The 147th Hope College Commencement address was delivered by Dr. Heather Sellers, professor of English, who presented “And your homework is…” on Sunday, May 6. Dr. Sellers has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1995, and teaches poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. A nationally acclaimed author, she is also highly regarded as a mentor by her students. In 2011, the graduating class presented her with the “Hope Outstanding Professor Educator” (H.O.P.E.) Award.
Hope College Commencement Address “And your homework is…”
By Dr. Heather Sellers, Professor of English
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse
Members of the Hope College Board of Trustees, President Bultman, Provost Ray, Faculty and Staff, parents, family, friends, and most importantly, you, the Hope College graduating class of 2012, thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you today and for the honor of being your commencement speaker.
Face Blindness, Fear, and Grace
Friday afternoon, a couple weeks ago, there was a message on my answering machine, a call from a friend who happens to be President Bultman. That deep voice: “Please call me as soon as you can, Heather. Thank you.” My immediate thought? I’m fired.
Maybe there’d been a complaint about the homework I give at the end of every class I teach? (More on that in a moment.) Or maybe it’s that I teach, sometimes, okay often, wearing sketchy 1990s outlet mall sweat pants? Was it my complete lack of even a rudimentary facility with Beowulf? My complete lack of even a rudimentary facility with any kind of hair product? Oh, I heard that Bultman message and I knew I was being put out to pasture onWindmillIsland.
I bit the bullet, made the call. Commencement speaker? My first thought was New dress! Then I remembered: the gowns. The dreaded gowns. Gowns in which everyone—male, female, young, old—looks exactly the same. And the hats! Everyone in matching hats! Commencement. The day we are reduced to…one thing: face recognition skill!
One reason I right away go to “I’m fired!” is I have a very strange neurological condition—face blindness. I am not able to recognize my fellow humans by face. Interacting with others, I’m often uncertain, frequently wrong. I live in profound doubt. Face blindness has been a great teacher. Face blindness enforces humility.
The enforced humility has been really good for me; face blindness is a kind of a graduate school in getting over yourself. However, even a mild case is socially devastating, and I’ve got it bad: I can’t recognize my best friend on the street; I’ve walked past my own mother. Television and movies are overwhelmingly confusing. Dating? Yikes. I have to open each first date with this awkward explanation—I’m not going to be able to recognize you regularly. If you leave the table, and come back in a coat or a hat, I will not know it’s you.
But you know what? Everyone steps in! Everyone has helped me. My faith in humankind, in grace, is reaffirmed on a daily basis. How lucky is that? Ironically, this disorder, which kept me isolated for so much of my life is now the vehicle by which I connect with others.
Face blindness is a great equalizer. I don’t recognize famous people. When I was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos I wasn’t really nervous. I didn’t recognize him. At first, I thought he was some random sound check guy and we were just filling up the time chatting until the George arrived. Face blindness allows me to treat everyone the same, and I love that. When I speak publicly before large audiences, I’m not that nervous because as far as my brain knows, I’m not going to see any of you again.
Which is why I am so happy to be here today, not fired, but speaking before all of you, all of us dressed exactly alike! WELCOME TO MY WORLD. I love the level playing field that is commencement. Have you had a little trouble telling people apart today? Hello super confusing graduation ceremony, I love you!
There’s a line from the Talmud that I keep in my office: “I have learned many things from my teachers, I have learned many things from my friends, and I have learned even more from my students.”
You, the students, have helped me learn how to live with a socially debilitating disorder. You’ve stepped in, you’ve guided me, you’ve never gotten impatient—not once—when I’ve confused you with someone else. You always put me at ease. Because of you, I have a job where I get to laugh every single day. (Sorry John Cox, Shakespeare scholar, office neighbor in Lubbers Hall—I know the joy gets loud.)
Students: You tell me who you are, effortlessly. Usually. Sometimes you walk past me and you don’t say “Hello, Heather, it’s Jackie,” You just walk on by. But I know it’s you, because you have that crazy curly hair and the striped back pack and that lopey volleyball captain gait, and yeah, that paper is still not turned in yet, honey.
Students, you’ve helped me shape and know my own story more clearly by bravely sharing your stories. What I’ve learned by working with you closely in the intimacy of writing workshops, is no matter how it looks from the outside, we all have something broken in us. This brokenness can separate us, or it can be the vehicle by which we connect with grace and authenticity.
I have homework for you, Commencers. This is what I say at the end of every single class I teach. Good work class. Good work today. Your homework is…
Stay up late. Keep the music loud. Make interesting choices.
Stay up late. Keep the music loud. Make interesting choices.”
Number One. Stay Up Late
You are Hope College students. You stay up late. That’s who you are. For some of you, that’s when you get your best work done. But I’m also asking you to be radically awake. Present. The Kingdom of God doesn’t have a bedtime; why would you?
Those of us at Hope, from Hope, in Hope are called to do work in the world that goes far beyond the 40 hour work week, the proper, reasonable bedtime. Stay up late, or, the way I do it, get up really early, but design a life that requires your presence mightily, all day, all night. Class is over. To quote Rilke, “It’s time to go out and do the work of the heart.” As Paul exhorts the Corinthians: “Be watchful…” and “The Kingdom of God is not just words, it’s power.” Keep your eyes open, and your heart opens. Your chance to transform yourself and those around you knows no bounds.
Number Two. Keep your music loud.
Don’t hide your light. Harness the loud, boisterous, honest, possibly annoying part of you and use it for the power of goodness and transformation!
I’m a Southerner. This is the Midwest. A very shh region. I have seen whole conversations take place between people here with no actual words spoken aloud! If you are going to tell your truth in this world, you are going to stand out. You are going to attract attention. Albert Nolan writes, “Joy was in fact the most characteristic result of all Jesus’ activity amongst the poor and oppressed.” Yeah. “Let the sea thunder, the rivers clap their hands….” We might come from a quiet region here in the Mid, but we’re a people called to vibrant noise.
Turn. Up. The Volume. Not just “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” [animal print pants!], Iron and Wine, or the “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack blasting from your window (oh Durfee). Though that’s all very nice, it’s easily made loud.
Sometimes we have to disturb other people in order to connect as humans. When I chose to tell the story of my family and face blindness, I took a loud risk but I did it trusting that others would find, in my anthem, familiar notes, necessary and I hope healing notes. Each passing year, we must find ways to take up more room, not less room, in our own lives. Our passion, our faith, our affection, our vision, our noise—Truth-telling, coming into Spirit: these aren’t always parietals-friendly.
Often we aren’t scared of being loud when we are young, but as we get older we quiet. Keeping audible the music of our soul takes a lot of energy, and a particular kind of close listening. I hope I’m not the same person five years from now—I hope I’m louder, braver, more all around sonic. And I hope the same for you.
Number Three. Make interesting choices.
Make interesting choices.
A man walks into the produce section of his local grocery store and asks to buy a half head of lettuce. The young guy working in the department says, “Well we only sell whole heads of lettuce.” But the older man was really insistent and so the young guy walks into the back and finds his manager to ask him about the matter. As he walks up to his manager, the young guy says, “You know some jerk wants to buy half a head of lettuce (haha).” And as he finished his sentence he turns to find the man standing right behind him. He quickly added, “And this gentleman kindly offered to buy the other half.”
So the manager approves the deal and the man goes on his way and later the manager finds the young employee and he says, “You know, I was impressed with the way you got yourself out of that situation earlier—we like people who think on their feet here, where are you from, son?”
“Canada, sir,” the young man replies.
“Well why did you leaveCanada?” the manager asked.
“Sir, there’s nothing up there but hockey players and loose women.”
“Reallly,” says the manager. … “My wife is fromCanada.”
“That’s great, sir, Who did she play for?” the young man quickly said.
I love the interesting choice the grocery store kid makes. I wish I could be so clever on the spot.
But I also worry about the manipulation in his presentation. I spent most of my life faking that I knew who was who, what was what, and not even knowing I was faking it.
Every morning, I get up early in order to write. I have a Hemingway quote taped on a little yellow note card above my desk. It reads
Write the next true sentence.
Just write the next true sentence.
I want my sentences, my classroom, and my life choices to be interesting, and also I want them to be true.
What I seek to bring to my classroom, and what I desire to take out into the world, representing Hope, is a habit of making truly interesting choices, choices based on creativity and integrity, not just cleverness. Quick-thinking, yes, but grounded in authenticity. An interesting choice combines a frisky wholeheartedness with truth and sincerity. Interesting choices are genuine. They rely on trust. The ability to say: “I’m your professor. And I don’t know.” The humility to ask for help with our most vulnerable parts of self. “Can you please tell me who you are?” I’m calling for us to make choices that are way more than good choices. And I call for an interesting-ness that is motivated by depth, lit by grace, and bound by purity of intention.
So. This is your homework. Stay up late tonight, and every night; let your light shine. Turn up the volume of your music, the music only you hear, so we can hear and be transformed. Make interesting choices. I hope your interesting choices are: heartfelt, affectionate, spirit-driven and ignited by hope. Hope is the ultimate interesting choice.
I hope you will always be a student.
You will always be my teachers.
You have your homework.
In closing, when you see me, please always tell me who you are.
Please always tell all of us who you are.