Sunday, June 28, 2015


Now, where were we?  At the beginning, of June, before dotting the i's and crossing the t's on a contract, before a flurry of musical commitments (liturgies, funerals, retirement dinners) and social functions, before our daughter's wedding, I left a loose thread.  So why not knot it, today, before moving on.

You might remember that, in my sort of treasures from my childhood and youth, I found the valedictory I wrote and delivered on the occasion of my high school graduation in September, 1971.  I summon the courage to share it as an artifact of the era.  After all, a local businessman thought it was good enough at the time to have copies printed and available at the graduation exercises.  The speech drips idealism, slips into cynicism, sadly, and settles on a resolve to do good.  I have to look past the masculine language, the greeting card quotation, and, in the French section, several anglicisms and more than one awkward structure.   Although my role was to speak on behalf of my classmates, I suspect that I oriented the content less around a common vision than my own view of the world.
For what it's worth, here it is:

September, 1971

The improvement of his environment and his society is a task which as always preoccupied man. In prehistoric times, primitive man was compelled by the survival instinct to improve his lot as well as that of his neighbors, or perish.  But, as population increased, civilizations progressed and countries developed, indifference became common as the direct link between personal involvement and survival became less obvious.  Thus, although personal concern for the welfare of society has evolved into a responsibility, a duty, it is one too often not recognized, too often ignored.  In today’s world, we see the results of the labours of many generations.  Now, parents and friends, it is our duty as graduates to contribute our talents towards the improvement of society.

But we face a frustrating predicament.  We have passed the talk-no-action stage of earlier years, a period during which we criticized the decisions of government leaders, exposed the injustices of society and solved, with a somewhat dubious plausibility, most of the critical world problems in history and composition essays.  Yet, since we are in the process of building a future and our opinions are not yet wholly respected by our peers, we lack the influence which seems essential in instigating change.  Youth is cornered.  It is told to be patient, to strive for prominent positions before attempting change.  But in heeding such advice, it risks losing its enthusiasm, determination and concern, and becoming part of the silent majority—placate, content, indifferent, absorbed in the pleasing of self.  Can’t we do something now, despite the obstacles?  Only by abandoning any grandiose dreams of glory and following Helen Steiner Rice’s encouraging, though disquieting counsel :

It’s not the big celebrity
In a world of fame and praise,
But it’s doing unpretentiously
In undistinguished ways
The work that God assigned to us,
Unimportant as it seems,
That makes our task outstanding
and brings reality to dreams.

“In undistinguished ways”—living our ideas in order to instill them in others.  Perhaps then we can restore basic values which are being forgotten.

Man, preoccupied with goals of advancement, success, wealth, and prestige clamours for his rights in society—the right to freedom of speech, the right to free élections and free assembly.  But in his struggle to further his own interests, he deprives others of their fundamental right as human beings—the right, not the privilege, to dignity and respect.  He will exploit them, use them, insult them, treat them as inferior because he cannot acknowledge that simply because they are human beings endowed with reason, intelligence and feelings, their dignity must be maintained.  Isn’t this one injustice which we the youth can correct by fostering in others, through our relations with people, an awareness of the worth of the individual?

Oui, l’homme, gonflé de son importance et préoccupé de ses soucis, donne à la jeunesse quelques problèmes à résoudre en privant son prochain de sa dignité et en montrant une apathie qui menace le bien-être de la société.

L’apathie, l’indifférence du peuple aux problèmes de son milieu, est un danger réel qui existe pour diverses raisons.  Quelques-uns ne se concernent pas avec les activités de la communauté peut-être par ignorance ou par manque d’intérêt.  Dans ce cas-là, il faudrait s’informer pour s’intéresser.  Mais beaucoup de gens ne présentent pas leurs opinions ou ne participent pas dans les activités par peur de critique de leurs voisins ou l’insuccès de leur projet.  S’ils ne réussissent pas, les autres riront peut-être d’eux; si leurs idées sont trop originales pour le temps, ils se demandent, « Qu’est-ce que le monde va dire? »  et ils se contentent d’améliorer leur sort, de se retirer en eux-mêmes.  Mais ils ne réalisent pas qu’en refusant d’accepter leurs responsabilités, ils enseignent la même attitude à leurs enfants, leurs frères. leurs sœurs, leurs amis, tous ceux qui se tiennent sous leur influence.

C’est à nous, maintenant, d’éviter ces erreurs en participant activement dans la vie de la communauté, en prêtant librement notre temps et nos talents, et en demeurant toujours indépendant du critique destructif.

Ces buts de préserver la dignité humaine et de vaincre l’apathie trop commune semblent peut-être incidentels, et pas adroitement liés aux problèmes majeurs de l’époque.  Mais comme tout de concret jaillit de l’abstrait, les principes et l’attitude générale d’un peuple influencent l’état de sa société.  Pensons-y.  Sans le respect universel pour l’être humain, les espérances d’un monde où tous sont vraiment égaux, où tous peuvent vivre ensemble paisiblement sont vaines.  Si l’apathie détruit l’ingéniosité et l’enthousiasme de l’homme, est-ce que les problèmes de pollution, de pauvreté, de guerre seront résolus?  C’est un travail essentiel que la jeunesse peut entreprendre.  Pourquoi?  Parce que des doctorats en philosophie ou en science ne sont pas requis pour donner de soi-même.  Il s’agit seulement de jouir pleinement de la vie et de s’oublier un peu.

If we are here tonight contemplating our role in society, it is largely due to the devotion of our parents, teachers, and religious leaders who encouraged, prodded, advised and scolded until all of us made it.  But here words fail.  For how does one thank for the gift of part of a life?  Perhaps by using the knowledge which has been imparted to us to preserve our heritage, to help build a better world, and to safeguard the basic human rights of man.  Confronted by obstacles, we too will find encouragement in the excellent philosophy of life expressed by the late Senator Robert Kennedy, who said,

“Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?  I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”