Remarks from Christian Peele ’05 Founders Day: October 1, 2009

October 1, 2009

Christian PeeleSeniors: To you I say congratulations!

You are an amazing group.

You come from a variety of places: Your class comes from 23 states and several countries, with many of you hailing from North Carolina and Maryland and an even greater number of you hailing from the good ol’ state of Virginia.

Yet anyone in their right mind knows that I can’t talk about states, without finding some kind of way to mention Texas. See? I learned my lesson about Texas nearly four years ago — it was day one of graduate school orientation and all of us new students had earlier completed a survey and one of the questions happened to be: What region are you from? At the end of the orientation, the survey results were tallied and read. Now most of the 200-some people in my class identified their region as something like “Southern” or “Mid-West” but the person reading the results also informed us that some of our classmates were apparently from the region of Texas. I’m not really sure what to do with that, but anytime I can give a shout-out to the region of Texas, I like to. You are from a variety of places.

You are young and you are … seasoned: The youngest graduate is still a teenager, while the eldest is well over 50. You span generations. You are young and you are seasoned (and who says the two are mutually exclusive?)

You are persistent: Some of you have been working on your degree for nearly eight years. Twenty-two of you began the college journey at Mary Baldwin, left to pursue other things, but returned determined to complete this task. A handful of you began the college journey and left, not to pursue other things, but because of academic struggles and challenges — but you returned to Mary Baldwin, committed and ready to complete this thing, and you started kickin’ butt and taking names and you finished strong. You are persistent.

You are pioneers: 25 percent of you will be the first in your families to graduate from college. You are pioneers.

I told you, you were amazing. And it is my deep, deep pleasure to celebrate Founders Day with you and the entire Mary Baldwin University family, my family, today.

I’d like to begin this time of sharing by having us do a mind exercise. I’d like you to imagine something and to really visualize it in your mind. Imagine that you are walking down a path. You are on a journey. Create the setting — see yourself moving forward. See yourself in motion. Now imagine that you come upon a challenge of some sort — some kind of obstacle. Now, see yourself pass over it or through it or around it. And see yourself keep moving.

Now, we want to imagine the same scene again, but this time we’ll give our journeys a soundtrack. As you imagine it this time, hear your favorite song playing — that tune that got you through your all-nighter, that song that energizes and motivates you. Replay the scene again, this time with music.

I don’t know about you but I hear a little Michael Jackson — and the soundtrack, the music, changes the scene quite a bit. So I’m on this path, but I’m not just walking like in the first scene — now I’ve got a strut. And, in the first scene I walked right through that challenge, but now I kind of dance in it. The music changed the way I walked the path, it changed the way I faced the challenge. The music changes things.

I would offer that this exercise speaks to something desperately important. The path in our scene is life, we all walk a path — this life is a journey. And the challenge, well that’s every new experience we encounter. Whether it’s the new experience of senior year or the experience of entering the workforce or transitioning within one’s career or the experience of family, the journey involves new challenges.

So, the path is life and the challenge is new experience — so what’s music?

Well, the music is the experience of community.

What do I mean when I say “the experience of community? ” Well, community is an incredibly broad concept, so today I’ll hone in on one element of community.

Community is relationship.

But let’s talk a bit about relationship: I don’t speak of relationship, I don’t speak of community, in a superficial way. I’m not talking about your “BFF” and I’m not talking about your Facebook friend, and I’m not talking about your boo. I’m talking about something much deeper and much more uncommon. I’m talking about community as authentic relationship — the kind of relationships where we bring our whole, authentic selves to the table and where we are truly seen and truly heard.

And, I would offer that this kind of honest and authentic community is the music of our journey.

But we have a choice:

We can walk our paths with our ears attuned to the sounds of community and authentic relationship, or we can walk in silence.

Attuning our ears means taking the risk of being a part of a community and being a part of relationships where you dare to bring your whole, authentic self and where others dare to bring their whole, authentic selves as well. And it means being committed to creating spaces where that authenticity is valued.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather pick and choose which parts of myself I bring with me into community. Whether in my community of family or in my work community, it feels much more comfortable to select the best and most and most socially acceptable and attractive parts of myself and present those to the people around me. Depending on who it is we’re hoping to impress or please, we tailor ourselves cutting away the pieces that are deemed unfitting. And, the trouble is, we’ve gotten so good at this hiding, this compartmentalizing, that the thought of baring one’s full and authentic self is uncomfortable and frankly not going to happen.

And yet the power of authentic relationship lies deep inside just how risky the whole thing is. Entering spaces or creating spaces where authentic relationship, not artificial acquaintances, can thrive is risky business. But when we commit to creating community and being a part of community that encourages authenticity, we push against the norm and the status quo in powerful ways.

One of my favorite authors writes, “Although we often think of [radical relationship] as a tame and pleasant practice, [radical relationship] has :a subversive, countercultural dimension.” When we find space to bring our whole, authentic selves and when we are bold to bring our whole, authentic selves, we push against boundaries that say what is acceptable and what is not.

Also involved in this, is an openness to others’ stories, and this, too, is subversive. In authentic relationships with others, we learn to hear, really hear, one another and we humble ourselves to be affected by what we hear. We hear each others’ stories not because they are interesting, but another’s history, her struggles, her joys, her vision, her past … is powerful and meaningful.

So, will we walk our paths with ears attuned to the sound of community and to the risk of authentic relationship?

Or, will we walk in silence? Even when our paths are not marked by the music of community we move forward and we face new challenges. But stopping here is saying “yes” to a traditional definition of success. Success as going as far as you can, as quickly as you can, doing as much as you can.

But if our feet move to the tempos and rhythms of community, if our walk is turned to a dance because we take seriously the sound of authentic relationship, then we say “yes” to the idea that success isn’t so much about moving forward as it is about moving more deeply into what lies before us. So instead of moving forward, we dance in unexpected patterns and we make unexpected choices and we do more than go through challenges, we dance inside them and dance on top of them and we embrace them. Why? Because we are bold to present our full selves to the world and we will do what it takes to create spaces where others can do the same.

And what a thought to think especially on this day and in this space: Founders Day at Mary Baldwin University.

There is a book, written in 1908, called the History of Mary Baldwin Seminary. It was written by a man named Joseph Waddell, who, in 1855, was appointed to what was at the time the Mary Baldwin Seminary Board of Trustees. The book traces the history of Mary Baldwin University from its beginning as Augusta Female Seminary through 1905.

I’d like to read to you a particularly poignant piece from the chapter that chronicles Mary Julia Baldwin’s years as principal of the school. In this passage, Waddell describes his efforts to convince Mary Baldwin and Agnes McClung to become co-principals of the institution we now know as Mary Baldwin University and he describes what happens when the school finally opens under their leadership. Keep in mind that at the time, almost all the other schools in the Shenandoah Valley had closed due to the ravages of the Civil War.

And it reads:

They gradually became accustomed to the arrangement, and without further consultation with them, and immediately after Mr. Tinsley’s resignation, they were elected by the Trustees, and submitted to what seemed to be inevitable. They had no opposition — no one else at that time would have accepted the position.

An advertisement was put out that the school would open on the first day of October. The seminary was almost entirely unfurnished, and each of the new principals had only articles for her chamber. The supply of household furniture usually kept for sale in Staunton was exhausted. Soon, however, one and another boarding pupil was entered, till before the day appointed for opening arrived, the full complement was enrolled. In the dilemma, the principals resorted to the expedient of borrowing from their friends. No man would or could have started under such circumstances; but many persons were ready and anxious to help two ladies so well known and so highly esteemed. The school opened, according to advertisement, on Thursday, October 1, 1863.*

Exactly 146 years ago Mary Julia Baldwin was doing what she had to do — borrowing furniture so folks could have somewhere to sleep — doing what she had to do to create a space where women could excel and unashamedly bring their whole selves. She walked a path, she faced an obstacle, she danced inside it and transformed it into the beginnings of some of the most remarkable years in the history of the school, our school.

A commitment to authentic community — to being a part of it and to making space for it — is a part of our legacy as members of the Mary Baldwin University family. May we live into that legacy — may we hear the music of community and be moved by it and may we strive not to move forward, but to move more deeply into our journeys.