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Stokes: Tom Wolfe, Shakespeare and why some conventions are worth keeping

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News contributor

I taught high school for several years, and while I’d like to think that I had a meaningful impact on my students, those five years often felt like a comedy of errors.  

I was young but there was still a generational gap between me and my students. More importantly, I came from a generation of mostly common culture (everyone was familiar with Seinfeld, R.E.M. and Dawson’s Creek) whereas kids in the present day are segmented off in their own spheres of entertainment.  Students often peppered me with inevitable questions like “what’s your favorite movie?” Just to keep everyone on their toes, I would give a different answer to each class, each year. Often I would give a pretty straight answer and tell the kids my favorite movie was Lord of the Rings or the Fugitive or maybe Die Hard.  Sometimes I would use it to introduce them to old classics like North by Northwest.  Occasionally I would let slip that I was fond of arthouse films like The Last Days of Disco, a terrific film released in the late 1990s by director Whit Stillman.  (All of Stillman’s films are wonderful – I commend them to you.)

Set in New York City in the late 1970s, the movie revolves around a group of well-educated young adults beginning life in the waning days of the disco movement, hence the film’s title.  As I said, it’s a favorite of mine, though I don’t suspect your average high school students are going to spend a Friday night with it. Still, the dialogue is witty and funny, and contains a quote I used early and often with my students.  While disco club manager Des is racing the airport to escape charges of tax evasion and money laundering, he comes clean with his close friend Jimmy:

You know that Shakespearean admonition, “To thine own self be true”? It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self” is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?… See, that’s my situation.”

From their earliest days in kindergarten, students are taught that what lies within them is the key to their success.  This is well-intended, but at best, it’s a half-truth. Children, like all of us, are flawed in ways they can’t even recognize, and their ultimate success will come from the outside – from wise adults in the form of parents, teachers, coaches, and pastors. 

To those who have just graduated college and high school, you are successful because somewhere along the way, someone imparted to you wisdom and compassion that you needed but perhaps you didn’t deserve. As you grow into adulthood, you should look for opportunities to do likewise for the kids around you, your own children or maybe others you meet in church or in your community.  For my own students, I wanted them to recognize that while they were wonderful in so many ways, they should probably not be entirely true to themselves, but look to serve a purpose higher and better than themselves, ideally one rooted in sacrifice and love.

There was another word I offered to my students, and I would offer it again to recent graduates.  America lost one of its finest writers last week in Tom Wolfe, the prolific journalist who so wonderfully chronicled American life in the last sixty years.  You may be familiar with The Right Stuff, his book about the space program, or novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities.  In a memorable essay for the American Spectator written in the mid-1990s, Wolfe recounted life in San Francisco during the 1960s, noting that in dismantling social conventions, the hippies uncovered problems that humanity had long forgotten, going so far as to recover diseases that that didn’t even have Latin names.  Wolfe famously called it the Great Relearning.

“Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside – quite purposely – were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using any sheets at all or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette.  And now, in 1968, they were relearning….the laws of hygiene…by getting the mange, the grunge, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.”

The point I stressed to my students then, and I would stress today to anyone leaving school and heading out into the wide world is there are untold numbers of rules and structures in our society and we would do well to follow them. There are countless customs in our lives and while a few of them could probably stand to change, the majority of them have all gone into helping create the world we inhabit – so much of our legal structures are undergirded by centuries of unwritten customs.  We simply can’t know all the reasons that our forefathers established our traditions and we certainly can’t know all the trial and error that went into creating the world we have inherited. The lesson is one we should take to heart – we should only upend convention and tradition slowly and with great caution.  Above all, be grateful for the country you have inherited and work to improve upon its glorious foundations. There is so much important work to be done, so let’s do it with a determination and joy.

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