The following is a transcript of my graduation address that I delivered to the class of 2015 at Tall Oaks Classical School.
If you’re new to all of this, here’s how it works:
I give graduation addresses. I give a lot of graduation addresses. In fact, this is my tenth graduation address. The problem is I don’t quite know why I give graduation addresses. And that’s because like getting dunked in a carnival water tank, I get picked to do this. I get picked every stinking year. And that’s because students seem to like the way I focus on a movie for the graduating class. I’ve talked on Pixar’s Up, Groundhog Day, Princess Bride, Life is Beautiful, Field of Dreams, Charlotte’s Web; and this year, our graduating class wanted me to reflect on the 1991 film, Hook, the sequel to Peter Pan directed by Stephen Spielberg, with the dissent of Amy Armstrong duly noted, since Amy only watches movies with titles that begin with Harry and end with Potter. Also concerned was Stuart Roush, our lone student from West Virginia, because this 1991 film had yet to make it out there.
Now, I thought about rejecting the requested movie, since, given the character of this graduating class, I thought a more appropriate film would be Apocalypse Now. But Esther Winstead frightens me, so I’m just going to go with Hook.
The film stars Robin Williams as Peter Banning, a successful corporate lawyer whose relationship with his family, particularly his young son, is being strained by his all-consuming obsession with working his way up the corporate ladder.
Peter’s career obsession, however, is temporarily interrupted when he and his family have to fly to London to visit his wife’s grandmother, Wendy Darling, now aged 92 or 93. Peter is the featured speaker at a ceremony celebrating the expansion of Wendy’s orphanage, which was once home to Peter before his own adoption.
However, the trip does not keep Peter from his phone, as he is in constant contact with the status of a multi-billion dollar business merger. In fact, at one point, while at Wendy’s London home, Peter’s phone conversation is repeatedly interrupted by his children, which causes him to lose it: “Will everybody just shut up, shut up,” he screams, “leave me alone for a minute, I am on the call of my life!”
But that life was about to change.
After returning from the banquet later that evening, Peter and his wife discover that their two children have been kidnapped from Wendy’s London home. There is a letter, oddly pinned to the door with what appears to be a pirate’s sword and it reads: “Dear Peter, your presence is required at the request of your children. Kindest personal regards, JAS Hook, Captain.”
Peter is completely bewildered. “Don’t you remember, Peter?” Wendy asks. “Don’t you remember who you are?” Wendy informs Peter that he is in fact Peter Pan, and his old enemy, Captain Hook, has returned seeking revenge. The problem is that the now successful corporate lawyer has absolutely no idea what Wendy is talking about, having completely forgotten his life before his adoption into a family at the age of 12.
And so, the situation requires the intervention of none other than Tikerbell, who flies into Peter’s room and introduces herself. “Don’t you remember me?” she asks Peter. Far from remembering her, Peter doesn’t even believe Tinkerbell exists:
You’re a… you’re a complex Freudian hallucination having something to do with my mother and I don’t know why you have wings, but you have very lovely legs and you’re a very nice tiny person and … what am I saying? I don’t know who my mother was; I’m an orphan and I’ve never taken drugs because I missed the sixties, I was an accountant.
While Peter is distracted by his own ranting, Tinkerbell knocks him unconscious and flies him to a pirate port in Neverland. There he awakens in disbelief, and is discovered by Captain Hook, who threatens Peter’s children unless he accepts Hook’s challenge to a duel.
Unfortunately, Peter doesn’t have the slightest clue of what’s going on. And, as it turns out, neither does Captain Hook. When Peter tries in vain to rescue his children who are dangling from a net high above on the ship’s mast, Hook asks his senior crewman: “I don’t understand. Why doesn’t he fly? Is he not Peter Pan?” “He’s Peter Pan, all right,” his crewman responds. “He’s just been away from Neverland so long, his mind’s been junk-tified. He’s forgotten everything.”
Before Hook can kill Peter and his children off, Tinkerbell intervenes and convinces Hook to grant her three days in which to prepare Peter for their dual.
In the meantime, she brings Peter to meet the Lost Boys, those children who fall out of their strollers when the nurse is not looking and who have been collected by the fairies and flown to Neverland. These are the boys that Peter Pan used to lead all those years ago, but has since forgotten: “What is this?” Peter asks upon seeing them, “some sort of ‘Lord of the Flies’ preschool? Where are your parents? Who’s in charge here?” The Lost Boys all point to a young man named Rufio, who dismisses Peter as an old man who has no hope of regaining his former glory.
Eventually, however, Peter begins more and more to remember his time in Neverland and at last realizes his true identity. He transfigures into the spirit of a child, fierce and free, he remembers again how to fight and defend Neverland. And so, on the third day, Peter, Rufio and the Lost Boys storm the Pirate Port to save Peter’s children, only to realize that Captain Hook has successfully brainwashed Peter’s son to see Hook as a true father figure. Peter is crushed; he suddenly recognizes the extent of his neglect of his son.
Nevertheless Peter and the Lost Boys launch a full-fledged attack, soundly defeating Hook and the pirates, but at a terrible cost; as Rufio lay dying in Peter’s arms, he breathed out his last words: ‘I wish I had a dad like you.’ It is then that Peter’s son comes to his senses. “Dad,” he says to Peter, “I want to go home.”
Returning to Wendy’s London house, the children are reunited with their mother as they celebrate the true identity of Peter. And in a symbolic gesture of his renewed commitment to his family, Peter throws his phone out the window. The film concludes with Wendy asking Peter if his adventures are over. “Oh no,” Peter replies, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.”
Don’t you remember, Peter? Don’t you remember who you are? This is an interrogation that is supposed to resonate with each and every one of us, a reminder that we all have forgotten something intrinsic to what we really are. That a story like Peter Pan would remind us of our collective amnesia is not a coincidence. The early twentieth-century British journalist G.K. Chesterton observed that fairy tales are in fact revelatory, that is, fairy tales awaken within us a remembrance of the wonder and awe that once filled our hearts when we first encountered the world around us. Chesterton writes:
… we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water… We have all forgotten what we really are…. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
But our fairy tale goes a step further, for it links this amnesia with Peter’s being orphaned. For countless years, Neverland was Peter’s home; but since his adoption he has found a new home, the modern world. This was not lost on the 92 year old Wendy; when she found out that Peter had become a corporate lawyer, she remarked: ‘So Peter, now you have become the pirate.’
Again, Chesterton offers us some insight here, for he believed that the loss of wonder was the key characteristic of the modern age. He demonstrates this absence of astonishment by contrasting the world as seen through the eyes of a child, what he calls ‘Elfland’, and the world as seen through the spectacles of the modernist, what he calls the ‘Natural World’. Chesterton writes:
There are certain sequences or developments … which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable … [and] necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is … necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. .. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack…. that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened– dawn and death and so on–as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail…. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.
For Chesterton, there is nothing more destructive to wonder and astonishment than the idolatrous worship of facts. And this is because the modern notion of knowledge is rooted in rampant doubt and skepticism; one must, in good Cartesian fashion, doubt everything until one finds that which can no longer be doubted. But this modern conception of knowledge fosters a distinctively skeptical orientation toward the world; the modernist robs the world of wonder and awe precisely because he thinks he has the right to doubt anything unless it can be proven otherwise.
However, Chesterton noticed that, in Elfland, the orientation toward the world is radically different. We see this in what he calls the Doctrine of Conditional Joy, where all virtue resides in an ‘if’: ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire if you do not say the word ‘cow’; or ‘You may go to the royal ball if you return by midnight’. Chesterton notes that nowhere in the ethics of Elfland is such a Doctrine of Conditional Joy ever challenged, questioned, or treated as unjust. If Cinderella were to have the audacity to interrogate, ‘How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?’ her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’ You see, because the condition is never more eccentric than the gift, no less fantastic, no more inexplicable than the wonder of existence itself, the child never asks, ‘How come’? This is because the child has not been taught the ways of the modernist, the wondrous eyes have yet to be blinded by the spectacles of the skeptic.
There is a wonderful scene in Hook that captures the contrast between these two pairs of eyes, the eyes of the imagination and the eyes of the skeptic. When Peter and the Lost Boys first sit down to eat their dinner together, Peter can’t see the food on the table and on the plates. While the rest of them are enjoying the invisible food, Peter asks Tinkerbell: “What’s the deal? Where’s the real food?” Tinkerbell encourages him to eat up. “Eat what?” Peter responds. “There’s nothing here. Gandhi ate more than this.”
But suddenly, the food appears before Peter’s eyes, albeit in a food fight with ice cream. Peter can’t believe it! ‘You’re doing it,’ Tinkerbell exclaims. ‘Doing what?” Peter asks. ‘You’re using your imagination Peter!’
In order for Peter to remember his true identity, he has to first re-imagine the world; he has to awaken to the wonder and awe, the Elfland, that surrounds him before he can return to his senses and remember who he truly is.
I don’t think it a coincidence that the final moment of remembrance happened in the shadow of a tree. As Peter entered into an underground tree house that was once his home in Neverland, he suddenly remembered everything, even his mother. But he still couldn’t fly; he hadn’t come yet to a full realization of who he was. This is because flying required both fairy dust, which he had in abundance, and a happy thought, a thought that is more precious than anything else. Peter froze, and in astonishment, it dawned on him: ‘I’m a daddy’! he exclaimed. ‘I’m a daddy’!
It was at that moment that Peter realized that Neverland and its magical wonder was not so much a place as it was a person. That phone conversation brokering a five billion dollar deal was not the most important call of his life after all; the most important call of his life was standing right in front of him. His family was Neverland. Peter finally remembered who he really was; this orphan had now at last come home. And it was then, at that moment, that Peter began to fly.
These themes of re-imagining and remembrance profoundly resonate in the Christian tradition. The Bible itself uses orphanage language to describe the universal human condition. Our first parents were created as God’s son and daughter, fashioned in his divine image, and placed in Paradise as their original habitat. But their sin expelled them from the Garden, and orphaned them from the paradisical nurture and care of God.
We, the sons and daughters of Adam, all want to go home, but we don’t know the way. We instead turn to a fallen world as a surrogate parent, a substitute father, which indoctrinates us to see Pirates rather than Paradise as our true home.
Thus, the Christian story recognizes that in order for us to remember who we truly are, sons and daughters of God, we have to re-imagine our world so as to find our way back. And so, it was when Jesus and his disciples ate supper together for the last time that he told them: “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms, and I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way… ”
Hence the thief in the shadow of the cross had but one request of Jesus: ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ The one to whom Jesus said, ‘You will be with me in Paradise,’ is the one who recognized that Jesus is Paradise. The cross is the Tree of Life restored; our tree by which we remember who we really are, inviting us back to the rivers of Eden renewed in the waters of baptism, and to the great banquet of bread and wine where we hear the refrain: ‘Remember me.’
Thus, Christian worship invites us to re-imagine the world as redeemed in Christ, and in so doing, to remember who we really are, sons and daughters of Adam renewed.
Sitting before us today are eight graduates who are living testimonies of this redemptive adoption. As classical Christian students, their eyes see the world very differently than the spectacles of the secular skeptic. They are not the products of our modern factory-based education system that takes the wonder-filled eyes of Kindergarteners and over the course of 13 years stunts them into cynical and flippant relativists, indoctrinated as sons and daughters of Hook.
No, talk with these graduates and you will quickly find that they are not impressed by the fads of the modern world, its parodies, nor its siren songs of success. This is because they embody a world not of this one, a new creation. They have bathed their minds in the infinite ocean of the knowledge of God which has fostered moral imaginations that see the totality of the cosmos as redeemed in Christ. For these graduates, we don’t live in a world devoid of any inherent meaning known only through doubt and skepticism; instead, we live in a world that reflects the splendor and the majesty of God, and hence a world that evokes wonder and awe. They know who they are; they were created to be astonished.
They leave Tall Oaks with their identity intact. Oh, sure, there were those middle school years of amnesia, when their minds may have been a bit junk-tafeid. But listen to them sing, hear their prayers, be surrounded by their laughter, enveloped by their love, astonished by their critical thinking, sanctified by their poetry, and warmed by their friendship, and you will find yourself in Neverland; you will begin to see the banquet feast; you will taste, and you will remember.
And so, our dear graduates, as you go forth from here, having finished well, I pray that you always remember who you are, children created in love for the purpose of love, redeemed in love and adopted in love, so that no matter where you go or what you do in this world, you will always be home.