The following letter is adapted from remarks delivered after the graduation of the MICDS Class of 2022 at Commencement on Sunday, May 15.
In 2004, the year in which most of you alumni of the Class of 2022 were born, the English writer Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots, a book that asserts that every human story is ultimately one of only seven fundamental tales, and that our species has an apparently insatiable appetite for these few essential narratives: “overcoming the monster”; “rags to riches”; “the quest”; “voyage and return”; “comedy”; “tragedy”; and “rebirth.”
Moreover, Booker contends that the structure of every human story inevitably follows the “rule of three,” with a beginning, a middle, and an end, although the narrative trajectory from outset to conclusion can vary. The characters’ fortunes can fall, and then fall further; or rise, and then rise further; or rise and then fall; or fall and then rise. The American author Kurt Vonnegut focused on these last two trajectories especially—not the straight ascending or descending linear story paths, but the up-and-down polynomial ones—going even further than Booker in his essentialist distillation of basic plotlines. Speaking to students at Case Western Reserve University—also in 2004, by the way—on the very February day, in fact, that Alex Sineff came into the world—Vonnegut stated that almost every story is one of not seven but one of two kinds, which he called “man on a hill” and “man in a hole.”
I was inspired to talk about the plots and structures of stories with you today after reading a piece in the New York Times three weeks ago titled How Covid Breaks All the Rules of Human Narrative. Its author, Frederick Kaufman, finds precursors to our confused response to the pandemic in the confused responses of our forebears to the discoveries of Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein, which were disruptive and controversial because they “transformed the ways people understood the narrative structures of their lives.” They changed the story. Galileo’s theory of heliocentrism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity informed people, respectively, that they “were no longer at the center of the universe,” that they “were the outcome of incremental change and not divine spark,” and that their “ideas of time and space were subjective.” Kaufman wonders whether the COVID-19 pandemic is a similarly disorienting phenomenon to the extent that it resists or upends our familiar narrative frameworks. Which part of this COVID story are we in these days anyway? The middle? The end? The beginning?!?
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I would watch TV shows that frequently left me hanging until the next week’s episode. The villain materializes from out of the shadows, the frame freezes, and the dreaded words “To be continued” appear on the screen. The pilot begins to lose control over treacherous terrain. Will the helicopter crash? The frame freezes. “To be continued”—followed as often as not, it seemed, by a commercial for Noxzema skin cream, which I was not going to buy. Or maybe evidence is discovered at the last minute exonerating the defendant. (I knew she was innocent!) But is it too late? “To be continued.” I always thought this was a dirty trick, probably because I had more homework to do after the show was over, and I didn’t really want to do it. (Okay, okay: Don’t forget to do your homework, kids! Stay in school!)
“Cogito ergo sum.” This is Descartes’ famous formulation: “I think, therefore I am.” But I wonder—and it makes sense, really, that I would question his wisdom, since his Wikipedia entry prints to 32 single-spaced pages, and mine prints to zero pages—but I do wonder: does Descartes get it right? I wonder whether it’s not really “cogito ergo sum” that describes our species—“I think, therefore I am”—so much as it is “narro ergo sum”: “I tell stories, therefore I am.”
I believe that COVID-19 has disrupted the stories of the Class of 2022—not only here at MICDS, but at high schools across the country, and at colleges and universities as well—more thoroughly than it has disrupted those of any other student cohorts of the last three years, and I am so sorry that it has; but I am also so impressed with the resilience of those of you who have graduated here today, and your insistence on narrating your own plotlines when the plotlines of the wider world elude us. Emma’s speech at our Senior Night ceremony, and then Andrew’s, and then Noah’s, and now Kate’s today are all cases in point of your capacity to script your own destinies—to be characters in stories of your own authorship—rather than suspend your lives waiting for the story of this global pandemic, or, for that matter, the stories of our strained national and international economic, social, and political discourses, to cohere and fit into a sensible narrative frame. Those stories unfortunately need more time, but yours are ready to tell.
As each of you departs MICDS and commences your future, which timeless human narrative will be yours? Will you overcome a monster? Will you ascend from rags to riches? Will you embark upon a quest? Will you undertake a voyage, and then, in time, return home from your great adventure? (Your parents have requested that I suggest this story for your consideration especially.) Tragedy I do not recommend, but perhaps you will play the lead role in a comedy, triumphing over adversity and carrying the day. Or will yours be a story of rebirth?
Narro ergo sum. We are a storytelling species. It is humanity’s singular ingenuity. We construct sense in the face of senselessness. We construct hope in the face of hopelessness. Beginnings, middles, and ends. Class of 2022: May you continue to create and narrate your own. Now the tale of your time at MICDS draws to a close. Momentarily, this ceremony will conclude. There will be photographs with family, and teachers, and friends; there will be laughter and hugs, exchanges of kind words, heartfelt expressions of congratulation, pride, joy, and love. Maybe a moment of reflection will arrive to you in an unexpected lull amid these celebrations. The full significance of this occasion—this point of inflection between plotlines in which you now discover yourself—might then dawn on you, the protagonist in a story that no one else can write. For an instant, you might fix your eyes on nothing in particular, gaze into the middle distance. You will try to take it in. What does it all mean? What does the future hold for our hero? How will the next chapter begin? What timeless narrative waits to be retold? The frame freezes. “To be continued.”
(This graduation speech is brought to you by Noxzema Skin Cream. For healthy-looking skin, try Noxzema!)
Faculty, trustees, parents, grandparents, family, and friends: please join me in congratulating this heroic cast of characters, the MICDS Class of 2022, as their journeys continue to unfold, and as their stories continue to be told.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Happy weekend to you all!
Head of School
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Phoenix by Big Red Machine with Fleet Foxes (Apple Music / Spotify)