Graduation by Guest Author Kate Christensen

katechristensencmarionettlingerWe are so pleased to have Kate Christensen as our guest author today on the ball. Kate has a new book out, Trouble, and is the author of the novels In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, The Epicure’s Lament, and The Great Man, winner of the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award.

To my flattered shock, I was asked to be the graduation speaker this year at my old high school. Flattered because who wouldn’t be, shock because in high school I was a dreamy, hermit-like, tortured adolescent whose term reports often mentioned the fact that while I was a good student and bright and all that, I was oj the whole not “living up to my full potential,” words that resound for me even now.

Adolescence is apparently never really over, at least not for some of us.

I came to Green Meadow, a Waldorf school in Rockland County, outside of New York City, in 11th grade, from a desolate part of northern Arizona and a high school where I was deeply unsatisfied and frustrated academically. During the summer of 1978, between 10th and 11th grades, I worked as a waitress at the community guest house near the Waldorf school and decided at the end of th summer to stay. I somehow finagled myself a full scholarship and found a place to live with one of my English teachers, working as an au pair for room and board.

My grandmother, Ruth Pusch, was the school librarian and a “respected and beloved community member,” as the saying goes; she lived near the school and took a sympathetic but distant interest in my adolescent goings-on, most of which (my smoking and drinking, my overwhelming loneliness and isolation as the new kid in the class) she had not one clue about, which was naturally better for both of us.

I was close to my grandmother in a formal, chipper sort of way — she was highly literary, a writer, translator, and prodigious reader, energetic and stoic into her nineties (she died of the flu at 93 with all her faculties intact), bright-eyed, culturally awake, politically aware. She was also impenetrably independent, determinedly cheerful — she never admitted any negative feelings, never copped to aches or pains, but whenever I’ve wondered what lay underneath this tough armor, what loneliness, insecurity, or unfulfilled desires haunted her; I have often imagined she was a lot more like me than either of us allowed ourselves to know.

978-0-385-52730-9hWhen my class of thirteen students graduated in 1980, my grandmother was asked to be our graduation speaker. I saved a copy of her speech in the box with all my old childhood stories and report cards and yearbooks. Of course I want to reread it now, now that I’m giving the graduation speech for the class graduating 29 years later; I would love to quote her speech in mine, to link my long-ago class to this present-day one, to honor my grandmother and connect myself back to her, but now, for some reason, I can’t find it anywhere.

The class of 2009 is also small, about the same size mine was. I went out to Chestnut Ridge this spring to meet them. Walking back into my old classroom with my former history teacher, I realized for the first time that it had been almost 30 years since my own senior year; I felt simultaneously much older than these kids and much too young to be so old. We sat in a circle. I reminisced about the bad old days with my teachers and talked about the trajectory of my own life, and then they took turns telling me about themselves, what they wanted to study in college — environmental engineering, the design of intentional communities, nutrition, ballet, architecture, international business, cartooning, psychology, photography, international relations. They come from all over the world: Japan, the Ukraine, Turkey, Holland, Russia, Germany. Most of them have known one another since kindergarten. They are a sophisticated, savvy, poised, articulate group of young adults; I was impressed by their maturity, their apparent ease with themselves and one another.

I think back on myself at their age, myopically squirrelly and introspectively self-conscious. lonely and unhappy and far from home, listening to “Tapestry” over and over in my room after school, writing in my journal at recess in a deserted classroom, furtively picking my face and daydreaming during class: I wonder, what the hell am I going to say to these kids on June 14th? I need to find that transcript of my grandmother’s speech.

9 Replies to “Graduation by Guest Author Kate Christensen”

  1. Thanks for being our guest today, Kate! Your grandmother sounds so interesting. She clearly influenced you on your path to becoming a writer. Good luck with your graduation speech (although it looks like you’ve got a pretty good one written right here!).

    I really enjoyed The Great Man ( Some of it was personal–I live in Williamsburg and spend a lot of time in Greenpoint–and my husband is an artist), and I look forward to reading Trouble.

  2. I stll can’t find that speech — but will channel my grandmother somehow..

    I was married to an artist for 12 years, and for much of that time, we lived in a loft in Williamsburg. My knowledge of the art world is largely personal, localized, and ground-level. Most of the artists I know are struggling to find galleries, still, in their 30s and 40s and even 50s — it’s a very, very difficult and heartbreaking world to be in.

    The novel I’m writing now, The Astral, takes place partially in Greenpoint, the waterfront area — the title comes from a huge red ghetto-castle apartment behemoth on India Street, the same street Teddy lives on in The Great Man. It’s so interesting to write about the neighborhood I live in — it’s always partly invented, partly real. I find I have to reimagine the place to make it work fictionally.

  3. Yes, the artist world is heartbreaking and difficult–it often feels like an episode of Survivor or something (kind of like the publishing world, now that I think about it). My mystery is also set where I live in Williamsburg, and I sort of combine features of several places in order to make an imaginary cafe, etc. It definitely is a bizarre process, but perhaps necessary when you create fiction.

  4. Kate,
    The Great Man was a wonderful book to have last August as I sat on Venice Beach. When I’d go into the water my husband would steal it and start reading so that I had to beg for it back when I returned to our blanket. Suffice it to say fighting over The Great Man is a “great” memory from that vacation.
    My daughter, too, is about to graduate from a Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs, NY where we live. She’s been in the school since 6th grade and I’d have to say – knowing nothing about Waldorf until she started – it’s been a life altering experience. It’s basically the same size as GM, twelve kids will graduate on June 5th. My daughter will attend RISD in the fall and maintains that Waldorf allowed her to become who she is today. Just as you had felt about the group from Green Meadow, these kids are truly an inspiring group of articulate, interesting, knowledge seeking young adults.
    I’m sure your words will be just as inspiring as they set off on their next adventure!

  5. Kate, I’m so excited you’re here. I discovered you while listening to Maud Newton on NPR recommend books. She pointed us toward IN THE DRINK and it was on my way to that one I discovered THE EPICURE’S LAMENT, which blew me away. I’m absolutely a fan and can’t wait to get to your newest work and all the others I haven’t gotten to yet.

    I like what you said about writing about the city in which you live. My first novel takes place in a city I know well (though I never lived there except when very young) and the fictional version takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it?

  6. You seem to have such clarity about the adolescent, just stepping off into the world experience. Somehow, with or without the text of your grandmother’s speech, I suspect you’ll be able to craft and deliver a commencement speech that will be really meaningful to these graduates.

    I’m new to your books, Kate, but now I can’t wait to dive in!

  7. I would probably have a nervous breakdown if I had to think of something to say at a graduation! But I’m sure you’ll do fine.

    The whole idea of not working to one’s potential reminds me of studies they’ve done with various animals where the monkeys (for instance) did so much better than the other test species, and so the monkeys were deemed the smartest. Eventually someone realized that maybe the other animals just weren’t as interested in the reward as the monkeys were, and sure enough, when they changed the reward, the other animals’ performance improved.

    I guess one of the privileges of being an adult is getting to decide (at least part of the time) where we feel like directing our best efforts.

    Thanks so much for being our guest… and good luck June 14! (You could always speak about the significance of Flag Day.)

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