The following is the address delivered at 9th Grade Graduation on June 10, 2021 by Elisha Cooper ’86, an award-winning author and illustrator based in New York. Elisha’s books have won the Caldecott Honor and the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize and have been named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year. His latest book, Yes and No, was released in April 2021.
This is going to be the best commencement address ever. It will change your life. Years from now, you will remember it. The teachers here will remember it, and they will require that its inspiring words be memorized by every student. The parents here will be so impressed by my wisdom that they will raise millions of dollars for new buildings and badminton courts that will bear my name. And the administration will chisel the text of this speech in a marble monument out front so that all who enter the school will be transformed by my genius and if you’re anything like the student I was, when I was here at Foote, you’re probably listening to this and thinking: Who is this guy? What the hell is he talking about it? And where is a piece of paper and a pencil so I can start writing down the dumb things he’s saying, maybe draw a caricature of him, and show that drawing to my friend sitting next to me and make her laugh.
When I was at Foote, I did that a lot. Drawing, doodling. Little sketches in the margins of my class notes. Drawings of goats—since I grew up on a farm outside of town—drawings of the trees outside the classroom windows, drawings of Yale football players, caricatures of my teachers. After class I’d show the drawings to my friends, and not to the teachers. In art I drew all the time, in the open. At recess I played touch football, racing around these field and dreaming of playing in the Yale Bowl, and in the library I got lost. I loved being lost in the library. All those aisles and shelves, packed with books. Children’s books, history books. Stories, art. I loved how language and art interacted. The beauty, even, of a single word.
I’ve been thinking about language a lot this year. As a writer, I’ve been wondering how to describe our pandemic year, if there was one word that could encapsulate it. At some point this winter I wrote about the word “Yarg,” which sounded like a swear word, like Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” but more defiant, and when I looked it up turned out to be a kind of Cornish cow cheese wrapped in nettles, which sounded about right. Though, not quite. I was looking for a word that could handle complexity. Both the good and the bad.
I returned to thinking about one word when I was writing this address. I was in Brooklyn, sitting outside a café, drinking a cortado. I was trying to think about what it means to be a student this year, but I was struggling, in no small part because I have a basic distrust of speeches like these, commencement addresses that are supposed to be meaningful and profound. Some old guy trying to impart wisdom blah blah blah. Because, really, what do I know?
But, I also like words very much. And at some point, maybe after I got my second cortado, a small word came to me. Well, two words.
Maybe it’s too clever, this play on words. But as I thought about these twined words—apart, a part—they seemed to perfectly describe this strange, split, upside-down year. How we’ve been alone, but also together. Disconnected, connected. Isolated, involved. Torn apart by the pandemic, a part of the response. Driven apart by politics, a part of protests for racial equality. Apart. A part. Swinging wildly between the two.
And then, I thought how this word, these words, could describe my experience as a student. Here at Foote, then in high school. A part of friends and teams, and apart from them. And at Yale, where I played in the Yale Bowl, a part of the team, but apart from it as a nerdy guy who liked to draw. And now, as an author, which in its solitariness may be one of the most apart pursuits, but in its desire to connect wants so much to be a part.
As I warmed to my idea, I thought more about what it must be like to be a student in this bifurcated year. How being a student is already bifurcated. How it is to be both anxious and confident. To feel attractive and ugly. Smart, dumb. Outside, inside. Lost, found. All these normal conflicted feelings, and then add a year that has not been normal. And how this is true for all of us, how at different times we can almost be different people. How we, to acknowledge Whitman again, contain multitudes. And what was interesting to me, as I circled this idea, holding up these words and considering them from different angles, was how we can change within a season, a week, a day, an hour. How we are not static, but fluid.
Speaking of fluids, it was around now that I got my third cortado at the Brooklyn café where I was writing, and now I’m going to switch to present tense, because I can, because with words I can do anything.
I’m standing in line, waiting to order. The espresso machine is making that schwooshing sound. The afternoon light is playing in the trees outside the café windows, the leaves are sort of bouncing, and I remember how I drew in class, and I think I’ll open this address with a joke about doodling. I come back to my seat. Down the street I hear the deep rumble of a truck shifting gears, and I imagine you will remember your favorite teacher here, that advice she gave you. A large man bikes by on the sidewalk. His bike is creaky. I bet he’d be a great anchor in tug-of-war and I imagine the worry before a game or a test or a dance and the exhilaration afterward, how afterward you’re almost molecularly different. Behind me on Atlantic Avenue, I hear horns. A traffic jam. That paper you were struggling to write, the phrase that clicked. The church across the street opens its door. And then, singing. That class that started so badly, then turned.
The day’s light is lower now and I’m in flow and I imagine you will remember that one perfect day, and the awful one too, the place you alone went to, to study or dream. To compose yourself anew. Your time here, the accumulation of your days as they shift and change and maybe, maybe, maybe, what you have been doing these last years is figuring out how to… what?
How to move. To shift. How to be apart, then, a part. To be fearful, then brave. To hurt, and heal. How to light upon an idea, then adjust. How to be a self-generative spark. To see injustice in the world, and act on it. To see the damage to our land, and get to work. All this shifting, instilled in you by your teachers, friends, family, parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers, and ultimately, instilled by you. An ability that will allow you to navigate high school, college, and beyond and oh my goodness look at what I am doing!! I am that guy now, trying to be meaningful and profound.
We can mock and be serious, we can be both in the same sentence, within the same word even, the same breath.
So let’s think of another word, one that would describe this ability to shift. And what would that word be? What is it? Is the word resilience? Persistence? Is it grit? Curiosity? Some alchemy of all of them? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Because it is in you, this word, whether you like it or not.
So take it, this unnameable word, take it and go. Away from this school and over these fields of time, out past the Elisha Cooper Badminton Courts and the marble monument to this speech. Go!