JKR’s Commencement speech at Harvard (Part 1 of 2)
I’ve seen some of the Harry Potter films, but was never blown away by him or his creator’s story of rags-to-fame. But this speech, well. Lately, I’ve had some of my students write journal entries in response to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech. J.K. Rowling’s Harvard address overlaps Wallace’s ideas about awareness, choosing what to worship, developing and exercising one’s empathy bone, determining just what “success” is, etc etc.
It’s uncool in the “real world” to talk about the merits and privileges of empathy. But Rowling explains it so clearly via her personal experiences with Amnesty International. As a fan of talking to my students about learning how to empathize, the difficulties I have with empathizing, my need-to-do-so-else-I-feel-alien-and-or-privileged-guilty-etc, I found this explanation refreshing and necessary, especially out of the mouth of someone who has “succeeded” in the bigger, socially-celebrated-way of money and fame. But that’s not where it’s at for her, not what made her, wasn’t her motivation, at least, solely. And so, she talks about the foundation of failure and then of how witnessing the struggle for evermore power literally kills people. Wallace does something similar, but he frames in it the context of the day-to-day humdrum, “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about” (Wallace, 2005 Kenyon).
And so, I’ll rattle on no more. But do consider giving Rowling a go:
“…I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.
And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.
Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.
Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read. …
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.”
–Continued @ Harvard Magazine
JKR’s Commencement speech at Harvard (Part 2 of 2)
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.