2014 VIth Form Commencement Address by Lucy Papachristou '14
On a chilly day in the October of my junior year, I was sitting on the bench between Schoolhouse and Case dormitory about twenty feet behind me reading a novel by the Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešic called “The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.” I was enjoying the book because it was unlike any that I had read before, spliced into pithy, sometimes one-line chapters, simultaneously incredibly detailed and frustratingly vague. As I turned the page to Chapter 67, I saw it was much the same. But I was so struck by what it had to say that I have remembered it word-for-word until this day:
“Richard [an artist friend of the narrator’s] found forty-four chairs in the streets of Berlin and showed them at his exhibition.
‘They were so tired. I wanted everyone to recognize that they aren’t chairs but former chairs. Remembering is actually an act of love,’ says Richard” (164).
"Remembering is actually an act of love.’”
For the next year and a half, I sat with those words under my tongue, letting them roll back and forth. Do you know that tingly feeling you get in the core of your stomach, or sometimes the tips of your toes, when you read something profound that you don’t understand? I had that delicious feeling every time I thought of those words. And although I didn’t understand what they meant, I also didn’t want to. I was having too good of a time basking in their sunshine. But now that I—and the Class of 2014—are leaving Millbrook, I have begun to see those words in a new light. Here’s what I have discovered.
As we grow older and move on from Millbrook, expanding the reach of our aspirations and our lives, we will inevitably forget the details of this place. The class schedule will be first to go—thankfully. No more wondering whether today is a Tuesday or just a Monday in disguise. The next to leave us is everything we have ever learned at this school. Not much more I can say about that. The third to go is our classmates, their names and then their faces. (Although I will never forget the look Bria gets on her face when Bruiser chases her across the quad at ten o’clock check-in.) Strangely enough, the only thing I’m sure I’ll never forget is the floor plan of each building on this campus. When I return for my fiftieth reunion, I’ll know exactly where to find the nearest bathroom.
We will forget some things. This is a certainty. And to some extent, not a bad thing. It’s okay to let some memories wash away. What I am afraid of is that the slate will be wiped clean. But now, let me stop to clarify. I am not saying that you should try to remember—or shall I employ the even sillier word “cherish”?—your memories of Millbrook forever and ever and ever until the day you lay your head to rest. I am also not insisting that your memories of this place be full of sunshine and laughter. I am sure that many of your parents and grandparents in the audience today can testify that high school can be a crippling ordeal, and there are many people that come out the other side worse than they came in. Although Millbrook was good for the majority of us, this does not hold true for all. I want to respect that fact.
So if I am not telling you to remember how great everything was, then what am I saying? I sure hope I know what I’m saying.
Let’s do an exercise: I want each and every one of you right now to think of one specific memory about your high school years, positive or negative. Go ahead, think. The positive memory that I would choose was when, only last week, I excused myself from my seat at the Blaine dinner table and went to the bathroom in the dining hall. I didn’t need to use the bathroom at all, but I wanted to spend a little while in a quiet space alone, just to allow the events of the night to simmer down from their feverish boil. As I leaned back on the sink, I became transfixed by the pattern of the tile on the bathroom floor. An ugly pattern, I must say. A long gray stripe perpendicular to a single off-white square perpendicular to a single white stripe, mesmerizing in its endless repetition. Strangely enough, I have very little recollection of the moment when Professor Edwards announced that I was the winner. As a general rule events of great importance go right through me. Actually, ever since I ate that Play-Doh in kindergarten most things have been a bit fuzzy. But I do remember the bathroom tile. And from now on, whenever I see a similar-looking pattern, I will feel the same overwhelming tingling sensation that I felt that night. That image is irrevocably associated with suffocating happiness.
However, not all of my memories of Millbrook are positive. I remember the contours of the graffiti etched into the bedpost of my bed last year and the way it felt when I ran the tips of my fingers along their path as I cried myself to sleep so many nights. I remember a certain scratch on that bedroom wall and the way it felt to get up every morning, look at that eggplant-shaped mark, and feel so alone. To this day I am still ignorant as to the precise cause of that malaise. It seems too easy to attribute it to a single person or a series of events. No, I think I was just a normal teenager who got sad sometimes. But it isn’t painful to remember those moments. The memories of my sadness are just as precious as the ones of my happiness.
Why is this? How are these acts of remembering in fact acts of love, as Ugrešic so beautifully says? I think, above all, that the love we experience during an act of recollection is at its core a love of the self. I love all of my memories, happy and unhappy, because they are an inextricable part of me. Essentially, when you take all the memories you have built up throughout your life, memories of your childhood, your adolescence, your young adulthood, your middle age, and finally, your dotage, you will have essentially created, in your mind, a Google Map of sorts, much bigger and grander than the map on the Internet. And anytime you want, you can click on a memory and zoom into focus, explore the street view so you can re-see that image of the bathroom tile and re-touch those etchings. Remembering is an act of love because it allows you to construct this map. Many years from now, you will sit back in your rocking chair—a necessary staple for old people living—sigh deeply, suck in your false teeth, and say, “my life.” Look at it; it’s all stretched out in front of you.
One day my mother called me over and read aloud an essay she had discovered entitled “Wes Anderson’s Worlds.” It has since become one of my favorite pieces of writing. In the essay, the writer Michael Chabon examines the correlation between the art films of Wes Anderson and the scale model boxes of Joseph Cornell. He begins, however, with a simple yet profound description of the basic stages of life. We are born, and began to “research” the world around us during a time called Childhood. Adolescence, he says, is the moment we discover that the world is “irretrievably broken.” The resulting heartache “haunts people all their lives.” There is a bright side, however. Chabon believes that the only way we can counteract this feeling of despair is to try to put the pieces of our broken world back together again. The result is a scale model of that “mysterious original, unbroken, half—remembered.” “We call these scale models,” he says so simply and so beautifully, “‘works of art.’”
So what I want to encourage all of you to do—III formers, IV formers, V formers, relatives, friends, and the Class of 2014—is to remember. Remember the tile floor from one of the happiest days of your life. Remember the graffiti from one of your saddest. Build up those scale models, fill them with memories—good and bad—of times gone by. Times of friends made, friends lost, knowledge gained, knowledge lost, laughs laughed, cries cried, defeats suffered, and goals achieved. I guarantee you that through this process you will indeed engage in an act of love. You will grow to love the road you have walked on, all the way from the swing of your step to the pebbles in your shoes. I know I’m a kid still. You don’t have to trust me on this. But I have a hunch, a good hunch, that your life is the best piece of art you will ever create.
Congratulations to the Class of 2014, and have a beautiful summer.