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2007 Encaenia
Kathleen McKenna’s Valedictory Address

Kathleen McKenna's Valedictory Address

Delivered on May 17, 2007.

kathleenmckenna-feature-photoThe story that I am going to tell you today is a story about education. It begins in a high school in Etobicoke. This is one of these huge suburban high schools where you can determine someone’s socio-economic status by whether they leave out the front door towards the winding streets of heritage houses, or the back door towards the apartment complexes. This is one of these massive institutions where one always feels isolated and awkward; and if you have managed to eek out a group of friends, it is usually at the cost of never being able to make friends outside that group: you are a jock, or a brainer, an indie kid, a computer nerd. My brilliant friend Kate Robertson is in grade 11 in this story, she is struggling to finish high school. The thought of walking into a classroom paralyzes her with fear when she wakes up in the morning. After numerous phone calls from the truancy office, she finally attends one class: her favourite course because it is taught be an especially gifted professor. After class he asks her to stay behind to discuss all her outstanding work, her incomplete work, and she ends up explaining to him how anxious she is about school, how difficult it is to make friends and how isolated and unsure she feels. He said something to her, maybe it seems naïve, or like a cheerful cliché, but this sentence stayed with Kate and allowed her to finish high school. He said: “It’ll all be better when you get to university – they’ll be people like you there.” It’s not that there aren’t like-minded people in high school, but they are all so busy trying to determine a safe identity that it is hard to be yourself and see other people for who they are. After Kate successfully finished high school she attended King’s and, like an ancient prophet, her teacher’s words came true. New friendships formed on this campus that not only recognized Kate’s unique gifts and strengths, but challenged her to develop intellectually, emotionally and ethically.

King’s allows what high school doesn’t because of a unique quality. I am not the type to wave a banner for any institution, but there really is something special here. I am not sure how to say this any other way, so here it goes: we are all weirdos, eccentrics. We all nurture an idiosyncratic perspective. There are people sitting on the stage thinking that I am not speaking to them: J-school students, King’s students who haven’t taken a class here in years, students who never took a King’s class. But, I do mean everyone. If you are a Contemporary Studies student, an Early Modern Studies student or a History Of Science student you are, in your combined honours way, hybrid creatures. You are both practitioners and critics. You have learned to analyze and criticize, but that process has not prevented you from also acting and believing. Journalism students take their gawky microphones and video cameras into the world to record their unique perspective. You have learned to be neutral and objective, without giving up the hope that what you write may some day change the world. Those knights-errant, those King’s students who never saw the NAB after FYP, or never at all. You are perhaps the most eccentric, you have ultimately refused the choice between King’s and Dalhousie – you study your game theory, your microbiology texts under the watchful eye of Cicero in the King’s library. You have admired the intimacy of this small college, while pursuing your studies in the great halls of Dalhousie. We are all up here because we were looking for something different after high school. And I think we have found it.

The trend of the modern world is a proliferation of labels, these normalizing, pigeon-holing identities can crowd you in. We don’t want the rest of the world to be like that high school. Why can’t you be a transsexual accountant, a basketball player with an MA in post-colonial studies, a Premier who also happens to be a Derridean, a powerful executive who becomes a United Church Minister. It has taken courage for all of us to get to where we sit today, because it has taken the courage to say “I am neither this, nor that. I am not sure what I am or who I am going to be. But I am going to find out for myself.” We need to continue to be brave in the face of “the real world”. We need heroes, role models: Simone Weil, for example, (whom my father introduced me to). She refused to choose between Christianity and Existentialism and pursued her own spiritual course, informed by both ancient texts and her contemporary existentialists. George Orwell, who refused the political choice between Fascism and Communism, but fought for his unique form of socialist democracy. bell hooks, who eschewed the both academic post-modernism and African-American anti-intellectualism who demanded that one could not be both black and post-modern. These are my heroes, you are welcome to find your own.

So, it is a privilege then, to have attended this college, that has allowed me to come into contact with some of the most intellectually, creatively, and ethically inspiring students and professors. But it is a privilege. And as far the nature of privileges go, it is a very elite one. We sit on this stage, while many others will not finish high school, will not enter high school, will not enter a school at all. This privilege comes with responsibility and I trust that responsibility to this class. It is a dual responsibility to both ourselves and others. To ourselves: we must never forget that we are strange, that we are idiosyncratic. That no label or title is sufficient to describe us, and thus we must refuse the system of labelling and titling. Don’t be afraid to discover what you love to do and do it. Don’t be afraid that your parents won’t understand; they have secret dreams too; they will admire you for pursuing yours. My mother, for example, is a Toronto executive, but I think she wishes she was a sailor on a merchant ship. Your future kids don’t want to be provided for, they want a parent who models passion, commitment, and who feels satisfied and alive. Our responsibility to others is different: while we have had the privilege of pursuing our idiosyncratic education, we must never forget that everyone is strange too. The system of labelling and titling is insufficient for us all. The dishwasher at whatever restaurant you go to tonight to celebrate is as deserving of pursuing his passions as you are to pursue yours. The kind of high school of which I spoke at the beginning of my story is the cradle of the stratification and classification of society. To recognize the uniqueness of others is to provide opportunities for others to recognize it in themselves. We should not have to wait until university to develop into unique beings, especially because most of us never get here.

Finally, on behalf of the graduating class of 2007, I would like to thank a number of people who have made this day, and the years that have lead up to it, possible. First of all, the support staff at the university. You know yesterday I ran into the woman who cleaned my room during my first year in Alex Hall, Darlene. Darlene was a true friend and mother figure during my first, difficult year and she is representative of all the people who keep our school clean and maintained, and keep us fed. They are our mothers and fathers when our mothers and fathers live far away. Then there is the administration. During this week I have probably entered the registrar’s office no less then seven times. Each time I am greeted with a smile. Everyone at King’s, be it Monica or Stephanie, Pat or Kelly, Sharon or Charlene, Elizabeth or Paula, knows your face if not your name. Their hard work and unbelievable organizational skills keep this train on its tracks. The library staff are equally heroic, meeting every strange demand for this book, that magazine, help with printing, research, or any other task we students dream up. Elaine, Patricia, Paulette, Janet, Tasya and Drake have made the King’s Library the most pleasurable place to study in Halifax. I not going to say that I will miss spending my evenings there, but I will miss the faces behind the circulation desk. Our professors. Dr. Susan Dodd, who was my main tutor during FYP, wrote on my second to last paper that I would have to start demanding from myself the excellence that she knew I was capable of. I have kept that paper near my desk and meditate on those words when I feel like I am not up to a certain assignment. I believe that a superlative educator is not only one who has something to teach, but one who believes in the ability of their students to learn. I learned this lesson here. And finally I must thank our families. Those who have worked hard to put us on this stage. Who have supported us emotionally and, often, financially. We share this day with you, as you have shared these few years with us.

In closing, I would like to remind you to remember who you are on this day, the person you have become and the dreams you have. Please be mindful of your lives and the lives of others. They are unique. Thank you.