A Matriculation Speech, Given by Dr. Grauer on September 26, 2017
Timbuktu lies on the very edge the world’s most awesome desert, the Sahara, which runs out into a staggering vastness of sand and an astonishing array of life, almost all of which lay hidden from us.
500 years ago, Timbuktu, which is in West Africa, was a flourishing center for scholarship and culture where the teachers went by a title that must never be lost, “Ambassadors of Peace.”
Not long ago, an old professor (met by anthropologist Wade Davis) described how back in those days, there at the edge of the great Sahara, as a part of that great culture, each Arab boy set out upon a journey: Until a boy endured thirst and privation and crossed the great desert, twenty days each way by camel, he could not marry or be considered a man.
This classic journey of 40 days and 40 nights was more than just a way to transport the coveted salts of the area, it was a test of strength, a physical and spiritual transformation that awakened and sharpened the senses. It was a way of harnessing the vast openness of life: “In the endless ocean of sand, “the professor said, “the young man realizes that there is something greater than himself, that he is but a small particle in the universe… As they travel to the salt … the desert hones their devotion. Thus is awakened a thirst for seeking.”
Coming of age means engaging on a journey to your core self: “The thirst for seeking.” At the start of every year, we say to you, as matriculates: To enter high school is to strike what Stephen Covey calls “the root of your lives, the fabric of your thinking,” at a time when you are coming of age. Coming of age means engaging on a journey which enables you to re-invent yourselves based upon the deep sense of your core self.
Today, as you come of age as youths for millennia have done at this stage of life, the school has an equal role: we must ask ourselves as a school, “Are we honoring each of you as a unique learner on a unique path to the future?” And you must insist that we do.
As you shift from just family guidance, to mentors you locate on your own, and as you shift from relying upon peer group approval to relying upon what your families and teachers have taught you, you become what the great educational French psychologist Piaget described as independent thinkers and decision-makers.
How has this shift been achieved and recognized through the ages? Anthropologists believe ceremonies for youths who reach around 14 or 15 years old go back some 40,000 years. Throughout history, ceremonies are far reaching and mind expanding. Students in various cultures have had to walk on hot coals, kayak long distances, survive alone in the wilderness, stand up to physical endurance tests, memorize long tracts of oaths, commit to many promises. Some cultures express rites of passage through the creation of public art. Some have stories or songs that they share at this time of life, or heroes and heroines that they honor. We find coming of age rituals in classical Greek and Roman myths and legends. Every culture has evolved something, even cultures that have never contacted one another. So, we know, the rite of passage is very basic and archetypical to people your age, across eras of time and around the globe.
Some rites of passage entail what are often referred to as vision quests: in one four-day Okipa Indian vision quest ceremony on the Great Plains, young tribesmen start their ordeal by pulling buffalo skulls and hides around and around the village plaza’s central pole. The young men then fast and prepare for torture. Elders disguised as mythological figures lead the young men through a round of tortures. Their backs, chests, and legs are ritually slashed. Then they are skewered through loose hanging skin on their chests and raised toward the roof of the lodge on thongs attached to rawhide ropes. There they hang until they faint. Lowered to the ground unconscious or semiconscious, they are now receptive to visions. Then they join the elders dancing outside around the ceremonial post. Though there are surely easier ways of getting visions, rites of passage are an anthropological constant. (Graf)
Every unique culture has rites of passage for both males and females all its own, even if some of those cultures are unaware of them. America is of course a melting pot and it has relatively few ancient traditions to pass along. One trouble is that, when foreign rituals are applied, our adolescents coming of age cannot be expected to have a real experience. For instance, not many Native Americans or inner city Detroit kids would be willing to be bar mitzvaed. So how can we, in Southern California, meet this need to recognize what virtually every culture before us has recognized: Our students are preparing for independence?
In some schools, this has been done through an Initiation of Scholars, which supports and strengthens a youths’ connection to school and their scholarly competence. Some schools put students through educational, physical, and mental challenges.
At The Grauer School, think hot coals. Just kidding. We’re going to drop you off alone in our neighboring Anza Borrego Desert. Just kidding. But we have to find out what you are at the edge of … we want you to have access to that edge. At The Grauer School, the coming of age or initiation of scholars is marked by two types of experiences:
- the search for and engagement with purposes larger than the self — our core values, and
- deepening your connection with community.
Both of these experiences are achieved through intellectual pursuit in the classroom and the expeditionary learning outside of it. In the classroom, courses like health, world religions, and others, along with portfolio development in every class, all help to challenge students to refine their thinking and consciousness as they seek and address larger purposes. Outside the classrooms, our expeditions, which are pointedly not tourist exercises, focus on cultural immersion, artistic expression, and giving of oneself in service. Ultimately these lead to the senior year graduation portfolio presentation and defense before your peers, parents, and mentors — and then to graduation.
My final point has to do with the concept of liminality, which is central to coming of age. The liminal means the edge, the part of something that touches and leads into something else — but not the edge of a great desert or ocean, more like the edge of a springboard or launchpad …our freshmen students are at the edge of the adult world. For some 40,000 years cultures have provided for that transition. And so must we. We have a very strong community at Grauer to support our students. At matriculation, we celebrate the entering into the liminal zone. At graduation, we celebrate the leaving of it.
Over these four years, we invite each student to reach out into the larger world. We observe and participate with our students and mentees as they take their personal passions and use them for some greater and larger goods. There are two parts to this.
First, the declaration. This declaration of how your life can and will impact and serve larger purposes is what we are here to guide. Will it be a cause, will it be nature, will it be a community, will it be your school? Whatever that commitment becomes, we want to support it. Today we invite you to think about or to make such a personal declaration.
The heart of it, the process, is that second part: ceremony or ordeal. Examples are many but the interesting ones are:
- Adversity that we go through, where we exercise strength and resourcefulness,
- Silence, or a leaving of the cacophony of every day life,
- Connection with nature,
- Time alone for reflection,
- Connection with ancestral roots and a study of one’s own cultural heritage,
- Play, where we immerse ourselves in an experience of unbridled joy, love, or laughter, and
- Encounters with a spiritual identity (such as the Native Americans call the “great mystery,” and other cultures experience in God, the infinite, or even healthy highs like dance parties, summiting mountain peaks, or transformative sports challenges).
You are not alone. You are part of a story that is developing over millennia and has lead to us being here today, together. We are with you and here for you. Your transformation not only transforms you, it transforms your class and then our whole community. Good luck on matriculating into high school, perhaps the most formative and impactful period of your lives, and congratulations.
Dr. Stuart Grauer is the author of the book Fearless Teaching. He is also the founder and Head of School at The Grauer School in Encinitas, California, which is dedicated to preparing tomorrow’s leaders for roles in our global community through learning by discovery, and providing a humanitarian education combining rigorous academics with authentic relationships, community service and inclusion. Additionally, Dr. Grauer is a worldwide authority in the Small Schools Movement.