Riverdale News & Stories
(Editor's Note: Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph presented this address with slight modifications to the 5th, 8th, and 12th grade graduates and their families.)
One of my peculiar fascinations is how written texts interact with visual images. There is Greek word for this: "ekphrasis". I am particularly fascinated by the idea that images and texts interact together, and there is a certain alchemy that arises from this interaction. The famous description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad is the classic case of ekphrasis: a verbal description of a visual image. For you this concept is neatly summed up in one contemporary word: "meme". For instance, you might remember seeing the image of a man dressed in a hat and down jacket carrying a sign that reads, "I am a little upset" with the caption "Biggest Riot in Canadian History."
I love this idea of texts and images reacting together, hence the postcard that I have given to you all to remember the words I will share briefly with you here. I want to talk about three lessons that I have learned from you all and that I want to play back to you. Just so you know, I did receive a message from a member of the class of 2012 who had kept the postcard and pinned it on his desk in his first job after graduating. So don't lose these or throw them away, because you never know.
Lesson 1: Remain Eccentric
This strange snake-like line on the left of the postcard is the line traced by a character, Corporal Trim, with his walking stick to describe celibacy in the novel about the life of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. The novel, written in 1759, supposedly recounts the birth and life of Tristram Shandy; however it is a work that constantly distracts and walks around the subject rather than plunging in. The narrative never gets anywhere. It takes three chapters for Tristram to be born. It is a novel that champions eccentricity in its characters. I love the eccentric characters of Trim, Slop, and his family. I wonder, however, if we tolerate positive eccentricity as much as we used to. It is seen as archaic at times, and does not fit into our cool, celebrity-driven and positivistic universe.
I remember that I had teachers who were truly eccentric, wonderfully and awkwardly so. I had Mr. Rawley, who would roar like a lion when you uttered a foolish statement in his classroom. I had Mr. Clerk-Maxwell who challenged me to burn down an ancient oak tree with a magnifying glass, and gave me an immense magnifying glass to actually do it. I failed miserably. I had Ms. Marks in English who made me proclaim poems at my loudest voice, long before the film Dead Poets Society came out. At the time I thought these teachers rather odd and potentially deranged. However, I now realize that they made me see life as an exciting adventure, not as a serious and grim race. The lesson in Tristram Shandy is the same. Be true to yourself and appreciate the unique difference you can bring to conversations, friendships, and life. Do not, as I did, make fun of such difference, for these different souls make us understand that the rules are not so clear, that the answers are not so straightforward.
I hope that you remain true to yourself, embrace difference, and remain wonderfully eccentric.
Lesson 2: Embrace the Blank
One of my very favorite poems is the "Hunting of the Snark" by Lewis Carroll (the last lines of the poem constituted my entire senior quotation in my high school yearbook). It begins thus:
"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
And then later on, it continues thus:
"He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!
"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!"
In this excerpt, he refers to the blank map on the right side of the postcard. It is an interesting fact of our lifetimes that your parents, and me, and other faculty members have been truly lost, and you, the class of 2017, have rarely been truly lost. You have your smartphone or GPS to guide you and make sure that you don't feel the uncertainty of a blank map. However, I think that is an amazing loss to you. I want you to get lost, to feel the joy of a blank map where the next move is not described by a robotic voice in an odd accent telling you the next exit or turn. By the way, one of you should invent a map app that consciously gets you lost. If you embrace the blank map, you will find direction through gut and intuition. Having the freedom of blankness is liberating. You will feel more confident, more alive, and more grounded.
Many of us feel that the blank, the pregnant pause, the absence, the void are disconcerting. I think that if you try feeling blank that you will enjoy and grow from that moment: it is the ultimate moment of imagination and creativity. I hope that you will allow for blankness, for spaces, for absences in order to reflect, to think, and to thrive rather than living a life purely of reaction and of busyness that ends up just filling up your empty moments. I wish you all blank maps that allow you the privilege of starting anew.
Lesson 3. Go Elsewhere
We are here. It has been a good spot, but it is also time to move on. Where do you go? Out there? As we do when we have questions, we turn to poets such as Robert Frost:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
We all know these now-trite lines. Actually, I would suggest that you toss aside his advice. I also think that Nietzsche and the 5th century Greeks were wrong about this idea of polarities or dialectics. Things are more complicated than just a dualism. Many intellectuals propose dichotomies for everything: good versus evil, mind versus body, honesty versus dishonesty. These dialectics haunt us today in New York City and Riverdale: Democrats versus Republicans, Snapchat versus Twitter, Google versus Apple, Chipotle versus Shake Shack, male versus female.
My grandmother was a refugee from World War I Belgium who found a new life in the United Kingdom. My mother and aunt came to the United States after World War II with nothing, and they found new, hopeful lives here that they could not find in Great Britain. They provided me with the lesson of seeking out "elsewhere" — a very different route to finding meaning and purpose in their lives than what was the "normal" path — rather than going from here to there. Their peripatetic and unusual journeys were and are ever-inspiring to me.
I hope that you, as my little drawing on the back of the postcard suggests, go elsewhere. I wish you subversiveness and true difference. Originality and innovation are found neither here nor there — they are found “elsewhere”.
You have learned over the years to mistrust these facile dialectics and look for some truths that lie between. You have alighted upon different and unique paths that offer possibility rather than certainty. Keep forging ahead thus.
The truth is often found between or “twixt” rather than at the poles of discourse. So, I wish you an "inbetweenness" in your life that makes you less certain of your most adamant points of view, and that you think for yourself rather than easily being defined by the labels "conservative" or "liberal" or "local" or "global" or "normal" or "abnormal." Defy being boxed in and stereotyped. I hope that you can inhabit "elsewhere" and appreciate that space that is neither "here" nor "there."
So, remain eccentric and true to yourself, enjoy the blankness of your maps and go elsewhere, young people. Thank you for providing me and others with these lessons, and I hope hearing them again will just reinforce the lessons you have taught me.
Congratulations, good luck, and keep in touch no matter how ready you are to leave here for there, or hopefully elsewhere.