Searching for More

After months of eager anticipation, I finally saw James McBride ascend the platform at the All-School Meeting last Wednesday. He was the year’s first distinguished speaker to come for ASM, and luckily for me, one I knew well. This summer, I regularly noticed the link on PAnet announcing his future visit, fueling my excitement each time I logged in. However, I was not prepared for what the chapel had in store for me last week. I left after having a good laugh, but felt nothing more provocative than that. I am familiar with James McBride and his work, particularly The Color of Water, which I read two summers ago for an English class. His book isn’t a classic. But it is a New York Times bestseller that chronicles McBride’s childhood and his relationship with his mother. I appreciated McBride’s tribute to his mother because, despite a rocky relationship, McBride came to admire and love her deeply. I expected McBride to elaborate more on his past, and to share selected experiences with us to better convey his message. As funny as McBride was, I found myself searching for something profound in between his jokes. I’m not saying that I didn’t double over with laughter on a few occasions, but I was grasping for substance in his words. Amidst all of the humor, I really wanted to learn more about this author. I hoped that he would talk more about his mother or his struggle with personal discovery. At the very least, he might have discussed The Color of Water or Miracle at St. Anna, because a show of hands revealed how few Phillips Academy students knew of these works. To his credit, McBride did hint at his defense of the Jewish community with his story of an encounter with a Hasidic child. He also encouraged us to realize our mistakes and to accept them as resources for improvement. However, this advice has become banal to the teenagers today who strive for perfection, no matter how modest we are about it. McBride has so much to offer us. He is a man who found success after a rocky beginning. Please, teach us how to persevere, because sometimes we lose sight of the prize at the end. Teach us how to remain strong when the world around us crumbles. You have been there and experienced all that. You have done more than play in a jazz band, but would anybody know this if he or she hadn’t read your books? Mr. McBride did not seem prepared, and perhaps his unorganized speech outweighed his meaningful comments. His account of an African-American speaker who visited his Oberlin common room had some underlying significance. However, his narrative concerning another band mate’s masculinity, which provided nothing more than a shocked giggle, overshadowed this. ASM should be funny, but I still found myself disappointed at the end of McBride’s speech. As much as I found it amusing, I wish he had given us something substantial to wrap our minds around after ASM. But alas, we poured out of the chapel and resumed our day with the same thoughts as when we entered. No joke. Cammy Brandfield-Harvey is a new Upper from Houston, TX.