SPS Baccalaureate Address, May 2015

“What Privilege”

SPS Baccalaureate, 31 May 2015




Thank you so much, Form of 2015, and Rector Hirschfeld, for inviting me to participate in your Baccalaureate ceremony.

(Please let me say that some writer once called me the “first African-American girl to graduate St. Paul’s,” and now it’s stuck on the Internet, but it’s not true. Lee Ella Bouton and Loretta Jacobs came in the first group of 19 girls, and in 1973, Lee Ella was the first African-American girl to graduate. Lee Ella was my dear friend and roommate, and she has died in the last few years. The next year, a group of us graduated, but since my name came first alphabetically, I was called the second. I don’t want to claim it wrongly.)

But I’m still very grateful to be asked to be here with your class! And so many of you! You will soon become the largest form ever to graduate from our school.  Please stand so that we can get a sense of the heft of you.

You are the first form whom the Rector will have overseen through all four years (thanks, Amy for the fun facts!). Now, it’s true that Rector Hirschfeld will indeed love the next form and the next every bit as much as he loves you. But you have made him a rector, like the first child makes a person into a parent.

Great job, guys.

It is an extraordinary honor to be invited by a class to participate in this beautiful and sacred ritual, especially at the end of an extraordinary year of community soul-searching about gender and race and class—and privilege.

Privilege has been the text and subtext of much of my writing, in fiction and non-fiction, and it has been a driver in my civic service and the founding of a non-profit urban arts organization.  From the first argument about why there needed to be a “black table” at lunch (someone would always answer:  “But look at all the white tables!”) and through signings and talks about Black Ice, my memoir about my time here at St. Paul’s, I’ve enjoyed and observed educational privilege, studied it.  I’ve felt called to leverage it in my own life, to describe, notice–and share it.

My most concise summation of the privilege of an SPS education is the one I gave Philadelphia’s mayor and cabinet when I was interviewed in 2011as a mid-term replacement for the School Reform Commission, Philadelphia’s public school board. They asked me my philosophy of education. I said that I wasn’t sure I had a coherent philosophy at the ready, but I had had a powerful experience of education.  I’d gone from a system where we were asked, directly and in so many ways:  What is wrong with you? What is it? What is wrong with you children?

But then I’d also had the experience of being in a school where not only the adults indicated care, but the curriculum and scheduling, the architecture, the placement of altars along the trails, and the care and thoughtfulness of discipline as a teaching tool, even when a student was on the way out, without state-sanctioned screaming, blaming, shaming, or revenge. Directly and in so many ways St. Paul’s School said and says that its students were and are special.

Now, it was also my experience that within that overarching privilege some were more privileged than others.  Had my sister attended, would SPS, better than her suburban high school, have been able to envision see her as the airplane pilot she eventually became and help her aim toward it? I doubt it. But, still, such a complicated, time-release injection of privilege has compelled me to keep returning and learning more.

As a young teacher here sent out–alone–to chaperone the senior class trip in 1983, I discovered too late that students had ordered kegs of beer to be delivered into the woods by the lake where we were to have a nice outing, just a nice little outing, that day. Things happened. Neighbors’ boats went missing; police got involved…I found myself, on my students’ behalf, invoking privilege in a way that I knew I never could have done at a high school in Philadelphia in order to get all hundred-and-something kids—many fewer than you, thanks be to God— back onto buses and shouting like a maniac:  “Back on the bus: now! Oh, yes, your-senior-day-is-over.”

Sometime around Alumni Weekend that same year, we awoke to find that a secret crew had somehow carried an art teacher’s fancy red muscle car to perch up on the chapel terrace. It was a year of pranks. (You know there’s almost no documentation of these sorts of things. Maybe the rector remembers: was that Alumni Weekend?)

Talk around the black table—see, this is why people need a black table—was that no group of African-Americans or Latinos would e-ver have hoisted the car and wrecked its transmission. Aw, heck, no, because for people of color boys-will-be-boys can turn into grand theft auto in a heartbeat! Right? You know what I mean.

During my times here I struggled with the idea that a Christian school could square such luxury with the teachings of the radical Jesus and his radical poverty. If this talk were an episode from “Boondocks,” an animated black TV series based on the comic strip, we’d see a caricature of a girl wearing an Afro stomping around a verdant campus, kicking pine cones and quoting Matthew 19:24: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

But this is not TV, this is the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, and full disclosure, we are heading for solemnity. There’s no help for it, Form of 2015.  First of all, you knew whom you called; not Kevin Hart. I’ve got a body of written work, and we all know that it’s not a laugh-a-minute.  So, you did this to yourself.

It’s also one of the aims of ritual to slow down. We rush around, get dressed, coordinate family members and cars and hotel rooms and friends, and the bells ring, and the acolytes carry the banners, and we sing the hymns that make alumni parents tear up. We read the beautiful text from Deuteronomy telling us to write our love of God on our hands—I think of Buddhist prayer wheels turning prayers into the water or flags passing them into the wind; or emblazoning the love of God on our foreheads. It was in the old Payson that we scraped our foreheads and learned about the bacteria that colonize the skin there. I read this passage and think of life and growth and the love of God right here on our foreheads where we greet each other. The ritual includes Rumi describing that great Hindu story of the elephant, and I think of how much I have loved music played on this organ in this chapel—on ivory keys carved from the tusks of elephants decimated in Africa. Ritual takes our minds to other planes. And then we really sloooow down, and, in the middle of the most exciting day, things get kind of…boring.

On purpose.

We lay the school ritual laid on top of ancient Christian ritual—“Love Divine,” for instance, played here to a melody almost no one else uses in the Episcopal world—and we add some quiet boredom in order to burrow the significance of this moment into our resistant brain stems. In fact, I’m going to ask you to please take a moment to breathe deeply and leave your heads, where we spend so much time, and come down into your bodies.  Let’s breathe together, cough, like we did on those cold, phlegmy winter mornings, and find some sensation where your memory can snag.  (Are you damp from the mist, hungry?  Are you sleepy?) Candles are lit as usual on festival days. Please have a look at the ancient yellow light that gave such comfort to our ancestors. They symbolize a light in the darkness. The mystery of faith.

To add texture to this slowdown, I’m throwing in some of the theologian Paul Tillich.  Oh, yeah! One last time. In 1956 Paul Tillich stood here reading his address to celebrate the SPS centennial. In “Theology of Education,” available on the SPS website, his concern was that the “demands of the monstrous process of mass production and mass consumption” would compel educators to “induct” young people into an industrial America that required a “psychological adjustment” away from their truest spiritual selves. I think he would likely agree that post-industrial U.S. with its demands for faster and more extreme media 24/7 have no doubt upped the ante.

The privilege of a great church-school education, he argues, is in its ability to listen—he repeats that word—listen “to the important questions which are alive in the minds and hearts of the pupils.”


The school doesn’t just answer those questions, it introduces youth—no, it “inducts” students—into a world of symbols that people have used from ancient times to express our spiritual longing and humanity. A Christian education identifies “the creative structure of everything that is” and helps students tap into it and to use those ancient religious symbols to answer current questions.  The idea is not to drag young people back to what he calls a “primitive literalism,” but to lodge hope deep in their spirits and give them way to access the power of divine creative energy. Without such hope and creativity, as our media tell us, we are automatons: economic, but soul-dead, units. Zombies.

We know this, don’t we? Young adult literature brims with dystopia that talks about the larger issue most schools fear to acknowledge–Hunger Games, Uglies, Divergent, Maze Runner, The Giver. These and other books and games betray young people’s suspicion that success of one class requires not only the oppression of others, but also a terrible mass not-knowing, the evil twin of innocence: a willful denial that can only be maintained by brutal necessity.

Graphic novelist and MacArthur fellow Alison Bechdel’s mother spoke for my parents’ generation when asked by the artist to think of the first thing she learned from her own mother:  it was that boys, she said, were more important than girls. I received parallel messages from American culture and media: white was more important than black and brown; wealth gave more social importance than intangible gifts of the spirit. More than other schools, a church-school can encourage in its students’ curiosity about how privilege operates in our own lives, in this community, and the larger world. These are the larger questions. You have wrestled with them.

I included in Black Ice, reflections that I felt I could not have said publicly, and some that I could not even acknowledge to myself. But I had to find ways to say them in order to live with integrity. While researching, I returned to campus. Bill Oates would hate that sentence; he’d had me say that I returned to “school grounds” to confirm my sense that some of my teachers here did not expect of the scholarship- and urban- kids the same excellence they expected of children of privilege. I needed to know that what I’d senses was true. A few teachers, including some I’d taught with, told me, that, crazy as it seems now, “When you guys first came, we didn’t know what to expect.”

But when a Vice-Rector told me that the faculty had noticed something very wrong with me during the winter of my Fifth Form, I suddenly remembered something I’d totally forgotten. why. Now we have a term it: date rape.  It seems impossible, but I was so ashamed that I’d quarantined the memory altogether. After my interview with the Vice rector, I walked the woods out toward Turkey Pond, where the dry oil scent of the pine needles and birdsong pierced through my protective forgetfulness.  Writing the memoir required me to go to all the places where my adolescence in this place had broken my heart. Chickadee-dee-dee-dee. Chickadee-dee-dee-dee. As they say in the church: It broke my heart open.

Our community seeks to break open our hearts in other ways, because adulthood lived closed up and invulnerable, incapable of empathy, is not an adulthood worthy of an SPS education.  Tillich would point to the symbol of the wafer in communion, “broken for us,” as the priest says, as central to our lives.

My sense is that of all the classes that have passed through this school, the Form of 2015, with your emotional turmoil and what people refer to as “the uncomfortable start” to your year, you have begun the soul-searching as honestly as any, and more searchingly than most. You, this faculty, and this Rector, have given the school a new and special legacy.

The School Prayer thanks God for building this school through the love and labor of many.  We will say it again with knowledge that we people choose our social structures, and that we have inherited land taken from Native peoples land and wealth built with the unpaid and uncalculated labor of enslaved people, and free women.  That, too, is our heritage.

If we know the cost of the privilege we’ve enjoyed, then we will indeed “come labor on” to bring creative energy to the worlds where we find ourselves. During my brief term on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, I struggled to give service in a system whose funds have been systematically cut—reduced by a billion dollars in the last ten years. They get what they get, in other words, now about 20% of SPS tuition per child, by the way, rather than half, which is what our best nearby suburban districts spend.  After I’d served on the School Reform Commission, at the Main Line Episcopal Church where my husband was called to be the interim rector, the women’s group asked whether I would speak to them about Philadelphia schools.  They had long continued a relationship with a charter school in West Philadelphia, and they were worried about the headlines, the school closings, the mess.

Because I felt affection for the woman who asked me to speak I tried hard to explain my reluctance.  I’d been ill at the end of my term on the Commission, and, although I looked fine, public events talking about the schools seemed to trigger the particular stress mechanism that had brought me to physical collapse.  But beyond that, as we were talking, I found myself saying the truth that I first began to tease out here at St. Paul’s School.  Only some, very intentional, conversations actually do help root out of us our thoughtlessness, and a particularly American disrespect for those without power, and for the poor in whose faces Jesus tells us we will see him.Others reinforce our despair and paralysis.

It occurred to me to tell this dear woman that I did not want to engage in any conversation with adults that did not revolve around the children themselves, and not their trauma or wounds or deficits, though those surely exist. Instead, for my own health and sanity, I told her, I’d have to limit my talks to those that let me speak of them as I learned to talk about children at SPS: as mahr-velous creatures, children of God, wonderfully made, put into our care to love; made for us to correct with discipline rather than vengeful punishment; as spiritual beings capable of resilience as they encounter one God-awful obstacle to growth after another; full of wit and vinegar; humor; naughtiness; adaptability; crazy coping skills.  By talking about them as if they were the problem, I’d be agreeing to the insult.

It made me sick—and I knew what my immune system had tried and failed to attack; after experiencing the luxury of St. Paul’s School, it made me sick to participate in a system that does not hold these glorious littles in the light, middle schoolers with their new under-arm surprise and insistent curiosity; high-schoolers, with their cocky ambition, care for younger sibs, their V-8, vroom-vroom energy and rapacious intellectual hunger.

All I want to talk about, I told her, is that the children are marvelous.

Today, here, I have the privilege to do just that. I can tell you, Form of 2015, that the hard work you’ve done to recognize your own privilege should not be wasted or forgotten as you go on to harvest new privileges that this one has queued up for you.  It’s also true that the care you’ve created among yourselves, based not just on shared advantage, but on struggle, listening, and honesty, that, too is real, and it is as important as any of the many skills you’ve acquired.

Very soon no one will remember that the Form of 2015 once got itself barred from the Library (How is that even possible?) And no resume will have to cop to the Hugh Camp Cup malfunction. You’ve created your own rituals.  Humor me for a moment, please, and raise your cell phones, will you?  I’m hoping that you’ll connect your evening with Steve Aoki—that intentional coming together in a secular Sabbath and joy—with the traditional lights here in the chapel that remind us of the man whose love taught us how to love. We’ve slowed down this last chapel service together. Just for a moment, turn up the volume in your hearts.

Please, let the church say: Amen.



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