My senior classes are just beginning to read Hamlet.
The play opens with Barnardo demands to know, "Who's there?"
It is a question Hamlet will spend the whole play trying to answer.
This morning, I asked my seniors in class to make a list of all the different ways they could answer this question (son, daughter, athlete, and so on). After they jotted for a few minutes, I said, "Okay, so that is what you are at this point." I paused, then asked my thirty wonderful seniors if any one of them was willing to claim with genuine confidence that they knew who they were at this point.
Not a hand went up.
So, as with Hamlet, though we hope with a lot less trauma, they will spend much of their remaining time attempting to answer it.
When I asked how they will arrive at that answer, Jesus V. said that they must each test themselves, for it is only through finding our limits that we discover the answers to such questions as life and literature pose.
Many in their later senior years, of course, lose sight or sense of who they are--or who we are to them: many of our friends now care for parents that no longer know their own name let alone the names of their children or grandchildren.
In another of Shakespeare's plays, Romeo says, "Oh teach me how I should forget to think." Our students read Romeo as freshmen, a time when they rarely seem to need to be taught not to think since our most common refrain as parents is inevitably, "What were you thinking?" (Answer: "I guess I wasn't.")
As seniors, only four years older, our students read the story of the young prince Hamlet, who shows us at every turn what it is to think about who we are so that we may, as Polonius counsels his son Laertes, "above all to [our] ownself be true."
Today my senior students spent the morning in the computer lab with the counselors completing surveys, starting the process of applying to college. Our son is going through the same process.
They are struggling with how to answer the question: Who or what will I be, what will I do?
I see others in my life, somewhere in the middle of the passage, asking: Is this who I am, what I will do for the rest of my time?
And those seniors in my life, those elders, I mean: They struggle with all three of these questions all day: measuring out their lives to understand who they were, what they did, who they are now, and who or what they will be going forward.
These are questions they cannot always answer for themselves: Sometimes the body or the brain answers for them, telling them what it possible, or preventing them from even asking these questions.
So we, who are in our middle days, help our children look into their future to answer questions that we spend the other part of the day helping our elders answer by looking into the past.
Seventeen years ago our son Whitman, our senior son, arrived. He came early. Perhaps he knew he had to: a month before, his grandfather Melvin (Susan's father) had lost his year-long fight to cancer; a week later, his grandfather Jerry (my father) would lose his own year-long battle to a different cancer.
We named him Aidan at first, for the one who helps others; then we named him Whitman; then we thought of our great fathers, wonderful men who represented the best of their generations, and named him: Whitman Robert Aidan Dykman Burke.
It's a lot of name, but we felt called to honor so many at that time.
They would be so proud, those two fathers, those two grandfathers who never saw or got to meet him. But the news of him, the knowledge that he was coming kept them company during that long year before their departure, when we would drive to our hometown of Sacramento, return to the childhood homes, to parents, to the end of one era and the arrival of the next.
So it seems that since the day of his arrival he has been a blessing to those who know him. As for all those names: He doesn't think they are strange, they are all he's ever known. When, however, we went to fetch him from camp a few years ago, we asked all over for Whitman, and no one knew anyone by that name. Finally, I saw him and said to the counselor, "There...that's him over there!" a little peeved no doubt that they hadn't come to know and appreciate our son.
To which the counselor said, "That kid? Oh that's Bob! Everyone knows Bob!" When we asked him about telling everyone his name was Bob, he grinned and said it seemed like such a strange and fun name, so he decided to just tell everyone that was his name that week.
Today, I would see, at different times, Ann out in the garden, sitting under the apple tree, or on the deck of the playhouse, later on over on the swing seat under the rose arbor.
It was as beautiful a day as San Francisco gets here in September, that point of the year that really marks the beginning of our summer.
The playhouse is where she played as a young girl in the Eden of her childhood here in the same garden eighty years ago. The roses on the arbor were planted by her father, who was famous throughout the neighborhood for his roses. Sitting in the garden, on such a day, who could not feel grateful for all your life has given you the chance to see and do.
Looking up at the house, she might have glanced her granddaughter Nora playing dolls with her friend Audrey, both girls the same age Ann was when she did the same so long ago in the playhouse.
Senior students, our Whitman included, rarely understand that they live in the garden of their youth, wherein so much is provided, things they take so for granted that they can not even fathom life without them.
Outside the garden, there lies a world all these students and my own son must learn to make their way through, to arrive at the other side, where they can, as Ann did today, sit in the garden, at peace, looking at the children of their children at play under a sky the same color as those of their own childhood so many years ago yet which the memory calls up with an ease and clarity that never ceases to amaze me.