The Moon in a Jar
Keynote Address to The Grauer School Class of 2020
June 5, 2020 - Stuart Grauer, Head of School
[Watch Dr. Grauer Speak: You can click here to watch the recording of Dr. Grauer's Keynote Address on The Grauer School's Youtube Channel.]
Welcome … to the class of 2020. You are chosen ones. This story is for you:
Five years before I was born, a great war ended in which 407,000 Americans were killed and we had entered into an age of peace and prosperity that I still think of as the "Leave it to Beaver" era. Suburbs were invented and behind my childhood home in Manhasset, Long Island, lay thick woods. My earliest memories are of running wild through soft paths on summer nights, with no sense of boundaries.
I remember filling my pockets with stones for throwing or collecting. As graduating senior and naturalist Nicole recounted recently, fireflies are hard to find these days, but they weren’t back then. On summer nights in the forest, we illuminated glass jars with fireflies we had caught from around the low hanging tree branches—a moon in a jar—then set them free. Back then, we were indigenous, free to scout and to roam as far as our legs would take us.
Then on my sixth birthday, we all sensed something in the works. Land movers made their first clearance into my childscape.
I had visions of green and said to my dad, “Maybe they are putting in a park." He didn’t know. By the time my seventh birthday came, I strapped on my leather gun belt, drew my six-shooters and, peering through the chain-linked fence that now stood where I once roamed and climbed trees, I snapped off rounds of caps towards B. Altmans, JJ Newberry’s 5 & 10, and Davega’s jumbo sporting goods and appliance store. It was called, “The Miracle Mile.”
I was a master at hopping that fence, even though the chain links were topped with barbs. Eventually, I got a hacksaw and cut out an opening so that it formed a “V” and we could just slip right through, like passing into the twilight zone. I zigzagged through the cars spread across the flat, black, macadam lot where, for centuries beforehand, rabbits and robins and spiders had coexisted in their natural habitat, now gone forever. I would disappear for mornings or afternoons into the alleys and doorways of the shops and enter into new, fluorescent micro-climates with no sense of the forest expiry, too young to weep for the loss of our forest and rich soil, the death of a squirrel beneath a skip loader.
In the mall, in packs of two or three kids, we roamed, weaving in and out of the big stores, learning the best aisles and stairways as if they were passages to grottos. It wasn’t like roaming in the woods, it was a new kind of wild, our instinct to play was the same, and we looked subconsciously for new “species.” We lined our pockets with trinkets: One day lifting a 5-cent candy bar. Another day a pencil charm. Stupid stuff. A pack of Juicy Fruit gum. Gathering in the wild became the game and we became unwitting, light-fingered thieves. My brother even branded them: “Let’s go on a hocking spree.” We were innocent and subversive at once, a paradox you find in children (and foxes). We slipped though the chain link passage into a forest of linoleum trails where we roamed and chased and escaped.
I stalked a Rawlings genuine leather hardball in Davega’s—aromatic and sensual—stuffed it into my clothing, and we made our getaway, endorphins rushing. Like many others who lose their lands, we had become poachers, and outlaws. For me, this all occurred in a sort of dream state.
I don’t recall having much guilt about any of it until I was around the age of Cody and Nate and Will when they were starting out on this journey as the last Grauer School 6th graders. One day right around then, my mother asked, “You don’t have any money—where did you get that baseball scorebook?” And at that point the truth sunk in and the dream ended. It was one of those times in life when you can tell one thing is ending and another is starting. That’s what this story is about.
Anyhow, I forgot about this shame for at least 40 years and all the while childhood changed. Something was shifting in America. Over this time, we watched the walk to school disappear. Aimless breaks and free time became supervised and timed. Gone was childhood free play, along with a lot more of the world’s forests. Daily experiences of things like the smell of soil, the sight of the same night sky that guided the ancients, were becoming merely abstractions for children in schools. A lot of parents started thinking their job was to create a perfect world of innocence, sort of like shopping mall developers. Over that 40 years, childhood games got timers and grownups and boundaries.
In my early teaching career as a tenured history teacher, I tried to conform to the weatherless world of desks in rows and time periods that ended with drilling buzzers.
Then like a miracle, one day, I found myself standing at the highest place on the raw land where we now have our school, contemplating what we might do with five acres of coastal sage and maritime chaparral. The site was right around the corner from Cardiff surfing park and the San Elijo Lagoon and bird flyway, and some of us thought maybe we could reclaim the natural world as a part of school and youth.
You know the rest: we built The Grauer School but left behind a sloping two-acres of native habitat and wildlife. It includes sage, wild radish, pepper grass, wild cucumber, wild morning glory and honeysuckle. Lizards, hummingbirds, owls when we’re lucky, wrens, endangered gnatcatchers, four different kinds of sparrows, squirrels and woodrats and snakes, and 24 kinds of butterflies still coexist. We preserved our wilds and shall forever be short of parking.
And before we knew it there were Nate and Cody and Will running renegade through it all. We planted torrey pine trees all around, and right in the middle of the whole preserve, we have been creating a beautiful green quad where most of you seniors have performed great lunchtime concerts—I’ve loved every one of them…
Anyway, just this year we finally finished the campus. The years 2000 to 2020 were hard work, and the reason we did all that work, was so we could deliver it to you—so there you have the crazy irony of this story. 20 years, and here we are, exiled from campus lit up for long days behind our glass Zoom boxes.
My favorite thing to do is watch kids outdoors. Candidates, I’ve watched you hike through forests up in Yosemite and Mammoth, diving the giant bull kelp forests of the Channel islands and Sea of Cortez, marveled at the forest bee hives in Ecuador with Ava and Eva, Jade and Tristan, hunted with Clara and Charlie through the woody hills of the Central Valley, surfed with Casey and Christian and Chris. But my favorite place to watch this has been right here on our campus. I love watching middle schoolers running through our wilds. I can’t even imagine what Emerson dug up back there, planted long ago by some Kumeyaay living by the rhythm of the seasons, or what Quinn dreamed or found back there in this shadowland, students looking for a quiet wander or a first kiss beneath the Mexican elderberry, or a place to hide. Francesca strumming in the sandy wash we have lined with native tree stumps. And just this year, Tavin and the whole crew in Nick’s environmental science class studying the land, till recently when, as epidemiologists explain, a virus, originating in some distant forest, probably brought to the city by poachers and outlaws, escaped, and shut us all down. Preserving our wilds has not been the way of the world.
From the standpoint of our teachers, we have been watching the whole definition of intelligence change in schools. That change is a real issue. Historically, intelligence refers to sensitivity to the environment. If you are not attuned to natural forces, how can you be called intelligent? I feel like this is the graduating class that got this message from our faculty.
The Dutch have an old rite of passage ceremony called “dropping,” where they drop their coming of age children off in the forest for a night in summer so that they can make their way around, absorb, and contemplate. Last year, teacher Jillian Bourdon and I tried to run an expedition like that and no one signed up—I guess people thought, "what was that?”—and I thought, “We’ll keep trying.” No doubt, many schools would brand an activity like that as dangerous. But what are the dangers of severing our lives from the natural world or permanently disturbing it, the dangers of turning the wilds over to the highest bidder? Right now, everyone quarantined, I read some of the shops in Miracle Mile are boarding up—I’m secretly thinking, if they knock that whole thing down it might make a good forest someday.
I know we all have to make a living. But this amazing time of pause, the manmade world coming to a halt, has helped us all see more clearly the costs of taking more from the natural world than we give back. This time of isolation makes it clearer than ever that Nature will abide with or without us, but there’s no a vice versa there — anthropocentrism is the belief that humankind is the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals, but when we take ourselves out of the balance of nature, the greatest harm comes to ourselves, or to our children and theirs.
In sum, I want to draw a line from habitat disturbance all the way back to the riddle of childhood loneliness and loss, and here is that line:
Our minds need a whole world of wild freedom, our bodies need natural, unfenceable spaces and clean air and water, our eyes need unbroken sky if we are going to see 20-20, no matter how many masterpieces we read. Nature is our medicine, the prescription our expeditions have been writing. It changes the brain, causes clearer reflection, and nature creates our connection to the whole of creation if we study it well.
You, the Class of 2020, will always know what it feels like to lose your freedom, and to understand that you can always end up alone. That could be an enormous gift. It makes for a tough but perfect final exam question I’ll send you off with:
What could possibly be more valuable
than knowing the wilds
the freedom and connection we find there?
Knowing you as graduates can answer this, even amidst chaos, is why we are Grauer School teachers and what gives us an abiding faith in your spirit, in your capacity to be generous, creative, kind, and compassionate, no matter what — you are the warriors we need.
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