Eli Burnstein's Valedictory Address

No more Latin, no more French,
No more sitting on a hard board bench.
No more pencils, no more books,
No more teachers’ dirty looks.

School’s out for summer.
School’s out forever.
School has been blown to pieces.

If someone were to ask me, four years ago, about graduation ceremonies, I’d have said they were complete trash: a bunch of superstitious nonsense that makes a big deal out of the end of school by putting a few frills and feathers on it—or in this case on us. I’d have said that ceremonies, rituals, pageants, processions—all of it is just a silly little song and dance people add onto the fact of a matter to puff it up. Ceremony is little more than decoration, artifice. Bullshit.

But today I want to suggest that ceremonies are the opposite of bullshit. That rites and rituals are not mere ornaments, but the stuff of our lives; the heightened moments that define not only our calendars, but ourselves. And these ceremonies, these formative moments, are to be found not only in a cathedral or in the church of one’s choice: if one looks for them, they are everywhere.

I say this because I think that King’s itself was a ceremony. A pageant of four or so years revolving secluded within four walls. A self-enclosed space that like a hidden grove or secret cave was the site of mysteries, trials, dances, a sacrifice or two, and many, many libations. And King’s was defining for us precisely because of this. Each of its moments was like a rite or ritual that inscribed its mark upon us, shaping who we are. King’s was a sacred house of art and artifice. A fiction, even a dream. And with this ceremony, whether we participate piously or check our watches, we note that we wake from that dream. That this pageant has faded. That school, really, truly, is out.

The fact that King’s left its mark on us is no great mystery. We all came to King’s expecting that the experience would shape us. Yet for all this, I don’t think any of us expected it to happen so quickly or so intensely. For instance, on my first day I was sitting in the res. room of a boy I’d just met from PEI, awkwardly making the usual getting-to-know-you chit-chat. “What’s your favourite movie-book-music-place to travel-actor? Oh yeah, I saw-read-heard-went there-know him! He sucks.” And all of a sudden while we were talking I had an epiphany: my time at King’s was going to make a considerable impression on me.

By epiphany, however, I mean that the chair I was sitting in collapsed. And by considerable impression I mean that the collapsing chair thrust a long and rusty nail into my backside.

And as I lay impaled and whimpering on that spiky heap, I knew that the impression King’s would make on me would not be subtle or gradual, but highly perceptible, occurring through particular, pointed moments. That slash felt at the time like a kind of ritual initiation to King’s, an incision not only surgical but ceremonial. As routine and yet as significant as a circumcision. And it turned out to be merely the first of a series of special marks and moments that would deeply shape me.

My point is that each of us at King’s has not been shaped by our time here in some vague metaphorical sense, in which all we can say of it is that “we grew.” On the contrary, we’ve been shaped by King’s literally, through a series of specific and concrete moments, some of them requiring medical attention. And each of the meaningful events of the last four or so years, right up until today, can be seen as a small rite or ritual, since each of them has punctured us, torn us open, and formed us anew. Right in our guts.

And with each of these formative moments we were initiated deeper into the enclosed space of the Quad, each time becoming more familiar with its events, its personages, its rooms, its spaces, its art, its vegetation. We became familiar with the contours of each of these, the rooms with funny names like the Frazee room or the Vroom Room, the motto Deo Legi Regi Gregi, which also sounds funny, the broken sundial, the boy with the pirate flag bandana, the trees and their climbers, the pipes and their smokers. But we got to know all this by slow degrees and with a healthy dose of confusion. In search of which tutorial room did you first get lost? At what point had you settled on a seat in FYP or Foundations of Journalism? It was second row for me.

We became familiar with not only the furniture and the classrooms and maybe a half-dozen res’ rooms and phone numbers, but the faces of people who are now our roommates or our loves, our friends and possibly our foes. And there was not only confusion but misunderstanding. The first person I met was that boy from PEI, and the first time I took a look at him and his ridiculous hair I figured he was some spaced-out surfer-dude. And I knew I wasn’t going to like him. (Happy birthday yesterday, by the way.) But within a few hours, we were friends. He sat in second row, too.

Bit by bit, we were initiated deeper into the enclave of the Quad and its rituals: its black basement stage and three-legged race, its rinky-dink bar and freaky upper-years, the difficult thoughts and the people who discuss them—until eventually we became a part of the parade, inseparable from it. Yeats once wrote, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
 / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” I think that we were thus taken into the fold of King’s, swept up in its movement, until we could no longer be distinguished from it.

And with each formative ritual initiating us deeper into King’s, the objects and ideas involved there came to life and took on a special lustre. Whether dozing off on Aristotle under a tree in the Quad, or on our dark and hellish stage beneath the chapel, or competing on the sports field where we are represented beyond our walls, or in the library stacks, or perhaps where we did most of our learning, under the shyly flirtatious gaze of our queen in the Wardroom, everything at one time or another had that peculiar lustre. Each of these spaces, spaces like our rat-infested, yeast-encrusted, crap-hole excuse for a bar, was to us the holiest of holy chambers; each of these activities, activities like the boozy and aimless early happy hour, was to some of us a deadly serious and sacred ritual.

One of my favourite rituals was Wednesday chilli. Our honorary class president, the lovely Zona, would put up with my neurotic dietary requests, each time mixing the meat and the veggie just for me, but each time chastising me for forgetting my mug. Zona, you and I engaged in a ritual every Wednesday, and I’ll definitely miss it. Congratulations on your well-deserved victory.

I’ll miss the slow elevator in the NAB. Or the even more excruciating alternative: climbing three flights of stairs to reach the ever-patient, always-friendly Sharon and Pat out of breath. I’ll miss going to the weight room only to pull a muscle opening the door. I’ll miss the sound of O Canada blasting on an electric guitar from the 2nd floor ledge of Cochran bay. I’ll miss Angus Johnston’s infamous Montaigne FYP lecture handout: “Dante: self complete in object; Prospero: where the bee sucks.” I’ll miss the paint smell of the pit. I’ll miss losing at foosball and losing worse at pool. I’ll miss sneaking coffees into the library and spilling them on my pants, wading through the library’s overgrown plants like an Englishman in the bush wielding by book as a machete. I’ll miss getting drunk at the “wine and cheese”s in the SCR. I’ll miss the smell of religion in the chapel on Thursdays, and the beautiful hymns. I’ll miss Martin Curran’s… I’ll miss Martin Curran.

We have not only received impressions of King’s, however. We have not only been shaped by its events and relations and ideas as by a ceremonial blade; we have also impressed our own marks. And we have done so not only in a friendship or single gesture, a society or a sport, but on the page with a pen, day in day out—in class, the meat and potatoes of the last four years. This was perhaps the main way in which we entered the procession of our school. In critically engaging with the world, the world around us and all its spirits and values were animated. We woke up to its significance, and became better equipped to challenge the status quo, if not only to become aware of it. I’ll miss the people who have challenged and taught me more than I ever would have thought possible.

Almost half a decade has gone by. A 20th of our lifetime; just a slice. But how much have we changed and learned in the hidden enclosure of our school, where not only the sundial but time itself seemed to have stopped? Angus Johnston once said, when discussing Odysseus dreaming of return to his island home, that an “Island is a vision.” King’s is that island and that vision.

So I was wrong when I thought ceremonies and pageants were just decorative nonsense. They are the defining moments of our lives that if one looks can be found everywhere. And the carnival of the last four years, its holy spaces, its sacred events, its animated ideas and objects—each of these leaving their ritual mark on us—is proof of that. And now, on this beautiful spring afternoon, your family and friends have gathered around you, the sacrificial lamb, for the final event.

Yes, finally, we are here at this cathedral, and I know more than that Flying buttresses does not mean what I first thought it did. Finally, we are at the precipice of our future, being asked to jump. But how will we lambs be roasted? What kind of world is waiting for us beyond those doors? There are the usual suspects, though some are more suspicious than usual: we’ve got war, environmental crisis, and of course economic disaster. It has been said that the class of 2009 is at the height of disadvantage for finding jobs; that we face the perfect storm. And yet I’m more nervous about getting a rash from this fur than about our year’s abilities. I have seen in my cohort a variety and extent of brilliance I thought I’d have the fortune in my life to encounter in only a few individuals.

I want to suggest that in leaving the Quad behind we try to see, not only the pageant that was King’s, but the ceremony in everything, the peculiar importance of the many events, ideas, and relationships in our lives. The more we approach the world with a wonder-seeking eye, reading and over-reading into everything, the more we encounter the host of spirits and meanings concealed there. And the more we see this significance in the world, the more we open ourselves to it, the more its myriad moments will make an impression on us and shape us; the more the world will initiate us into its ceremony and let us join in its procession. Finally, the more we do this, the more we may reanimate the dream that was King’s, ever more able to stave off that dreamless sleep of tedium, which as we enter the work-a-day world becomes an ever greater battle to fight.

And so, class of 2009, no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks. But do not be sad that school is out, for as Shakespeare wrote,

be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

As Shakespeare reminds us, not only the island vision, but all the world’s a short dream, an insubstantial pageant, a stage, mere artifice and art. But now that many of us have become bachelors of that art, our job is to see it, live in it, and engage in it.

On behalf of our year, I wish those who’ve supported us sincere thanks, and to the University of King’s College, thank you, and goodbye.