It was late afternoon on a glorious Monday in the middle of June. The weekend past exploded with celebrations as it is the season for graduations and weddings. Our little community also hosted hundreds that came to celebrate the life of a beloved coach. In the blink of an eye the little kids that could barely see over the edge of the counter at the Wayside a moment ago are diving pell-mell into deeper pools; college, jobs, travel, internships. Passages, so many passages.
Now I was wending my way to the northern part of the state. As I drove through the kind of scenery that Vermont cherishes on the kind of day that we wait longingly for throughout the winter months, I was in a pensive mood. I thought of change. Who do we reach out to as we navigate these passages? Whose hand do we hold? Who will hold ours?
I was about to find some answers.
The reason for my trip was to attend the final exam of a public-speaking English class. My grandson is one of the 14 young people whose assignment is to give an oral “Tribute Speech” -- to talk about someone who has influenced you, someone you want to honor or thank. My grandson had chosen to speak about his grandfather and spending time with him at our Sandgate homestead. I would have not missed it for the world. I had expected, in my quick-to-tear ways, to need the tissues tucked discretely in my sleeve.
What I had not expected was that while they spoke of their heroes -- the kind of heroes that do not exist in movies or video games or wear capes -- that these 14 would become my heroes.
Gangly cowlick-crowned boys with their shirts untucked mixed in with brawny skateboarders (yes, one brought his skateboard class) and more formally dressed young men. Young women in fancy dresses accessorized with stiletto heels sat beside plain dark frocks, cardigan sweaters and breezy short dresses showing off dancers’ calves. There was no uniformity here.
One by one, they stepped up to the podium and began to tell their amazing stories. What courage did it take for these teenagers to talk with humor and conviction, with pathos and love about their honorees?
They spoke of renewed Christian faith fostered by a clergyman who remembered what it was like to be young and to keep the Faith. They spoke of cultural acceptance, mixed-race families and step-families, sibling rivalries, crazy aunts, treasured grandparents and teachers who did not give up on them. They almost universally spoke of the work ethic and commitment that their mentors had exhibited. They revealed a host of memories and sacred moments.
And one nervous young man spoke eloquently of death. He made us fall in love with his quirky mentor. Then he paused, tore off his suit coat and shirt to expose an ALS T-shirt. His hero had died young but his influence lived on.
The teacher could easily have assigned a public-speaking assignment on a trip to the zoo or on how weather reports are generated. The fundamental principles of speaking in public are the same no matter the topic. But she did not. She had asked a simple question: “Who do you honor or remember?” And she got some very profound answers. Thank you.
Fourteen stories …
Their hands have been held.
They will hold the hand of others.
“We’re all just walking each other home” -- Ram Dass