Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Matters: Muncy Women’s Prison High School Graduation Remarks, September 18th, 2014

Wendy Lynne Lee, 3 yr.s old, 1963

Well more than a hundred years ago, the great philosopher John Locke argued that the unique identities of persons—of individuals like you and I—were woven out of our memories, sewn out of the stories we tell about ourselves. 

And while those stories may become, like tattered jeans, worn over time, or re-embroidered with a bit more sparkle and shine than their originals, what matters about them is that they’re ours—that no one else can tell them quite like I can tell mine—or you can tell yours.

Wendy Lynne Lee and her Mother,
Gloria Frances Lee, 1959

Here’s just a little bit of mine:

Crazy but true, I was actually trained for some years to follow my Aunt Evelyn into the ballet.  This was not because my family was especially affluent—we were the middle of the middle class. It wasn’t because I was good at toe-shoes; I wasn’t. 

It was because my parents—like many of yours—aspired to give their kids more than they had had. While I’m sure I didn’t recognize it at the time, I see now that that aspiration is elemental to my own identity. 

Indeed, the lesson I absorbed at my father’s knee was that we must justify our existence through the contributions we make to others. So, by the time I was 10, I had decided to be a writer. Not dancing. Not music. Words

Wendy Lynne Lee
Christmas, 1961

Good, bad, or ugly, that thread of identity—that narrative about my own narrative—is the very air and water of my existence. It is the road for my own contribution, sketched out in words, paved in pencil.

Nonetheless, for whatever my high-fallutin’ aspirations, reality is not a patient place. By the time I finished high school in 1977, I was already working. My dad had died at just 49 from brain cancer, and my mom—to whom I remain close—could not support me. 

My dad, Jack Everett Lee
So I married at 17 and promptly went to work as an assembly line laboror—a job that anyone smarter than a gopher would quickly discover was mind-numbing and body-destroying.  

The minimum wage was $2.56 an hour, and the only thing that spared me from being fired for union organizing to improve wages and working conditions was pregnancy and an early labor that, as an unforgettable 20th birthday surprise, produced identical twin sons.  

Wendy Lynne Lee
18 yrs. old, 1978

Truth is, I was ill-prepared for so much responsibility, and like just too many women, I found myself imprisoned in a marriage where that lethal combination of tradition and ignorance made me one more domestic battery statistic. 

By the Spring of 1980, I had fled—suitcase and diaper bag—from Utah to Colorado. I’m sure I didn’t realize it at the time, but I am one of the luckiest women in the world. I had somewhere to go—a mother who could offer me council and safety, compassion and security.

My mom, Gloria Frances Lee, 2014
Fast forward to August, 1982. I have just given birth to my third son, am surviving—but just barely—on welfare, food stamps, and a grant to go to college, and I live in an old Summer vacation cabin at the base of Pike’s Peak. 

Lindsay Lee-Lampshire, 1983
I have miraculously managed a quarter at Pike's Peak Community College in order to enter University of Colorado, and I’m terrified that factory labor has atrophied by brains, that I’ll be exposed as a fraud, and that I’ll never raise my kids out of poverty. 

But what was also becoming as clear to me as this very moment is that education offers an opportunity like no other. 

My family counseled me to the practical—cosmetology or hairdressing, or secretarial work—all the province of women, and way beyond my motor skills. My mother worried aloud that too much education might render me unmarriageable.  

But I saw something else, and while I know this might sound ridiculous or just clichéd, what I saw in the sheer beauty, bigness, and riotous variety that is the humanities—philosophy, English, anthropology, theater, poetry—was a world I could not only embrace, but to which I could contribute in some way that my kids could be proud of me.

Lindsay Lee-Lampshire, 1984
Life in that cabin, ah—life in that cabin. Four rooms, including a walled-in cement deck passing for a bedroom, a bathroom with no sink, a finicky space heater, a camper stove, and a mini-frig. 

Every school day I had to hike up and down the hillside steppes with a baby, a backpack, and sometimes the groceries, often in the snow, and always with hefty books. 

It would be an understatement to say that I had no social life—but what substituted for that was a sense of purpose, the intoxicating ideas with which I was becoming acquainted, and that I lived somewhere always beautiful and ever-changing.  

Living on the side of a mountain is an experience that is etched into my soul; it informs my commitments to the environment in ways both deep and enduring. I stayed in school, and I alternately forgave and expelled my third child’s father for choosing Micky Big Mouth and Southern Comfort over me, but I would be a liar if I told you that self-reliance wasn’t sometimes accompanied by loneliness, or that staking a claim to my independence was some easy thing. It wasn’t. 

Sunset, Pike's Peak, 2013
All the same, the stories you’ve heard or lived about how necessity is the mother of invention are mostly true, and at least for me that uniqueness of identity Locke talked about grew more out of the need to figure out things like food, heat, and more food than out of anything else.

Philosophy gave me a thousand ways to think about all these things. Among the best, hardest, bravest things I have ever done was to choose it not merely as a discipline but as a life worth living. It took a leap of faith to load my kids, my cats, and my then partner into a 1972 oil guzzling Chevy truck with everything I had in the world and $1500.00 dollars and drive it to Milwaukee for graduate school. 

There is no guarantee that such big gambles will pay off. But what there is is the promise that even if they don’t, we won’t get to old age wondering whether we should have taken that chance, made that leap, taken that road. 

Whatever else you do, don’t let that happen. 

Women make up less than a quarter of academic philosophers in the United States—but we are among its most vibrant and creative communities. Working my way through to the first undergraduate degree in my family, and then the first Ph.D. was at some points so hard I nearly quit in tears. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation less than 10 ft. from a Super Nintendo. I gave birth to my fourth child less than two days before I taught my very first class. 

Carley Aurora
Lee-Lampshire, 2 yrs old
That first teaching day, however, was one of the most insightful of my life. I was so tired. She’d been the first I had delivered without a cesarean section, and she was still at the hospital awaiting a potential transfusion—but 10 minutes into that class I knew two things: first, that if I could weather that day this “academia thing” would likely never get any harder, and second, that being up in front of a room full of fresh faces—just like yours—was a blast. I don’t know that I have ever had a day better or harder than that.

However clichéd it may sound, what education has given me are choices I would never have had, a chance to be a role model to my kids, my students, my nieces and nephews that might never have come my way, and the opportunity to act for the public good that we should all have—but of which too few take advantage. 

Coming to Bloomsburg University in 1992—another truck drive—was both a real risk and a new adventure. But by then, I was up for it, and by the time I had taught and written and worked my ass off for tenure—and my first tattoo--I knew something about risk, namely, that failure really just is an opportunity to try something different, and that success isn’t an event—it’s a state of mind that gets you up on the good days and the bad ones.
Carley and Wendy, 2008

Although my administration might be happier were I a little less vocal, a little less demanding, the truth is that the more protected are our jobs, the more responsibility we have to speak out on issues that matter. 

Among those closest to my heart are issues that affect women, children, and nonhuman animals—those most vulnerable in our society whose voices are the least heard. Taking a stand on some of these is not necessarily a prescription for popularity, and as I have spoken out strongly for gay rights, women’s reproductive rights, animal welfare, and environmental integrity, I am sometimes the target of harassment and hate mail. 

Jack and Wendy, 1967
But the thing is that, once you’re equipped with the critical thinking skills a humanities education offers—once you can think and you come to see even just a little of what all there is to think about—you can’t go back.  

You won’t want to. 

Education is the most valuable and dangerous thing in the world. It equips you to see through the Bull Shit and the beautiful, the hype and the reality, the fleeting and the stuff that’s worth fighting for.  

But with that education comes the responsibility to be better, to do more, to contribute. 

No better example prepared me for this than Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and Marx’ “The purpose of philosophy is not merely to know the world but to change it for the better.”

These two ideas—that critical self-reflection is essential to actions we can live with, and that we have some duty to contribute—inform virtually everything I do. The most obvious of these, I suppose, is teaching—not a job as much as a privilege—no matter with what challenges my students present me. Every day, I get to “corrupt youth.” 

I get to introduce dangerous ideas to young folks, and I get to challenge their assumptions. I also get to write about all the things that matter to me, a few of which even matter to other people. 

If I have any single message for you as you move forward in your own precious lives, it’s this: listen to yourselves. 

Listen to the very best, foresightful versions of yourselves. Then read—everything you can. The world is messy, frustrating, contradictory—but it is never dull.  Then think. Hard.  What is your contribution? 

What do you have to say?

Thank you sincerely for having me today. I have given many speeches—but to date, this is surely the most important.


Tom Frost said...

When I was shoveling manure for $1. an hour in 1977 I would have envied the $2.56 an hour that you're whining about as a GOLD MINE, and I've never been a WELFARE BUM like you either, Ms. Lee. Couldn't you have at least limited your number of children to two, even just in the name of saving some of my tax dollars, if you didn't give a damn about the strain that you put on the earth's resources by doing more than your share of contributing to the population explosion?

David Koch - American Patriot said...

I support Mr Frost 100%. He was obviously severely underpaid in 1977 as he is clearly a master manure shoveler. And Mr Frost, unlike Wendy Lee, is no WELFARE BUM. As evidenced by his stylish clothing, careful grooming, Italian racing bike, and eloquent contributions to the anti-fracking efforts, Mr Frost did not need welfare to succeed in life. Thank you Mr Frost for demonstrating that careful breeding, coupled with exceptional self-discipline, is the appropriate, socially responsible strategy for upward mobility. You are inspirational and should consider motivational speaking in the state prison system.