Commentary

Make The Most of It

What’s so special about May 30? On May 30, 1536, King Henry VIII married the third of his six wives. On May 30, 1496, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain on his way to accidental glory. On this day, Joan of Arc roasted for her beliefs, the first Indianapolis 500 first took place, and Peter the Great was born. On May 30, the students of Phillips Academy will finish a grueling year of academics, a movie starring Liv Tyler with the tagline, “You will die” will be released (coincidence?) and someone somewhere will either act on the worst of threats, or rue the day they got a little bored while sitting on the porta-potty. Five-thirty-oh-eight is a day like any other, and given the lottery-like chances of a disaster, should we mark its passage any differently than we do the other 240 days we spend here? What exactly do we have to fear anyway? A bomb, masked assailants, or arsenic in Uncommons’ coffee and the second coming? This incident has been a bizarre mix of gravity and mockery, the terror of doomsday predictions and the almost parody-like quality of the menace itself; I’ve heard of “writing on the wall,” but literally no solemnity can pass unscathed through the walls of a portable toilet. Death threats—cruel. The possibility of true disaster—utterly serious. The apocalyptic message’s humble location—a hopeless target for satire. 19th century abolitionist John Weiss once said, “Irony is jesting behind hidden gravity.” Are we sarcastically brushing off a real fear, or are some of us using fear to justify a day off from school? Perhaps deep down we all have at least contemplated worry, but only a small minority of us were scared enough to alter our schedules today. Our Head of School expressed her disbelief that anyone at PA would be insensitive enough to use this incident to wrangle a three-day weekend before Assessment Week, but personally, I wouldn’t be that offended. If someone is actually scared, they have the right to do whatever they need to feel safe; if someone is just really sick of school… well, who isn’t? Maybe what PA needs is not reassurance that we’re safe, but a little extra drama, an excuse to talk about something other than low college-admissions rates and History 310 papers. Just as students continued to create chaos during last year’s Head of School Day prank long after it became obvious that the email was a fake, perhaps students are just using what was meant to depress us to make us laugh a little. Of course we feel safe; most of us live in a rut. I think a day of quiet panic is in order, a day that, whether it turns out ludicrous or tragic, is educational. What did you do last night? Did you stop and wonder, even for a second, if you were going to be all right? Did you talk to your friends, call home, watch Grey’s Anatomy? Indulge in a couple extra hours of sleep, a couple extra conversations, a few more real moments amidst the gloom of perpetual achievement-chasing? If you thought even a bit, if you had even the smallest seed of doubt that maybe your world wasn’t going to continue as planned on Friday — would you do anything differently? Would you be glad that you chose to come to PA? Would you do your homework anyway? No matter how slim the possibilities, questions of death invoke questions of meaning. What meaning did this particular message bring to us? Our Head of School, Mrs. Chase, told us, “Adversity can bring a community together.” But if we were affected at all (and I hope people were) we were affected separately. Perhaps text-messaged and emailed summons brought us to walk into the chapel together, but not only did Mrs. Chase lead us in laughing at a single student, but we left the chapel in our usual cliques and groups and factions. Perhaps Mrs. Chase told us that we were loved, but didn’t we laugh? Didn’t we brush it off? It’s easy to believe that your house counselor loves you, or your favorite coach loves you, so why is it so hard to take that message earnestly when it’s delivered to all of us? In my opinion, the real poignancy of the message was the word “everyone.” You derive a kind of comfort from that word. What if the note had been directed at you alone? How is it that a threat to all of us didn’t bring any of us closer together? Whether you regard that anonymous writer’s note with real or sarcastic fear, irony, seriousness or a smirk, I hope it will evoke a measure of reflection. You can’t control what happens today, but you can control how you respond. Tiffany Li is a two-year Upper from Highland Park, Ill. tli@andover.edu