2012 Commencement Address by Tom Meschery ’61
Thank you Brother President Ronald Gallagher, Trustees, Regents, distinguished faculty, family, friends, and guests. And, the reason for our presence here, the graduating class of 2012.
I am standing at this podium today because in 1941 three men wearing black robes and sporting funny looking white collars under their chins provided a three year old boy and a five year old girl love and security at a time of great danger. It was World War II, days after December 7th. The country was Japan that only three days previously had bombed Pearl Harbor; the men in black were Christian Brothers; the boy was Tomislav Nicholiavich Mescheriakov (me) and the girl, Melitsa Nicholiavna Mescheriakova (my sister, Ann).
Along with scores of other British, French, American and Russian émigrés, my mother, sister, and I had been transported by the Japanese from China to the Port of Yokohama. From there we would be distributed to various concentration camps around the island of Japan. It was in this month of transition and uncertainty and fear that three Christian Brothers came to our aid. I don’t remember very much about them, except that they were French, seemed extraordinarily tall, and smiled a lot. My older sister remembers that pieces of rock-candy miraculously appeared out of those black robes, and that the men in black told us stories in French, with us on their laps, while my mother, who spoke French, translated the words into Russian for us. My mother recalled much more. Many years later after we had immigrated to the United States to join our father, she told us how the Brothers would watch us so she could get some uninterrupted sleep; how the Brothers would give our little family half of their daily rations of rice; how the Brothers somehow found milk for us kids; how the Brothers managed to produce extra blankets, and once a pillow and once a toy - a small jade frog that was followed by a small carved ivory elephant.
So it was not surprising that sixteen years later in 1957 when a man by the name of John Henning, and a tiny man in a black robe sporting a funny white collar under his chin by the name of Brother Albert walked into our apartment in San Francisco bearing an offer of a basketball scholarship for Tomislav Nicholaevich Mescheriakov, renamed Thomas Nicholas Meschery, that my mother looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, “Take the scholarship!”
At the time, my mind was not made up. I was a high school basketball All-American with scholarship offers from universities all across the country which included some extremely tempting under-the-table financial promises. One university located in the southern half of our nation - its name best forgotten - had offered me a house, a car, and five hundred dollars a month, big bucks back in 1957 - and our family was poor. St. Mary’s College offered me four years of free education, room, board, a summer job parking cars at a local automobile dealership, and during the school year, a Saturday job parking cars at Golden Gate Fields. The car jockeying at the race track turned into a lucrative gig, but that is another story, and best told by my old college teammate Joe Barry, whose fondness for the ponies remains the stuff of legends..
It may or may not be true that mothers know best, but in this case my mother did indeed know what was best for her son. After a visit to the campus and a chance to talk to the basketball players already committed to the college, I signed on the dotted line. I have never regretted my choice, and I like to believe that playing basketball for St. Mary’s College - in some small way - repaid those three brothers in 1941 for their kindness to our family.
In the four years that you have been studying at St. Mary’s College I am certain that you too have experienced the Brothers’ kindness. They are a good bunch of dedicated teachers. And St. Mary’s College of California reflects their integrity and devotion to higher learning.
So, here I am, seventy years removed from that day in 1941, delivering a commencement address. You have no idea how strange this seems and what an honor it is for an old jock such as me. And make no mistake, no matter what other things I have done with my life, at the core of my being I am an athlete.
That does not mean that I’ve devoted my life entirely to sports. Since graduating from Saint Mary’s College in 1961, I’ve had a number of careers that include professional basketball player, professional basketball coach, owner of a bookstore, house painter, administrator, high school and college teacher, poet, and now in my last years, novelist. I was an excellent basketball player, a lousy coach, a terrible bookstore owner, an uninspired house painter, a disorganized administrator, a damn good teacher, and an adequate poet. As for my last career, novelist, the jury is still out, although I am reasonably sure there are no Pulitzer Prizes waiting for me.
Of my many transformations, athlete, each other, and poet have meant the most to me. Sport has sustained my life, teaching has inspired my life, and poetry has nurtured my life. It was with these three careers in mind that I sat down at my desk and began writing this commencement address.
Let’s begin with sports.
Imagine that life is divided into quarters like an NBA basketball game. My wife, Melanie and I are in the fourth quarter of our lives. We remind ourselves of this - sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously - that it is important to play well in the fourth. We like to think that we have what it takes to finish the game well. We also like to think - hopefully without too much arrogance - that we have played well in the first three quarters. At least well-enough.
But to you graduating Gaels, the fourth quarter is a long way off. For you, there are the first three quarters to contemplate. Without putting too fine a point on time, my first quarter ended where you are sitting now, as I waited to receive my college diploma, wishing that the commencement speaker would hurry up and get his address over with because there was a barbeque to go to, a couple of cold ones waiting for me at the barn, and a prom to prepare for.
I started the second quarter of my life as the 1961 first round draft choice of the Philadelphia Warriors with all my basketball fundamentals in place. That’s what first quarters are for: To get your fundamentals in place be they in sports, in education, or in any other field of endeavor. In sports, the saying goes; you’re only as good as you practice. I am positive this holds true for all disciplines. You are only as good as you know your subject. Kobe Bryant is only as good as he knows every aspect of the game he plays so well. The same holds true for architects, airline pilots, and plumbers. Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” If you have prepared well in the first quarter you will be better equipped to live successfully in the next three quarters of your lives. If you continue to prepare well, that is, if you don’t forget the importance of the first quarter, (I’m not talking only about careers), you will make the following quarters so much easier.
Easier because, in quarters two and three so much happens: Careers, relationships, marriages, children. I suggest to you that during this time you will encounter the full range of basketball experiences: slam dunks, fouls, no-calls, injuries, some spectacular offense and defense - some not so spectacular - and your share of wins and losses, although wins and losses (with apologies to Vince Lombardi) are, in my opinion, highly overrated. In life, it is the process that is most important.
Besides evaluating how well you prepared in the first quarter, it would be worth thinking about what else you will need to play well in the second and third quarters. I suspect - by now - that all of you have been receiving advice about your futures from parents, relatives, friends, teachers, religious advisors, fellow students, acquaintances, quite possibly from your hairstylists, grocery store clerks, pizza delivery guys, and - strangers on the street.
As an English teacher, I naturally turn to Shakespeare when looking for advice. The Bard of Avon is an inexhaustible fount. For the young, the best assortment of advice comes from Hamlet, Act I, scene iii when Polonius is speaking to his son Laertes as the young man is about to depart for France. It’s a wonderful list and worthy of remembrance even though that same father later in Act II, scene i instructs his servant to follow his son to France and spy on him - just in case the lad does something to sully the family reputation. Despite Polonius’ hypocrisy, it wouldn’t hurt for you to review the old man’s list. It’s a neat collection, both practical and philosophical. I’m especially fond of “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them unto they soul with hoops of steel.” But you don’t really need to be reminded of the importance of strong friendships, do you?
Something else that might be of value to you as you go forward into the second and third quarters of your lives is an ancient Zen saying that I have found useful as a teacher. I can’t remember exactly when I first heard it, but for a long time I kept the words written on a card in my wallet: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Throughout my career in the NBA as a power forward, it seemed that my job was always to chop the wood and carry the water, while my Hall of Fame teammates Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry wound up doing most of the enlightening.
When I started teaching I had this Zen saying printed in large letters on the wall above my desk. For all the good it did me. I began my career in education as an alternative education teacher, which means I was asked to teach the most difficult kids in the school, those who could not function in a regular classroom for one reason or another. My classroom was located in the basement of the school as far away as possible from the rest of the normal student body. On my first day of teaching one of my students wobbled into class drunk and proceeded to vomit all over himself. I might have quit right then, except, after that incident, I figured things had to get better. Not necessarily. I won’t go into the time one of my students threatened the vice principal with a baseball bat, or the morning I entered my class and found two girls on the floor strangling each other. Needless to say, during the five years I taught at-risk kids I witnessed little enlightenment. But I did lots and lots of chopping wood and carrying water. At the end of five years Tom Meschery felt like Winnie the Pooh’s donkey, Eyore with the perennial black cloud hovering over his head. I begged to be reassigned and was given, much to my surprise, the Advanced Placement senior English classes, emphasis on British Lit, teaching the best and the brightest in our school. Ah! I said to myself, enlightenment at last. No so fast! As advanced as these students were – we started with Beowulf and ended with James Joyce - I came to realize they too required lots of chopping wood and carrying water. Over the years, as I reflected upon this saying, I always wondered - like the proverbial chicken and egg - which came first? And finally understood that without the chopping and carrying there would not be any enlightenment. I like to think of it as a form of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.
If I could select one lesson that my students would remember me for, it would be that I helped them understand the importance of rolling up their sleeves, of hard work, the grind, the nitty-gritty that must exist before any enlightenment occurs. As I say this, I hear my high school coach yelling, “Games are won in practice.” “Meschery, get to work you knuckle head (I believe he used a different word than knucklehead) Championships are won by teams that play tough on the boards and play defense, the equivalent of life’s nitty-gritty. If my students didn’t learn this lesson in my classroom, they would learn it soon enough in college or OJT - on the job training.
Theodore Roethke, the great American poet, expresses the idea of OJT best when he says you learn by going where you have to go. In teaching and in sports I learned that life is fluid, filled with surprises, contradictions, and anomalies. And, of course - ironies. God help us all, if we don’t understand irony. The Lord help us all to learn how to deal with irony.
I can’t begin to tell you how often I thought I had figured something in life out, and how often it went wrong, and I was forced to make adjustments. Sometimes the adjustments needed to be adjusted. It’s not entirely unlike making a wonderfully athletic move in basketball, certain you will score, when suddenly Shaquille O’Neil looms up in front of you threatening to block your shot into the popcorn stands. Time to adjust. Life is not unlike that moment in basketball. But, think about it, maybe you were not meant to score. Maybe you were meant to pass and assist someone else to score. Things happen. The unexpected.
As Naomi Shehab Nye, the Palestinian American poet, said when asked about writing verse. You may start the poem believing you need to go to the Buddhist temple at twilight, but the poem takes you instead to the dog races. It’s okay to go to the dog races. A number of years ago, I was reminded of this after my son, Matthew, having spent four years at Brown University, at great expense to himself and his parents, studying to become an international economist, upon graduation started a hip hop band. He named the band O.P.M and began traveling around the country playing the night club scene. Their most popular song written by my son - for which Matt still gets an occasional royalty check - was entitled “Heaven is a Half-Pipe.” Perhaps you’ve heard the song? Perhaps not. I was told it’s a popular skater/snowboarder anthem. Matthew never used that Ivy League economics degree, but his experience producing music helped him arrive at his present career in digital film production. Matthew went where he needed to go – to the dog races.
John, a friend of mine and a professor of history at Reed College in Oregon struggled for years writing his Ph.D. dissertation. In the meantime the college refused to grant him tenure although he was one heck of a teacher. One day he resigned. Later, I found out he had become a carpenter. He was happier than at any time in his life. John also wound up going - to the dog races.
I don’t mean to frighten you parents on such a fine and hopeful day, but it’s a distinct possibility that your children will wind up at - the dog races. Relax. It might not be such a bad thing.
Early in my career as a basketball player, my high school coach told me to take what the game gave me. I wasn’t certain what he meant. He was a tough old codger with a brilliant basketball mind and a tempestuous temper, so I listened. Slowly, I came to understand. The more I allowed myself to play within the flow of the game, to be part of its whole, unexpected opportunities presented themselves to me. In education this is sometimes referred to as learning holistically. It is often called living in the now or in the moment. To be in the moment made me a better basketball player. It worked for me in everything else I did in my life. So many of those moments – each one of them a gift.
How does a person know if he or she is living such an “in the moment” life? I’m not sure you ever know for certain, but remember your first quarter, the importance of preparation; the more you practice embracing the now the more you will trust it. In my athletic life, I know that after some of the best games I played ended, I could not explain any individual move, basket, or rebound I made. As a teacher, I know that no matter how often and how detailed I made my daily lesson plans, my most successful teaching moments happened after I had discarded the plans and taught from a different direction, sometimes on an entirely different topic, often one that came to me on my drive to school listening to National Public Radio. Decisions I made intuitively usually turned out right. It still holds true. When I write poetry, my best poems happen after I have discarded the previous attempts in disgust and realize that the poem I am meant to write is waiting for me - at the dog races.
This is not a conventional kind of living I’m talking about - this in-the-moment-living as it flies in the face of thousands of years of emphasis on reason. After so many years of my own On the Job Training, I’ve learned to trust the intuitive way of life. This in no way means that I have rejected the Logos of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Heaven Forbid! The ghosts of my college philosophy professors would rise up to haunt me. Logic has been useful, but not as much as intuition, a mode of thinking more often ascribed to women and somehow less appreciated. Carl Jung, however, defined intuition as the instantaneous processing of data. And that’s how I have come to understand the term. People find such a mode of thinking most naturally when they are living in the moment.
One of the most important by-products of living in the moment is that it lends itself best to creativity, a trait that more and more people in all fields of endeavor are beginning to realize is essential to the development of societies in the 21st century. Creativity is the hot topic among education gurus. New theories proliferate in the field of education. They sprout out of the fertile soil of academia. But when transplanted into the rocky ground of the school systems, those theories wither rapidly. This time with creativity I believe academia has finally got it right - a theory that will grow into a sustainable crop. Creativity is applicable to everything one does in life, and I’m not talking only about careers in the arts or humanities. Ilya Zhitomisrskly, co-founder of Diaspora, an anti-Facebook platform said, when asked about being an entrepreneur and business man: “There is something deeper than making money. Being part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome.”
Sir Kenneth Robinson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick in England and a recognized leader in the development of creativity, says, being creative is not only about thinking, it’s about feeling. When Archibald MacLeish was asked how he recognized a great poem, he said when the hair on the back of his head stood up. Dr. Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, was asked how he knew he was close to his break through theory of quantum physics. His response was that he could feel it.
Doctor Ken Robinson goes on to say that, “people with high emotional intelligence are more likely to emerge at the top of organizations and to be able to lead through an uncertain future. These are creative leaders who are more likely to coach and mentor their staff, rather than direct, in order to encourage them to develop their unique skills and abilities.”
Adrienne Rich, one of America’s great poets, wrote a poem entitled “Prospective Immigrants, Please Note.” About the title of the poem, Rich said she meant the word Immigrants to include anyone moving from one state of being into another. The poem goes like this:
Either you will go through this door
Or you will not go through.
If you go through,
There is always the risk
Of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
And you must look back
And let them happen.
If you do not go through,
It is possible to live worthily
To maintain your attitude
To hold your position
To die bravely.
But much will blind you
Much will evade you
At what cost, who knows?
The door itself makes no promises.
It is only a door.
Adrienne Rich intentionally does not put a sign on the door telling the persons entering what they are entering into. But she provides this clue. She says you will remember your name, not Tom, or Alice or Jeremy or Latesha - your given names - but who you really are. In my view of the poem, Rich is offering you a chance to live more fully and to live more fully is to live creatively. She offers that doorknob to every person, irrespective of time and age. But I believe she is thinking mostly of young people.
It sounds scary, doesn’t it? What does she mean by “things looking at you doubly?” And why must you look back and let them happen? What if you’re a person who doesn’t like taking risks?
Okay, then, Adrienne Rich says, you don’t have to go through the door. It’s all right, there is no rush. She does not present a time table. Rich does not put a gun to your head. She knows going through her symbolic door is a lot to ask and may not be necessary to live a good and honest life. What makes this poem so universal and truthful for me is that Adrienne Rich refuses to NA, NA people who do not go through the door. According to Rich you can still live worthily. You can acquire strong beliefs and maintain them. You can even die bravely. Her poem does not - as they say in sports - disrespect you.
However, it is clear Adrienne Rich believes it is best to open the door. Otherwise, things will evade you. But her poem is not judgmental. The door makes no promises. Still - as I look out over this graduating class - I feel confident because of the humane education you have received from St. Mary’s College that you will leave here willing, now or at some point in your lives, to open the door, to step through and embrace the creative world that awaits you.
I trust you will all play well in the second and third quarters of your lives. And when you enter the fourth you will be able to finish with spirit, strength, and joy. And that the final score will favor you.