The speeches the kids give in the beginning of the announce our direction. They are a manifest of intentions, ideals, goals, and hopes. They speak of what has not been right and what could be made more right. They summon up a more perfect union. They present moments of perfection and balance as a way to familiarize manifestations of the selves we wish to inhabit. The speeches reveal the most idealized selves, the ones we want to be, the ones we are chasing and creating. The speeches ask listeners to inhabit another mind and life, and feel the sensibility of another person. The speeches show the listeners what is going on inside the heart and mind of the person reading, textures and patterns of thought and feeling that are not readily apparent on the outside or at first glance. When a student reads his or her speech, he or she is giving us the best they have. We begin to see, slowly, like a photograph coming clear in a developing tray, a clearer and more complete picture, a composition with structure and spots of light and darkness, shadows and brightness.
The speeches give us little koans of insight and knowledge: We must take down the walls between us. Live your life as though you were a house without a door. Hold on to the very most precious things and look up, and give your hand to someone to hold. See yourself inside a net, and think of how it must be to swim free. Continually ask yourself: what is it I am chasing. What do I hold at the center of my vision. Get up and go to the other side of the world, literally or figuratively, and see what there is to see. Find images of strength and power and terrible beauty—like a lion with blood on his chin—and commit it to memory. Crack off the shell. Don’t live meekly. Love the people around you, and see what you can make in the short time we have.
As Marina said, “As far as we know, we only have this one life.” The speeches show life, the instructive, valuable life that has been and is being lived outside of school, and say: Here is who we are and how we can live. This is what have to work with. Here is our source of knowledge, and our power. Read it, listen to it, and keep a hold of it.
From Leeya’s Speech:
I stood for a moment and let the thousand go by me. Smartly dressed businessmen, and women in brightly colored robes, nerdy tourists in khakis and big families pushing carts of luggage. It was a whirring, a rushing noise that filled Johannesburg International Airport. It mixed with the strains of live music coming from one of the shops, a happy melody of balafons and drums. I was drawn to the music, and I stepped into the huge room where the band was playing. I was immediately surrounded by ornate jewelry, feathered fans, bright sarongs, and beaded headdresses, along with a mixture of people speaking in foreign tongues. Afrikaans, Swahili, Zulu, Setswana, English, Shangaan, Italian, Spanish, and Mandarin, I was engulfed in the sound of a thousand voices from a thousand different parts of the world. I looked around, my lips suddenly curling open into a smile. This is how I want to live, I thought. Moving. I want to live a life of zest, of color, of finding things. Of discovering things, of seeing and feeling and laughing and discovery. I want to explore the enormity that is our world, to go to bed every night feeling like it was a day well spent, going to bed and feeling like it was a life well spent. I want to remember that there is no time to be meek, no time to waste. I want to chase down the highs of life that I tasted that day in Costa Rica, to feel again the insane rush of being surrounded by lions. I want to live and never stop learning, like my Grandma Sue, to never stop moving, never stagnate. Even when I am frail and close to death, I want to remember to open my eyes, because there is still more to see. I want to live life like the Zambian toddler, like there is a lion just around the corner, and when I wash the dust off my face and look in the mirror, I want to see what I saw in her eyes. The wisdom, the unending pools of knowing. She knew what she wanted, what she needed, to be happy, to live life with joy. And now I know too.
So as we embark on our journey together, our trip, we must keep our eyes wide open, like the little girl. We are only twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, and we know so little about the world we live in. We have seen so little, felt so little, done so little in the great scheme of things. There is so much more to learn, and the best thing we can do now is try our hardest here. There isn’t any time to waste, there isn’t any use in being meek and fragile. You and I don’t have cancer spreading through your colin and liver, so why hold back? The world is infinitely bigger than we can imagine, with every discovery it only seems to grow larger. We live in the shadow of a thousand humans before us, walk the same beaten trails of thought and feeling. We need to shove the history out of our way. Who wants to be in shadow their whole life. No one, because if you never see the sun you’ll shrivel and die for lack of vitamin D. So step off the path that lies ahead and dive headlong into the undergrowth, don’t you want to see what lives there? And if you are scared that there might be something scary behind the next sausage tree, well, take somebodies hand. God knows we are all her for each other, aren’t we? We don’t need planes, passports or ships to make this year the best trip of your life. All you need is a little bit of will power…
I shifted in my chair, the silence in the big room growing explosive. The question, the last spoken word, still echoed through my head, How do I want to live? It was still silent. I let out the breath I had been holding and drew and new one. I smiled though no one could see it, and said,
“Well, I’ll take a stab at it…”
From Althea’s Speech:
I wanted to be automatically free, rewarded without struggle. I thought it might just happen automatically on the first day of ninth grade, but it didn’t. I am still working, still trying to be strong and free, in a utopic state of mind. On the first day I sat down and listened to Tal recite a poem, and he started talking about Utopia and direction and living deliberately. I listened intently. I looked around at my ninth grade class, I saw Angus, Owen and Aidan sitting next to each other as if they had just done something mischievous, but nevertheless still listening. I saw Leeya and Marina at the end of the table with tilted heads soaking in every detail. I saw Eden looking a little nervous, but confident. I saw Maxine sitting next to Merry, freckles clustering her face more than ever. I saw the seventh graders from last year, now eighth graders, looking pretty much the same but more relaxed. Then I saw the newest seventh graders who looked nervous, legs jittering in their chairs and eyes wide, looking around the whole room. I hoped they would like it. And I hoped that one day they could be free, too.
When I feel free at certain points, it spreads through me physically, and I feel warm…yes, cheesy but true. Yes, but I can feel the warmth right in my chest, through my shoulders and belly. I love that feeling. It’s like getting a taste tester of ice-cream. It’s so good and you can’t help but want more. I think the key to being free is wanting to be free. Once you want it you’re half way there. All you have to do when you are absolutely anywhere, in the car, on the way to school, sitting alone in your room doing homework. Eating dinner with your family in the shower, anywhere, all you have to do is think of that freedom, until you can’t stop thinking about it and it’s always on your mind. Not obsessive, but just a reminder to be warm and whole and remember someone is always watching over you. My great grandmother is watching me. I know it, and I hope that one day that will be me, always being free, always thinking of freedom, therefore, metaphorically speaking, having a full scoop of ice-cream. Singing at the top of my lungs next to my mom in the car, or telling people how I really feel. Now that is freedom, and I hope that the rest of you will be able to have that too. So then we will all truly know ourselves and each other. I hope that you can release that beast or fish inside of you from your very own cage or net and walk freely, naked among strangers, family, friends, and peers, and we will all be free together.
See, when the kids decide what they want to happen in their schools, they have no problem coming up with the answers. The answers are already inside them. They only need to be encouraged, sculpted, magnified, and amplified, and soon they will fill the room.