Excerpt from my talk at Leavers’ Chapel, June 7, 2013
To talk about heroes at graduation time is common, even easy. In the popular media the notion of the hero gets transformed into a notion of perfection, that these are people devoid of flaws. If I were to tell you who my heroes were, the list would include Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, Sir John A. MacDonald, Wayne Gretzky, among others. If you look up any of these people on Wikipedia you will find they are imperfect. People exist who vilify Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and Sir John A. MacDonald. Wayne Gretzky not so much.
We all have people who inspire us. I want to tell you a story. After my first year of university – essentially when I was your age – it was a common experience to hitchhike around Europe. Believe it or not I didn’t wear a suit and tie then, and I had longer hair. In my case the hitch-hiking was around England, where my parents originated, and where I could plan my hitch-hiking around different corners of the country and be guaranteed a meal, a bed and a shower.
A great aunt of mine – Aunt Ethel, whom this story is about, even though there are other people in it – was looking after my dying grandfather in the south of England, in a little town called Hope Cove. This was my only remaining grandparent. I hitch-hiked there, to this small out of the way place at the end of an overgrown lane on the fringes of this town. My great aunt, as they say in French, had beaucoup de caractère – she was full of character, she was her own person, and she was different. All her life she had run homes for people who needed help. Originally from the north of England, she had scandalized her neighbourhood by taking in a prostitute. She had also taken in a priest who wasn’t allowed to preach any more, Father Pereira. He was as dark a black as you can imagine, originally from Ceylon, as it was known then. He had been educated at Oxford, but lacked the tact and polish to be a parish priest, and was basically run out of his town. He remained under Aunt Ethel’s care for the rest of his life, and by the time of my visit had had several strokes. He was incredibly good-natured, a voracious reader, and a holder of strong political opinions. In the absence of an approved pulpit, he discovered it was easy to find others.
I stayed a few days with Aunt Ethel and her wards, always a little in the way because I had disturbed the peace and order of this ramshackle house that was the last resort for these people, none of whom were actually in full possession of their faculties or their health.
My aunt was 89, and I realized it was likely the last time I would see her. I understood that she was a special person. Before I left I spoke with her and asked if she had something I could have as a keepsake, something of hers that I could pass on to my own children when I had them. I can’t believe I was actually so mature then – more likely I had heard such a line in a movie and was being melodramatic, as nineteen year olds can be. She said okay. The next day she gave me a small, beaten-silver cream pitcher, engraved with the words, “Children, keep yourselves from idols.” It was just right: small, light, sturdy and easy to put in a backpack.
It was the kind of thing that gets forgotten, but here I am, decades later, remembering it, as I have done a number of times over the years. She was heroic, but you won’t find her in Wikipedia. She was authentic, she did good things which were their own reward, and her example compelled others to better things.
And she chose to leave me with this message, “keep yourself from idols”. The message is that in our lives we will encounter those who are authentic heroes, and those who are false. Those graduates who attended our Junior School will remember that I had a deal with you at the time – that if you could memorize the School’s Mission, I would give you a School pen. At the core of our Mission is the “pursuit of truth and goodness.” The pursuit of truth and goodness is a journey, not a final resting place. On this adventure we learn how to distinguish the true from the untrue, and good from evil. We also learn to distinguish the heroes from the idols.
That has been the work of me and my colleagues, and of our journey together while you have been at SMUS – and you take away with you the best that we can do. I believe you will seek good heroes and be good heroes. Vivat.