I am fortunate enough to receive, on a regular basis, the talks that Jim Power, Head of School at Upper Canada College in Toronto, shares with his students. Recently, following the death of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Jim recalled the time when, in 1984, he heard Gov. Cuomo deliver the graduation speech at his alma mater. As he told the students, it was as if Cuomo, on that day, was talking directly to him (and what better praise can a speaker receive than that?). He then went on to quote Cuomo from that address:
This world of ours…is a threatened place, bleeding and broken, in pain. Not for all, however. For some inscrutable reason there are those who always seem in this great game of life to fall on the safe squares. To escape the real tragedies. And many of us, I’m sure, will be among the lucky players.
You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have a skill; not enough to have read all of the good books, even all the great books; not enough to know all of the important facts or mouth all the nice humanitarian sentiments that liberal arts graduates are supposed to memorize….This place was justified because it had something special to say, and what it had to say was that you are supposed to love openly, freely, absolutely with all of your heart and all of your will, not because it’s a nice thing to do and it will help you to keep your sanity, but because your souls are at stake, because without that love we will perish.
In essence, I believe Gov. Cuomo is saying that there is something basic to human nature that goes unfulfilled when we do not give of ourselves in love to others. When that love is withheld, or unexpressed, we are less as human beings. Rather than something we do out of duty, or sympathy, or guilt, it is something we do that makes us fully human and makes our souls come alive.
I think that was what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying, when he frequently spoke of how racial injustice and hatred is as ruinous to those who perpetuate it as it is to those who are victims of it. Somehow, in the act of oppression, the oppressor suffers as much as the oppressed do, perhaps even more. The oppressor’s soul is at stake in that he or leads a stifling life, with a diminished humanity and a heart of stone.
It turns out that both Dr. King and Gov. Cuomo were calling us to lead a more fulfilling life, one that expressed our true nature as human beings. Just as our schools seek to educate the total child—mind, heart, body, and soul—so loving others, indeed setting them free, is indeed an expression of the total person we are called to be, not to mention the fully educated person that our schools seek to produce.
I have no doubt, knowing and respecting Jim Power as I do, that Gov. Cuomo’s words did indeed speak to him. It turns out that they speak directly, as well, to all of humanity, to what makes us fully human. By implication, they also speak to what can make a school most fully itself.