teacher,” someone whose “job is to make sure that you learn.” He is their professor and as such, he feels “It is no part of my job to make you learn.” Furthermore, “I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all,” only “to lead you to the fountain of knowledge.”

This is where Dr. Parsons and I part ways.

He says nothing about a drinking vessel, a cupped hand, or the accessibility of the water in that fountain, but, Parsons magnanimously concedes, “Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.” All of his wisdom can be yours, if you simply listen to him lecture you. Listen is the operative word. Listen carefully, critically and comprehensively, even if you have never been taught to listen in this way before. Parsons is a self-proclaimed, old-fashioned, “chalk and talk” man, more comfortable hearing the sound of his own voice than that of his ill-prepared and entitled students. Although that may sound harsh, I can sympathize with his point. Why not let the smartest person in the room do all of the talking?

Clearly, because it doesn’t work. It isn’t how his new students have learned for the first twelve years of their education. It isn’t how many students learn best, if at all. It is rarely the most effective way to deliver significant, but difficult information to anyone. Working at a university doesn’t give anyone a pass on keeping up with current pedagogy, or at least it shouldn’t. Parsons dismisses the constructive criticism and classroom coaching he’s been exposed to by calling it “Hogwash!”

Dr. Parsons is very clear about his loyalty to the ancient traditions of academia: “I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me.” Students, who are newcomers to this strange and exacting culture, need to get on board right away. Difficulty in assimilating is the fault of the immigrant, obviously, and few concessions should be made. He sees no need to update, or improve academia’s ancient methods, even though we no longer live in the ancient world. The “fountain of knowledge” he so generously offers, once students have paid their ever higher and less affordable tuition, can be found for free in the library, on the internet, in the form of MOOC, in podcasts, (like the excellent, philosophical The Partially Examined Life), and cheaply through used books and textbooks on Amazon.

Parsons’ attitude illustrates why higher education is coming under such fire these days. More and more young people and their parents are questioning whether to take on a huge amount of debt to pay for a liberal arts degree. The bottom line is that for a university education to be of value (beyond the certificate), professors have to be a “value-added” proposition. They cannot merely sit like disembodied heads on thrones, unaccountable for the young heads that roll around them. I can think of no other position where an educator (or any employee for that matter) can state, “I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an ‘F’ or an ‘A.’”

Therein lies the problem.

In Dr. Parsons’ mind, professors are paid to know what they know, and write about it, not to ease the path of the young women and men who find themselves struggling in his Introduction to Philosophy course, a subject matter that Parsons’ himself calls, “an abstruse and difficult field… [full of] seemingly arcane and incomprehensible topics.” Fortunately, I believe most professors are far less cavalier with the joint contributions they are asked to make to both their field of study and the education of the next generation.

I understand Parsons’ frustration with unprepared and immature freshman. I’ve taught them off and on for the last twenty years, and encountered much of the behavior he points out, but I suspect it is his own ego and sense of entitlement that is driving the second half of his essay. Ironically, it is actually that kind of ego and entitlement that drove me away from an academic career many years ago. By the time I finished graduate school at the age of twenty-three, with a 100+ page master’s thesis under my belt, I knew the academic party line and I wanted no part of it. Though crude, I called it mental masturbation. Hopefully it’s changing, but it said in essence, live in your head. Specialize; know more and more about less and less, and publish for your peers, not the public. Parsons actually summed it up beautifully in another essay when he wrote, “The more you learn, the better it is. There is no such thing as too much knowledge.”

Dr. Parsons, I respectfully disagree.

Knowledge is valuable and necessary. I have pursued my natural curiosity all of my life and education is a priority in my home, but there is such a thing as too much knowledge. It becomes too much when we extol intellectual knowledge while denigrating other types of knowing, and when we privilege people who are “in the know,” over those who aren’t. It becomes too much when what we know becomes more important than who we are and how we treat others. Knowledge, as you know, is transcendent when it is used to elevate our common humanity, but can be dangerous when it becomes an end in and of itself.

So my speech for college freshman shares the same premise as Dr. Parsons’. My main advice to them would be to step up their learning game and take responsibility for their education, but the difference is that I believe I have a responsibility too. As the “educated” one, I have something of value, something a majority of my students want: knowledge, practical skills and application. I also have a job description and it is not simply to be a “lecturer,” although that is still, ironically, the archaic title used by some universities for their teaching professionals. My job requires me to inspire, engage and ultimately educate my students to the best of both of our abilities.

Despite my many objections to Dr. Parsons’ arrogant delivery, we do agree on a final point as well. The last line in his speech is this: “For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.” Amen to that, Professor, just don’t forget that the opportunity is yours as well.

Ouch!

Ouch!                                                            by Nickagin.com