I’m writing this post the day after receiving an Honorary Degree from Middlebury College, home of the Bread Loaf School of English where I have taught off and on since 1988. I am deeply honored by this award, but I didn’t expect to be positively thrilled by it. But I was, first of all because the Bread Loaf Commencement is a wonderful annual ritual, as each graduate receiving an MA or MLitt is greeted by the president of Middlebury and director of Bread Loaf and presented not only with a hood and diploma but with a replica of the founder’s cane to boot! The small theater on the Bread Loaf campus is bursting with proud family and friends who have joined together for a truly sumptuous meal beforehand and who will spill out of the theatre afterward for dessert, good fellowship, and New Orleans jazz piano in the Barn.
But this year’s ceremony was made even more special by the speaker of the evening. Each year the graduating students (almost all of whom are teachers) choose a faculty member to be the Commencement Speaker—and it is a big and well-kept secret all summer. I still remember the year the honor was mine: I never worked harder on a speech in my life! This year’s speaker was multitalented playwright and 27-year Bread Loaf faculty member Dare Clubb. For 30 minutes he held all of us spellbound as he moved from a meditation on the unconscious drives that matter so much in our lives. Along the way he told a story of watching a tiny waxwing out in a devilish storm earlier this summer. Dare went out onto his third-floor balcony to watch the wind and rain lashing the trees and blowing limbs around, only to see the little bird battling against the storm time after time in search of food for her young ones waiting in a nest right above Dare’s door. So he watched as she skittered and darted and fought her way in the lashing rain and high winds, a “gentle warrior” with a singular, defining, instinctive goal: freedom and food. And he marveled at her perseverance and determination, then paused as she seemed to say to him, “This is how you do it.”
"Cedar waxwing Courtship" by Minette Layne from Seattle, Washington - Courtship. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cedar_waxwing_Courtship.jpg#/media/File:Cedar_waxwing_Courtship.jpg
Dare then segued into a parallel meditation on the word “forgive” and the role it played in the aftermath of the killings at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston. I cannot capture the lyrical power of this meditation, but it transported all of us to a higher level of consciousness and inspired all to accept Dare’s challenge to dive deep into the spirit of forgiveness embodied by Nadine Collier, another gentle warrior, when she said to the killer, “I forgive you.” With those words and that act, Dare said, Collier was also saying to us, “This is how you do it.” Turning to the graduates, he said “Oh my gentle warriors,” please “go in peace, go with peace, go toward peace . . . always.”
I’ve heard a number of eloquent and moving commencement addresses at Bread Loaf, though none more so than this one. But equally inspiring to me is the work done by Bread Loaf students and teachers. As we were gathered in the cool, sunny Vermont mountains, Bread Loafers were convening a conference in Mumbai, organized and led by Bread Loafers Lee Krishna and Rich Gorham. Working together with other Bread Loafers from around the globe and some 60 Mumbai teachers, they led writing workshops for middle and high school students followed by extensive discussions and debriefings about teaching in culturally sensitive ways. Similar meetings have been held in Haiti and Karachi—and others are in the planning stages. These gatherings are part of the ongoing work of the Bread Loaf Teachers’ Network, the country’s oldest teacher network and one that provides a model for teacher agency and advocacy, effective teaching and learning.
So even as I savored the celebration in Vermont, my thoughts moved forward, to the work this year’s graduates will undertake when they return to their classrooms. They will face challenges, roadblocks, hurdles, obstacles of every kind. But they will also persevere, guided by the principles of freedom, forgiveness, and peace. And like the tiny waxwing and the mourners in Charleston, they will hope one day to say “This is how you do it.”