Well, seniors, here we are . . . the beginning of graduation week! Congratulations! While I know personally that for some of you, senioritis has gone way over the edge, you are also probably feeling some nostalgia about your time at HKIS right about now. We teachers and parents feel this, too, perhaps more than you know, so bear with me as I indulge in a few memories. I still remember that first awkward homeroom in 102 as I tried to work with a new partner, Miss Vlastelica. I remember trying to say something very epic and very spiritual about the journey of high school, and you all sat there like scared rabbits, wondering what you had done to deserve four years of this guy! The only useful thing I did then, and probably over the entire four years, was bring you brownies, which, as I’ve told you many times before, I baked with my very own bare hands! In spite of my feeble attempts, you came to my rescue with your charm and personality: I think of Noah’s speeches, or James’ bagpipes, or Wealthee’s scars from our Lord of the Flies simulation, or Jackson’s, well, I don’t know, his Jackson-ness, or most recently Vincent’s vigor and robustness.
More quietly, but just as fondly, I have so enjoyed:
- Mel’s wisdom,
- Ariane’s bubbly intelligence,
- Sasha’s and Chloe’s essays,
- Anne’s love of language,
- Suzette’s passion for justice,
- Audrey’s soulfulness,
- Victoria’s smile,
- Joyce’s joy,
- Ana’s songs.
Last week when we did our labyrinth experience, I could literally feel your soulful selves as we walked past each other. In terms of service, I believe we have never had so many Senior Projects that were service-based. But if I had to pick one memory, it’s Christien’s Standing Ovations that he would give to any insightful comment or achievement in our grade 9 Humanities class. And with this kind of environment, Charlie Kwok became, and will forever be for me, a “better Charlie.” So, we started in grade 9 with awkward silence and here we are now bringing high school to a close, in a church, with a mix of joyful music and sacred silence.
Why Go to University
The hard work of high school is almost over now and most of the big decisions are settled, so let’s think about the ultimate final exam question for you: why are you going to university? Do you actually have an answer for that question, or are you just following our community’s group script of following high school with college?
OK, a little bit about my own journey. When I graduated in 1983 from a Lutheran high school in Baltimore, Maryland, I remember my religion teacher saying to me, “Between the ages 18 and 25, go off and explore the universe!” And so off I went to Asheville North Carolina, taking along with me my nifty and expensive graduation gift from my parents: an electronic typewriter. I went off to study what I thought was my life-long passion, which was . . . meteorology, yes, weather-forecasting. Now I know I won’t be able to convince you why I love the weather or why “Here’s Freddie” is a sacred statement in my household, but next year when you are encountering your first snow, think of me . . . for an overnight snowstorm, which magically transforms the world from mundane gray to pristine white is something of breath-taking beauty for me – a spiritual event.
From a religious perspective, my good Lutheran parents introduced me to a good Lutheran pastor at a good Lutheran church in Asheville. But I never stepped foot back in that church. I had to find my own path.
I got very involved in a group called “Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.” One summer I lived at a beach house with a group of Christians and nearly got arrested participating in a drama at the Myrtle Beach boardwalk in which we formed a human train, chanting, “We want life. We want life.”
And finally I attended a massive Intervarsity Missions conference in Urbana, Illinois in 1984 that eventually brought me to teach English in Beijing in 1987 and to HKIS in 1990.
To quote that great spiritual guru Steve Jobs, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Looking back, there was something in my love of seeing landscapes transformed by snowstorms that is akin to seeing students being transformed into newfound innocence and childlikeness; rather than chanting “We want life” on a boardwalk, I have sought what really brings life to both wealthy students, as well and those without wealth; and I wanted to do it all in China or Asia.
The “Spiritual Giftedness” of the Class of 2011
Now a word about your journey, class of 2011. In January 2000 Mr. Coombs and I taught the first ever, “Service, Society, and the Sacred” course. And I remember saying to the students in my typically overdramatic and idealistic manner, “This is a new course in a new millennium, and we are developing a new kind of HKIS student.” Now 11 years down the line, I have to say that I think that is true, at least for many of you. Judging by Senior Projects, you as a senior class have a social conscience about the world that our students just didn’t have a decade ago.
So, here’s my new idealistic proclamation about you, the class of 2011, and particularly those of you who chose to attend this baccalaureate service. You are the leading edge of what I would call “spiritually gifted students.” Here’s my evidence:
#1: Right after our Foshan trip in 9th grade, I did a little survey with our class and asked, “Is this class spiritual?” As little more than overgrown middle school students, 85% of you said, “Yes,” and we collectively went on to construct what I still find to be a beautiful statement:
From the self-understanding that comes from an exploration of the heart, the spiritual person develops an inner state of contentment and an alertness to the world, which leads to new connections with others and service to society. Not bad for 9th graders.
#2: When Stephen Suen asked which quadrant you wanted to explore further, most of you stood up for Quadrant 1, increased self-understanding. You know in a way that I certainly didn’t know at age 18 that the key, as Socrates said, is to “Know Thyself.”
#3: Mr. Friedericks offered you the first-ever HKIS course on meditation and you made it a viable class. In addition, you also are the only senior class that has signed up for two sections of the “SSS” class.
#4: The Alpha program began about 6 months ago as a tiny mustard seed – a small program to help seekers explore the Christian faith. Six months later, however, students are describing a Christian revival on our campus. Dozens of hearts have been stirred, and many have experienced Christ for the first or most profound time yet in their lives. Like Derek and Vincent said, these students have had experiences that they can only conclude came from God.
#5: Wednesday’s Community Gathering, which was planned by Alpha students. From the replay of standing up for self-knowledge, to the sharing of profound stories, to the meditation, to the worshipful “Awaken my Soul and Sing”, to Chris Chen’s prayer, I cannot remember a more Spirit-filled Community Gathering. I could feel the spiritual energy in the room; and I wasn’t the only one who fought back tears. One teacher told me this morning,”Best ever!”
Alumni Reflections on the Spiritual Quest
So, let’s recap. Taking my religion teacher’s advice, if the reason to go to college is to explore the universe, you as spiritually-gifted students have made the right start: self-exploration.
I have one final piece to add: Remember this is a real journey, meaning at times it will be painful, and will likely involve some kind of sacrifice or death, which may last for far too long, before the joy of rebirth and resurrection come.
In preparation for this talk, I emailed about 20 alumni to ask them about their spiritual experiences at university, and I got back about 15 pages of responses! They had a lot to say.
From a senior last year:
“My first year of college has been quite a ride. There were the lowest of downs, but there were also incredible ups, almost like a sine curve with an infinite altitude. . . . People in the States called me an FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). Living in a new country is not easy . . . . But one thing I valued the most was spiritual experiences.”
From Amy Burns:
“College has challenged my spirituality in a way that I never thought was possible. Despite how secure you think you are in your identity and beliefs, it all gets shaken up . . . I have been desperately searching in college.”
So, yes, there will be desperate times, but consider the payoff.
Let me conclude by telling you about Yvonne, who graduated about 10 years ago. She went to Foshan in grade 10 with me because, as she said, “she wanted to embrace the suffering of all humankind.” Despite her really crazy personality, I saw her as a deeply spiritual person who had always been drawn to sacred places since her childhood. I wondered what would happen to her when she went off to Georgetown, a Jesuit school. Over time, she slowly found something very attractive in Catholic teaching; she eventually went through catechism classes and was baptized. At the end of her sophomore year, she returned to HKIS and had to ask her, “Yvonne, tell me what happened.” I’ll never forget her response. She said, “Something inside of me that had always been in a state of flux is now at rest.”
So, why go to university? For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, I hope the answer is plain, “Go to university . . . to study the universe!” And that universe includes every facet of your human character, it includes all the beauty and depravity in our world, and it includes all those spiritual truths like death and resurrection. But go, knowing that for many of you, underneath the awkwardness of becoming a freshman again, you have spiritual gifts that are unusual for 18-year olds. So, in closing, class of 2011, I wish you an echo of Yvonne’s words, “Go courageously into that state of flux that is university and, in time and with a touch of grace, may you find rest for your souls.”
Class of 2011, All the best. Thank you.