I hope you will learn how to create conditions in which everyone present in the room feels welcome to speak. I hope you will learn how to discern which of two competing voices within you is worth acting on: the voice that cautions you against speaking lest you confirm, for yourself and others, what you suspect, that you are a fool, and the voice that encourages you to trust yourself, that your thoughts, your questions are worthy of being heard by others.
But if and when you succumb to the fear of speaking, my wish for you is that you will ask yourself this: How, without risking embarrassment by composing while speaking a thought or question, does your presence in the room encourage us to risk life? For that is my wish, my only wish for my students: to risk life, right here in the classroom.
And for those times when you choose just to listen, I hope you will learn how to be present without speaking, actively present in such a way that your presence in the room feeds the spirit of inquiry we are cultivating.
Those of you for whom words come readily—in writing and speech—my wish for you is this: that you will understand that words are like wealth. And we, all of us, are living on our inheritance.
There’s hardly a word in our vocabulary that we haven’t received from our ancestors. Follow them back, the words, as far as you can. Honor them, the ancestors, in the way you use what they’ve invested in you, and, when you must, redeem those words that have been used to abuse, mislead, discriminate, destroy. But, when you spend them for whatever reason—in search of truth, to prove your superiority—know this: Words are not the only currency by means of which knowledge is exchanged…or created in this room!
Dear students, my only wish for you is this: that your sleep, if you must sleep in class, will be bright and rich with dreams that, during the punishing hours of your indebted nights and days, seem far beyond your reach. My wish for you is this: that you will not miss, whether you are asleep or awake, a chance to love right here in this ordinary classroom where we, for a few moments, sit together.
If you can’t love each other, love this: “Salt…is a memory of water.”
Perhaps this is too small to love. Lacking a story, perhaps it doesn’t offer enough of itself to us in a way that arouses our curiosity, awakens our attention, calls on our basic goodness to care for the least among us. If you can’t love that short passage on its own, consider, then, this, the immediate context from it was drawn (from Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Richard Rodriguez):
“Desert is the fossil of water. (Haim [Rodriguez’s tour guide in Israel’s Negev desert] has been at great pains to point this out—striations in mesas and the caverns water has bored through mountains of salt, and salt itself is a memory of water.) Is dogma a fossil of the living God—the shell of God’s passage—but God is otherwise or opposite?”
Or worse, because you thought, I already know this. I already know God. I know, I have always known that there is no God. Or maybe your reason was practical, prioritizing. What’s the likelihood that, of all the passages in Darling, this is the one that will be singled out for class discussion? And what’s more, God knows, you can succeed in this class without reading the text at all!
My only wish for you this semester is that you will let God know what God knows and attend to what you know and what your classmates know and what the writers of the assigned texts know and seek to know.
Direct your attention to each other and the texts, even those texts and those classmates you do not love. Because you can’t love every assigned reading. No more can you love every stranger or even, equally and at all times, every familiar person in your life, including at times the most familiar stranger of all: yourself.
Take care of yourself, that’s my wish for you this semester. Take care to consider yourself, the tender, the raw, and the calloused parts of yourself, the fierce and the receptive parts, the local and the foreign, the simple and the unfathomable, immeasurable parts of yourself.
My wish, my only wish for you this semester is this: that you will take care of each other so that each of you will feel supported in your effort to know what can be known for now and to approach and love what is now and may forever be just beyond the bounds of what you know.
Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.