In a manner of speaking
When my granddaughter Riley asked me to speak for her at her eighth-grade graduation from the Aspen Community School, I had two very strong and conflicting reactions: I was honored and panicked.Asking me to speak in public is tantamount to asking an arachnophobic to pick up a tarantula, and Riley is the only person on the planet who could get me to do it.A lot of interesting things happened in the weeks on the way to the microphone, starting with having to wrap my mind around telling someone I love what I love and admire about her. How to do that in one page.Meanwhile, Riley had a more difficult assignment. As part of the requirements for the graduating students, she had to make an hour-long presentation before 15 family members, teachers and guests on her growth and progress at the Community School, starting with a paper, “Who Am I?” and ending with another, “This I Believe” (“The hardest thing I ever wrote,” she said).In between, she outlined her progress in various subjects, showed us her art journal, spoke of her journey from innocent to warrior, and gave us a sample of her first research paper in fifth grade compared with one this year complete with footnotes and bibliography – the whole interspersed with questions from the audience. If that had been demanded of me when I was in eighth grade, I would have shinnied up the nearest tall tree and stayed hidden in the leaves until the coast was clear. The Community School principal, Jim Gilchrist, had another take on it – he said he could have summed it up in one sentence: “I believe that I don’t know who I am.”But here was Riley, cool as a cucumber, organized with visual aids and folders for all the attendees, fielding impromptu questions, and the overpowering sense of it was that there was nothing to fear. This was not a test. The questions weren’t entrapment but a genuine interest in her feedback.Here I was with my panties in a wad about making a three-minute statement at the graduation the next night, and I could only wish and wonder what my life would have been like if I had been in a school like this instead of one where I would write, “Thirty minutes to go … 29 minutes to go,” as the clock snicked off another 60 seconds down the toilet.”Now, I am a very different person from who I was 10 years ago when I first got to this amazing school. I am independent and can stand on my own two feet without being afraid,” Riley wrote.”I believe in humor. I believe in truth. I believe in chaos. I believe in equality. I believe in making mistakes. I believe in being informed. I believe in true love. In mystery. In adventure, and taking risks. I believe in people. In democracy, and using your voice. I believe in myself. And I believe above all in individuality.” Ah my trooper, oh my little dumpling, what a kid you are.It wasn’t until it was over that I understood what Riley had given to me by asking me to speak for her. I was afraid that I would fail her: that I might start crying and not be able to stop, that I might stand there paralyzed with my mouth hanging open and have to hand my paper to my daughter Skye. “I have every confidence in you, Su,” Riley said. Overcoming fears and being able to say, “I DID it!” is part of the credo of the Community School. There could not have been a safer, more supportive place for me to pat the dreaded tarantula. Su Lum is a longtime local who will not be seeking or accepting public speaking engagements. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.
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