Accepting—and Using—Gifts You're Given
Listen to Ken's Speech.
Let me start out with a thank you. I think thank you is appropriate. Thank you, donors, thank you so much. For a long time I wasn’t good at asking for things, and that turned into being hesitant to say thank you for things, and that needs to stop. If there’s anything I’ve learned to do in the last four years, it’s to accept gifts and say thank you.
There once were two families who had just moved into their respective new houses, and both families received dining sets as housewarming gifts. The sets included artisan dinner plates of white polish, gold-rimmed china. The first family put the plates on display in a cupboard next to the dining room table, and had guests admire them as they ate. The second family put the plates on the table, and had their guests use them.
The first family thanked their friends by telling them, “Thank you so much for the plates. They’re on display in the dining room.” The second family thanked their friends by telling them, “Thank you so much for the plates. You made us cook better food, and now we eat like royalty.”
I’m trying to say thank you like that second family today. When I’m given a gift, I want to show that I’ve constructively used it, that I’ve tried to cook better food. Because if plates stay in the cupboard, they’re plates, they’re items, they do not change. If they’re removed and used, they contribute to a better meal.
I could go further – I had it all sketched out in my mind how to map this parable exactly onto this situation. I went through thinking, maybe your generosity is the plates, maybe my contribution is the food, and with the glass of liberty raised high, we together create the feast of democracy, etc. etc. It just didn’t work out.
Something changed when I got a donor scholarship. I had to face the fact that whoever this money was coming from wasn’t asking for anything tangible, but rather wanted to see what I would do if left to my own devices with incredible freedom.
More simply, I think this story caught my eye because it represents to me the value of everything delicate and precious that we feel must be protected, but that in fact must be used to have any value at all. Those plates are those delicate and priceless things that I had to learn to unwrap and use, and I spent my four years here learning how to do it.
For me, it was my writing. My therapy and my pleasure, it is the thing I consider most definite and important to me, and to put it out in the open for manipulation and revision was unthinkable. So I left high school a writer and a filmmaker, spent six semesters here as a Geology major, and I’m leaving a writer and filmmaker. I changed in the middle because I got scared of using the talents that I considered to be delicate and precious. Instead I decided I was going to go do something more tangible with my time, and what’s more tangible than rocks?
But something changed when I got a donor scholarship. My financial aid had always been no-strings-attached, but when that policy remained similarly lax coming from one name, one person, I had to face the fact that whoever this money was coming from wasn’t asking for anything tangible, but rather wanted to see what I would do if left to my own devices with incredible freedom.
For some time I had it in my head that, at college, I would do something, and then someone would be there to tell me if it was worth anything. For those of you wondering, this is not what happens. People are here to help you do whatever you want, and you are thus left with the unfortunate business of searching. Searching until you find something that makes you get up in the morning and do something of merit without anyone over your shoulder telling you whether or not it is of merit. Oddly enough, it took the thought of this mysterious Gately family standing over my shoulder to make me realize that.
Of course, I may have misread some of the fine print, and Mr. Gately in fact stipulated that I become an astronaut, in which case, I apologize for the misunderstanding. I rescind my diploma and I’ll take leave of the premises as soon as possible.
Here’s what it came down to: with my scholarship in mind, I began to think more and more about my own judgment of worth, which lead me to consider returning to the arts. And after that, it was not a leap of faith, but rather a slow and gradual return to film and writing during which I discovered the unspeakable soul-feeding value in using something precious to try, even when there is a very possible chance of failure.
It took many weeks and months of torment and decision to begin writing and making movies for grades and an audience. I started taking film and fiction writing classes, and, the first few times I took the plates out of the cupboard, the food wasn’t up to par. I took failures personally, I second-guessed my ability, and I considered turning around.
But then I didn’t. I found myself revising and editing when the class didn’t ask for it. I found myself coming back humbled and trying something different. I began to realize that I didn’t mind failing if I really believed in what I was trying to do. Because my talent was no longer some separate entity, precariously balanced on a pedestal, but here in my hands contributing to something much stronger than its component parts. Something that would survive small mistakes.
Then I started taking improv more seriously, and learned to let go of ideas as quickly as I had come up with them, and through that I found some of the funniest and most intelligent people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. And with them I made things, and I rediscovered why it meant so much to do this thing that I love doing, and with them, I was allowed to try and fail and try again and screw up so many times, in so many ways, that I eventually learned to stop taking it personally and start doing better work.
The food got better, the meals got better, and I started to eat like royalty.
Today you see me still in that process. I wouldn’t for a second think to say that I have finished anything, or that I’ve definitively wrapped up my four years with some neatly tied bow of a conclusion. Instead, thanks to your generosity, I found a way to define my own idea of finished, and to continue to learn rather than to conclude. You set me in motion. I have learned to work for myself, to ask myself whether or not I am doing something of merit. And, now also rediscovering my nagging perfectionism, I have a feeling that that this will be an ongoing project.
So today I thank you, and I thank you for this time and this place and this education, but I refuse to do it as though I have been handed a trophy, because your generosity is not a thing to be held up and admired alone. It is a component of something greater and ongoing, and I hope I use it wisely.