Commencement Address, Schutz American School, June 16, 2015
Graduates of the Schutz American School class of 2015, I’m honored to speak to you today on the occasion of this rite of passage, this ceremony in which you move from one important stage of life to another. You may already know that anthropologists have documented rite of passage ceremonies in societies around the world. These are typically imbued with joyful anticipation, but more often stress, and in some societies even pain, to make you, the participants in the ceremony, viscerally aware that you have been prepared to enter a new stage of life. On this occasion, you are undergoing the ceremonial re-incorporation into your community to demonstrate that you are ready to take on new responsibilities. So before you get your diplomas, it’s the tradition in our community, to give you one final test of endurance: you have to listen to me talk.
But I, too, have to comply with the customs of our community, I can’t just stop and sit down now—that would be my natural choice, you know, better to remain silent than to appear a fool. But I can keep this short. So I’ll limit what I say to three things: a note about time, a story about the past, and some voices about the future.
First, a word about time. This talk will last about eighteen minutes. You’ve worked hard all these years, and I think it’s only fair to be up front with you on this. I know it’s not as short as it could be, but your rite of passage wouldn’t be complete without the commencement speech. Anthropologists would call it a liminal experience, meaning a state when you don’t quite know if you’re in or out, when you may feel disorientation, ambiguity, maybe even severe boredom, as you pass the threshold, reincorporated into a new life.
Second, a story about the past. This occasion is important also because it is one of remembrance. As you pass the threshold, think about what you are leaving behind. You’re leaving Schutz. Here, in this school, your minds and bodies have transformed radically and irrevocably. Years ago you entered as kids, now you leave as adults. You’re leaving teachers and staff members who have counseled and cared for you and friends who have laughed and cried with you. In a certain sense you are also leaving your parents, who fretted and worried about you. Your success is theirs too.
However, on this occasion, as we mark Schutz’s passage of 90 years, I think it is important also to look beyond those personal connections and think about what makes this place that formed you and that formed me the place it is. The school is an institution, certainly. But what I think of when I think of what makes Schutz Schutz is community: the teachers who, together with students, have more to do with what actually keeps a school alive and running. Schutz was brought to life by a group of smart, adventurous, courageous, innovative, industrious, and giving young adults, mostly women in fact, often tested through challenge, but also hardship, whose names and whose work and whose voices are often forgotten when we think about the school—where it started and where it is going.
So here’s the story, a creation story. Once upon a time, in 1923, Bernice Warne, a young woman in her early 20’s from Ohio, was offered the job to be the teacher for children of missionaries and others in Alexandria, Egypt for a period of three years: she got fifty dollars a month ($690 in today’s dollars), plus room and board, for 10 out of 12 months of each year. No paid vacation for Bernice Warne. Her task was to teach kids, ranging in age from seven to seventeen, all the subjects that they needed to learn to become the educated adults that you are now: mathematics, science, English, history, geography, Latin, music. Bernice Warne was a good choice. She was a bit older than the average university student. She had left college for two years to work, teaching school, to earn money for her college tuition.
To her credit, Miss Warne acknowledged that she couldn’t do it all—she couldn’t teach 7 subjects to 15 kids across 10 years of age. She argued for an additional teacher, and so her college classmate, Elizabeth Kelsey, was hired as well. So at the end of the summer of 1924, together these two women traveled 9,600 kilometers to Alexandria. It took them 27 days, by train from Ohio, to New York City, by ship across the Atlantic, stopping in the Azores, Lisbon, Marseille, Naples, and finally, to Alexandria.
Think about the context. No phones between North America and Egypt. Letters by post would take weeks. Alexandria had about half a million people. Just a few years before their arrival, after the revolution of 1919, Great Britain recognized, begrudgingly, the independence of Egypt. Fu’ad I assumed the title king and Sa’d Zaghlul, was elected Egypt’s first prime minister in 1923. Sayed Darwish, born in Kom el-Dikka, not far from here, penned for Egypt anthems of revolution and nation, “Salma, ya Salama” and “Biladi,” (Peace, oh Peace” and “My country”). Darwish’s friend and fellow Alexandrian, Bayram al-Tunsi, wrote poems satirizing the institutions of the day, like “al-Maglis al-Baladi” (the Municipal Council) and “al-Bamya al-sultani wa-al-‘ara’ al-muluki” (Royal okra and regal pumpkins) and reminded us to look across the divide, to ask tough questions, and to challenge injustice: leyh amshi hafi wa-ana munabbit marakeebkum? “why do I go barefoot,” he asked in one of his poems, “when I fix your fancy shoes?” In Europe, World War I and the Russian revolution and civil war were all but over. In 1920 in the US, women had won the right to vote. In 1923 in Egypt, the pioneer feminist Huda Shaarawi took off her veil in Cairo train station—she had never been given the choice to wear it. Umm Kalthoum, who was about 20 in 1924, was just starting to make it big with romantic songs like “ana ‘ala kayfak.” The first Egyptian feature length film, “Layla,” was released in 1927 the beginning of the Egyptian film industry. Closer to home, Schutz was still a remote suburb of Alexandria, connected to the city by tram, tickets bought for milliemes.
So these two young women, Bernice Warne and Beth Kelsey, arrived in the Alexandria harbor at midday, only to find that they couldn’t get off the ship because the gangplank was broken. At the school, fifteen kids waited all day long on the front steps of the main building to see their new teachers. The new teachers didn’t arrive until well after bedtime, missing a suitcase full of Miss Kelsey’s clothes and a trunk of school supplies.
At Schutz Warne and Kelsey worked with two other women who shared their strong spirit. Mrs. Kithreotis, also known as Mrs. Harris, a Scotswoman, born in the Cape Verde islands, was the school “matron,” who took care of the boarding facility since the parents of many of these kids lived elsewhere in Egypt, or in Sudan, or in Ethiopia. At 18 she had become a governess, later married, was soon widowed, married again. She was fondly remembered for her kindness to the children, hiking with them on weekends to the beach dunes out toward Abu Qir, and letting them stay up on Tuesday nights when the teachers met with the other missionaries in town. Mlle. Barbara Rohrberg, whose aristocratic family fled revolutionary Russia, taught French. Members of the white Russian émigré community often faced difficulty adjusting to their new lives as impoverished refugees. Barbara’s father still wore his general’s uniform and her mother, Warne remembered, was a recluse. The young Russian émigrés, like Barbara, were often more successful in finding work to support their families, as milliners, nurses, governesses, seamstresses, and teachers. She was remembered as a “wonderfully brave and cultured woman” and “a brilliant teacher, loved by everyone.”
This was not easy work, starting a school from scratch. Since all of these kids had either never seen the inside of a classroom, having been home schooled, invariably in some subjects more than others, or attended other language schools, in French or German, it took some time to sort them out. Both women later wrote that for the first several weeks they tutored kids in the afternoon to bring them up to speed, stayed up late scrambling to organize and write out lesson plans for several grades at once. It all must have seemed like an awkward start. No school supplies, kids of all ages, and with varying levels of education.
What made it work? At the beginning of the year they met with Mr. Roy who administered the mission in Alexandria. Mr. Roy opened the meeting and asked for a “word of prayer.” “He felt we needed it,” Warne later wrote. “I think [he] felt that we were pretty young to be given this responsibility.” So she joined in the prayer, saying aloud, “We know that withholding does not enrich . . . and that giving does not impoverish . . . . .” When Mr. Roy heard this, he knew things would work out.
This moment was not a ceremony, but it was just as important as a rite of passage, which after all is just a test. Miss Warne, spontaneously put to the test, was able to communicate, eloquently and confidently, on behalf of another first-time American teacher, a Scottish governess, and a refugee Russian aristocrat, a message of simple wisdom: we are here to work together; withholding doesn’t make us rich; giving doesn’t make us poor. With these words, you have the foundation of Schutz’s community.
As you think about your time at Schutz and what it means, this creation story pretty much sums things up. It’s a matter of thinking about your responsibility, figuring out when you can’t do it alone, and knowing that work and giving can make a strong community.
Let’s not forget our student forebears either, who were credited with coming up with the name of the school. In fact, they called it Schutz first, helping the institution and the community to find a natural place in the landscape of Alexandria. Those first students happened to all be American, but some of them were more familiar with life in south Sudan, the Ethiopian highlands, or the villages of Upper Egypt than they were to the US. By the time of my day Schutz students came from every continent except Antarctica. Those first students and those who followed them, and all of you now, have time after time proven adept at crossing cultural barriers. They were and you are immersed in the values of community, a community small enough that no one can remain invisible. Education is about learning, and academic success can be a good thing, but all that is pretty meaningless if those benefits aren’t grounded in a sense of community open to variety and difference. There will always be voices out there we need to listen to.
Finally, to move onto my last point, let me tell you something about the future. The easy task is the rite of passage—just a few more minutes left. The harder tasks are the spontaneous tests and rites of passage to come, like those our first teachers faced. How can I possibly give you advice about what is to come? When I graduated in 1977, I could hardly imagine what life would be like in 2015—cell phones, maybe, but smart phones? Social media? Climate change?
Just as I have tried to give voice to people who created Schutz’s community, I thought it would make most sense to give voice to others who might offer you some wisdom, or maybe just practical advice, for at least the next few years. So, thanks to the marvel of twenty-first century communication that is social media, I offer you suggestions from my friends, who constitute a virtual community, some of whom were Schutz students themselves, some of whom taught at Schutz, and others of whom do all sorts of things:
Here’s what they have to tell you. First, some general pieces of advice:
Judy: Learn how to manage your time.
Maria: Work hard so you can play hard.
Karen: Make your own bed.
Li: Take a shower from time to time.
Bilal: Don’t listen to your classmates (or your parents).
Charlotte: Figure out how you learn to learn and do what helps you keep doing that.
How to deal with university:
Beth: Treat college like a job, that’s what you’re practicing for.
Jon: Take a gap year.
Mark: do the reading, go to class.
Li: Go to class sometimes.
Bilal: Study less and read more.
Michael: Learn for yourself, not the professor or the test.
Glenys sums it up: Manage your own understanding.
How to deal with professors:
Sarah: Don’t be scared to talk to them.
Michael: Each semester, get to know at least one faculty member well. Visit him or her during their office hours.
On choosing courses:
Eleanor: Try a class you’ve always been curious about.
Tess: Take statistics.
Li: Learn Mandarin.
Sam: Take at least one intro philosophy course and one econ course.
Bilal: Take literature classes, and treat all other subjects as literature.
Noor and Charlotte: Choose professors, not classes. The name of the course doesn’t matter- who teaches it determines whether it is interesting or not.
On choosing a field:
Patty: Don’t be in a hurry to “declare” a major if you are unsure. Explore.
Suzanne: Don’t choose a major right away! Almost no one knows what they want to do for the rest of their lives at age 18.
Jaime: You’re too young for college!
Steve: if in doubt, turn about.
Muhammad: Nothing wrong with moving to a field you are passionate about.
Ghassan: adding to that, even if it means your hands get dirty.
Ann: Study something that will fascinate you all your life.
Finally, there are some people who didn’t respond to me, but I can imagine what they would say, and so in conclusion, I would like to pass their virtual words on to you as you cross the threshold into our community.
Mary Lou would say two things: Be serious about your curiosity. Then you have a chance of discovering work you love, even if it takes a lifetime.
George, always the iconoclast, would say: “Question authority.” But being attracted to paradoxes, he would add, “When authority answers, listen.” However, always the teacher he would remind you, “Think more, then ask authority a better question.”
But what I really learned at Schutz and from my parents was that the best advice comes in the form of questions.
So, finally, people I mentioned earlier would ask you questions, tough questions, that all of us should ask ourselves everyday:
Bayram would ask: “Why do I walk barefoot, when I fix your shoes?”
And Bernice would ask: “What can you give your community?”
Graduates of the Schutz American School class of 2015—thanks for this opportunity to speak to you, congratulations, and welcome to our community!