Author and English Professor
Park Tudor School, 2007
About ninety percent of love is just paying attention.
Commencement Speech Transcript
Good evening. I feel honored to greet all of you—parents and family, colleagues, friends, and especially the members of the class of 2007—on behalf of Park Tudor’s faculty. I feel especially close to this class not only because many of you have been in my classroom but also because, as a group, you helped me through something this year, something which you might not even have been aware of. My remarks this evening may seem too personal, but honestly, this was one of the worst years of my career from a purely personal perspective. In fact, when one of you came up to me last December and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Hamer, you’re going to be our commencement speaker,” my first thought was, “Kenny, you must be smoking the crack rock! This would be the worst year for me to do that. Maybe last year when my daughter Molly was graduating, but not this year.”
You see, last fall I had one of the worst cases of Empty Nest Syndrome ever recorded in medical history. This is a warning to your parents out there who are sending your youngest off to college. Some of you will be saying “Free at last!,” but others of you will, as I did, begin wrestling with your own mortality in a painful, at times physically painful way that no one has prepared you for. The same day we dropped my daughter off at college last September, I began to experience muscle spasms in my lower back. By the time October rolled around and I was in the midst of writing college recommendations, I was having full-blown anxiety attacks. And that was only the beginning of my heart troubles. When I went for long walks to relieve stress, I developed angina so bad I had to stop, and it wasn’t long before I was carrying nitroglycerine pills around in my pocket. And not long after I learned I would be speaking tonight, I went into a clinic to have my heart catheterized. During Christmas vacation, I broke out in a rash so bad it made an experienced nurse wince when I took my shirt off. I even gained twenty pounds last winter. I bought three pairs of fat pants and held them up with suspenders. I was a mortified wreck.
But maybe I’m going on too much about that. My wife said, “Paul, try to maintain your dignity up there,” and I said, “Well, I don’t think they invited me to speak for the sake of my dignity. I think they want me to tell a story.” In any case, I’d better get on with it. It wasn’t easy to come up with another story. You’ve heard all my stories. one. I had to go deep into my rural Baptist boyhood to come up with a new story, and it’s completely inappropriate for a graduation ceremony, but it’s all I’ve got left.
My grandmother was the scariest woman I ever knew. She didn’t mean to be scary, but when she babysat for me and my five brothers and sisters, which was often, she was always listening for mysterious, threatening noises out in the darkness. Her favorite word was “Hark!,” which is an old-fashioned way of saying “Listen!,” as in “Hark, the herald angels sing,” except that it was never angels that she heard singing. What she heard was trusties out on our front lawn after dark. “Trusties” were inmates from the Osborne State Prison Farm, which was located only a few miles from our house.
One night it seemed as if her worst fears had actually come true. When she said “Hark!,” we heard a clattering noise against the picture window in the living room. Soon after, as we watched in horror, a light began to peer under the front door as if someone with a flashlight were looking for a way in. My grandmother gathered us all around her —no one could doubt her now—and shepherded us into the bathroom, where she huddled us into the bathtub as if it would be the bunker where we would make our last stand. She continued to say “Hark!” as she sat on the commode, but from this inner sanctum we could hear nothing, and we simply held onto each other in abject silence.
Finally, my grandmother launched her counter-attack. “Jimmy,” she said to my older brother, “you’re the man of the house now. You’ve got to get your father’s gun and go out and see who’s out there.” Well, I was never so glad in my life to be a middle child. Jim looked at my grandmother as if she had just told him his hair was on fire. He was almost in a trance as she led him out of the tub and over to the door, opening it, gently forcing him out into the hall, and then closing and locking the door behind him. He had to creep down into the darkened basement, get my father’s .22 caliber rifle, come back upstairs, and then decide what to do with the rest of his life at the ripe old age of twelve.
Luckily, at this point, there was a knocking at the back door, and Jim decided to just throw it open with abandon. When he found himself confronted by a small man with an evil grin on his face, he almost shot him where he stood, but then he realized that it was our cousin Jerry, just thirteen himself, having come down the road to play what he thought would be a hilarious prank on us, knowing that my grandmother was babysitting.
But the story isn’t over yet. You see, “in the fullness of time,” as they say, the Osborne State Prison Farm was closed down. It sat idle for a number of years, and then, after massive renovations, it was reopened as a retirement home and assisted living facility for the elderly. I think you can see where this is going. Eventually, my grandmother herself took up residence at the “farm.” Of course, the first time I visited her there, I greeted her: “Grandma! You’re a trustee your own self, after all!,” and she looked at me as if I were my cousin Jerry.
Now I know you’re saying to yourself, “Dr. Hamer, you were right. This story is totally inappropriate for graduation. I’ve been in your class long enough to know that the moral of that story is that the thing you fear most in this life is the thing you will become when you grow old. Is that any way to send graduates off into the world?”
Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m suffering from residual Empty Nest Syndrome even now. I’ve become the thing I feared: old and balding and overweight and self-indulgent. But let’s allow for some creative ambiguity here. Let’s go at the story from an allegorical perspective.
Surely you can see that Park Tudor School itself has been the great bathtub in which we have huddled safely together during these past few years. And I have been your surrogate grandmother, telling you to “Hark!” to the classic stories of the dark side of human nature and the malevolent forces at work in the world. Now I am pushing you out into the hall—prepare now for a terrible pun—armed not with a .22 rifle but with the literary canon. I think you are ready to find out what’s really out there. Perhaps you will come back someday—we will not lock the door—and find me a “trustee,” after all, still here, still hoping to be trusted.
As I bring these remarks to an end, I would be remiss if I did not tell you that it was this class that helped me recover from my bout with Empty Nest Syndrome. It happened through a series of unexpected moments. For example, last February, when I was probably at my worst, I got a thank-you note from one of you for writing your college recommendations. You said that the college application process was stressful and that it helped to know that I was writing on your behalf even though you said that, based on the way I had graded your papers, I had probably written your recommendation in red ink. Then you said something else. You said that you wanted me to know that you planned to enter the field of education in part because of me. That was one of the healing moments. Just a few weeks ago, I overheard two of you disagreeing over something I had said in class. One of you said to the other, “I have to agree with Dr. Hamer, and it’s not just because I love Dr. Hamer.” That was another healing moment. All I can say is that, in the final analysis, this class proved to be what I had instead of Molly for this past year, and you did not let me down. It also helped that I went on a diet during spring break and have lost twenty-five pounds.
But I want to be sure you know that I have loved you too in my English-teacherly way. About ninety percent of love is just paying attention, and you know you had my full attention from, among other things, all those essays I handed back to you spattered with red ink. I would never admit it outside a room like this one, but teaching is a sacred calling to me. That red ink may not have felt like the love of God, but it was emblematic of the full attention of my own stupid heart. On behalf of the faculty, I want to say, “Graduate now. We are pushing you out of the tub, out of the nest, out into the world, a world which we think that you will find—even if it is not my cousin Jerry—is at least your older brother and a place where you belong.” Thank you.
Source: Paul Hamer, Ph.D., Upper School English
Park Tudor School