June 6, 2011. At 5:18 a.m. I parked the truck in front of the Fishermen's Memorial, the traditional starting point of my annual Newport High School Senior Beach Walk. Light was coming on weakly and the ocean rolled mighty and gray.
How many of the 44 students from my Honors Senior English class ? the single largest one of my career ? would show on the final Monday morning of their high school careers? How many would get up and walk with me and celebrate their imminent graduation and Oregon's Great Birthright, its free, publicly owned beaches?
While I waited in the cab, I reflected on my teaching year. I had ascended some incredible pedagogical peaks in my collaborations with students, yet also fell into more than one abyss too. The peaks never last long and it feels like it takes forever to crawl out of an abyss. Luckily, my two or three daily visits to the beach always help me escape.
A car approached. Then another. It was on. A few minutes later 14 seniors, including four foreign exchange students, congregated near a path to the beach. Before we hit the sand, I demanded that one of them recite former Governor Oswald West's famous line about Oregon's ocean beaches: "No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people."
Several took a run at it but came up short. So what? They got the general idea that Oregon established something special by protecting its ocean beaches from privatization, and all of us benefitted as a result.
We hiked through the dunes, onto the beach, and then cruised south to the north jetty. Our mission was to construct a cairn of prodigious size that would symbolize this extraordinary class's unity and perseverance and provoke fascination in anyone that might encounter it.
Cairns had come to dominate my mind in recent days. I seemingly encountered them every time I went to the beach and wondered why this happened. I had even built one myself and found this ancient human task incredibly moving. I highly recommend it.
We ascended the jetty and gathered rocks and worked quietly in concert to build a solid cairn. Everyone pitched in, and the structure began to rise. My whole teaching philosophy is embodied by this morning walk and building of a cairn. I aspire to connect my students to something meaningful, corporeal, and local.
Half an hour later, we stood back from the cairn and admired our creation. We had built it strong and tall. Then we slid down the rocks to the beach and ran north with abandon. I sprinted neck and neck with the Ukrainian girl for 30 yards, but then began to pull away.
On the way over to Pig 'N' Pancake, Pieter, the Belgian foreign exchange student who had written so well me for in English and journalism, discussed his personal transformation after a year living on the Oregon Coast. "I don't think I can live in Belgium anymore," he said.
"You'll be back," I said, "and take your Oregon energy to Europe and unleash it."
Minutes later we sat around tables at Pig 'N' Pancake, where we shook out the sand, swapped stories of teen angst, laughed, and fiddled with our phones. I bought them all a meatless breakfast, and we ate together as friends, Oregonians, countrymen. In a few more days our remarkable journey together would conclude, and I would never have the privilege of teaching these fine young people again or talking to them about the sanctity of Oregon's public-owned beaches, but I would get the last word before sending them out into the so-called real world, into the worst job market since the Depression, into a society that forces them to become indentured servants after they graduate college so they can pay off its astronomical cost. Yes, I would have the last words via that peculiarly American literary tradition known as the commencement speech:
Newport High School Commencement Speech 2011: Music of Change
Congratulations seniors, you made it. Just look at you up here, giddy, under the lights, thinking ahead, tuned up, ready to play a show for your new world, the world beyond high school.
You are young, eager, hungry, and each one of you has a special song that will always remind you of Newport High School. What is that song? Its musical genre hardly matters. What does matter is that the music is yours, lifts your soul, blows your mind, builds bridges to everywhere, changes everything, and creates tiny daily revolutions of love in your hardening heart. Because that's what great music always does.
Most of us in the audience remember that feeling well, of eternal youth, of leaving high school full of imagination and promise and listening to our great songs, that in our time played on radio, 45s, vinyl, reel-to-reel, 8 tracks, mix tapes, and CDs.
But somewhere in adulthood, many of us stopped hearing the music ? the music of life, too ? and began to feel old and stuck, a little embittered. All of our cherished formats went away and we hated the new ones. We couldn't admire the album art. We couldn't read the liner notes. We couldn't camp out in a parking lot for front row seats. We didn't want to pay $200 for a concert. We didn't want to hear Ted Nugent or Thriller through an ear bud! We just knew computers and beautiful music were mutually exclusive and should never mate. And worst of all, the new music was terrible, profane, stupid, phony, and, yes, even dangerous to youth!
I admit it here. A while back, rock died for me. Soooooooo sad, but true. I even had a quiet candle-lit ceremony for it and said goodbye. Somewhere along the way, I got old and jaded and superior and started hating the kids' music.
But then, one day, something happened. I looked at the Newport High class of 2011 and observed, and frequently had to terminate, a dynamic relationship to music that was entirely new: iPods, Youtube, Rock Band X-Box, playlists, downloads, music in their phones, tuning up to their phone, making beats on their computers, listening to their friends' homemade recordings, discovering obscure bands that major labels would have never signed, and accessing more music than 10,000 record collections could offer.
I also saw something else, something comforting: all night drives to shows, singing, playing, reading reviews, buying gear, love and hate for the next big pop star, and trying to become a band, which is about the hardest collaboration in the world.
For the record, I was wrong. The music still matters. Students, your music matters. Rock wasn't dead. It had never died. It had simply evolved, as we must all evolve if we want to meet new challenges and improve ourselves, our country, our planet. If you play the same song over and over again as a nation, that nation eventually dies. There's no way this class will let that happen to us.
Seniors, your passion for music is the excellent new metaphor for generational change. You rolled with the technology. You embraced it. You mashed it up and created something entirely new and vital. You taught me a lesson about positive change that I will never forget. You made the music your own. My generation needs your music and your passion more than ever. We face serious problems with the potential for catastrophe and cataclysm. We need you to perform some serious change for us.
Newport High School class of 2011, you know what you are? You are a great rock and roll band that will one day play great music, art, poetry, engineering, ecology, peace, nursing, teaching, coaching, cooking, farming, inventing.
You lack only one thing ? a name. An indelibly great Band Name that your fans and critics will never forget. Believe me, I have thought long and hard about a great name for you. I certainly can't send you out into the world with a terrible name like the Red Pantsuit Apparatus, Cage the Hippopotamus or Little Dwayne.
Thus, after much soul searching, I came up with a list, a Top Ten list of Band Names. After hearing the candidates, mulling them over, discussing their various faults and merits, you decid... or invent one on your own. After all, it is your band and you will soon decide what music you want to play for the rest of your lives.
So here they are, my Top Ten List of Band Names for the Newport High School class of 2011, in no particular order of preference. Are you ready?
1. Budget Cut Heroes
2. Justin Bieber's Eunuchs
3. Oceans of Squirrels
4. Children of the Rain
5. The Super Slacker Elite
6. The Cell Phone Liars
8. My Morning Monster
9. Lookers and Glow
You decide seniors, and remember this: You can get satisfaction, the times they are a changing, it's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, keep on rocking in the free world, and don't stop believing!
Wait a minute! Those are old people's songs!
It's your turn now. It's your time. So go forth and perform your own songs. I have no doubt that you will. Believe me, we await your sound. We need it. Turn it up. Louder! Let us hear your music of change played with such skill and passion that every time you end a performance you will channel the great guitar gods of lore and imagine throwing your pick, your pick of destiny, (I threw a guitar pick out to the students) into the audience after the show ends because you gave everything you had presenting your special gift.