Honor

August 21, 2013

By RAYMOND J. STEINER

YEARS AGO, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a High School’s Honor Society Induction ceremony and, honored, I immediately accepted the invitation. After I hung up the phone, I started to wonder at my alacrity — what did I know about Honor Societies? I’d never been invited to be a member during my schooling. Fearing an upcoming fiasco, I turned to my OED and looked up the word ‘honor’ — hmmmmm… — there were pages dedicated to the word. So, I decided to speak about honor — what else? Still a bit nervous, I got to the school, was ushered into the auditorium where students — honor students — parents and teachers seemed to fill every seat in the house. Whew! After the introduction, I began by stating that I had never been an ‘honor’ student and (as probably most of the adults already knew) that I was merely an artwriter. “I write about artists,” I began, “but how do we choose which artists to write about? Well, I said — we write about those artists who honored themselves. Painters like Rembrandt, writers like Shakespeare, poets like Dante, are written about because they honored their own genius — Rembrandt didn’t imitate or copy other painters, Shakespeare didn’t write like anyone else, and so on. They honored themselves and their own vision. They honored what was best in themselves.” Then I told them a short Woody Allen schtick where he tells about going to a Halloween party dressed in a sheet as a ghost and gets caught up in a KKK march. When they unmask him and discover that he is a Jew, he says, “They were going to kill me and my whole life flashed before my eyes! I remember getting up in the morning, feeding the chickens, milking the cows, and then — hey! I was born in New York City! — someone else‘s life was flashing before my eyes!” After a pause, I asked, “How many of you will have somebody else’s life flash before your eyes when you die?” Another pause. “How many of your mothers and fathers look forward to Monday? We choose our own lives and careers in America, don’t we?” Some squirming and shifting in the audience. “How many of your teachers tell you to honor yourself?” More squirming — but no vegetables being thrown at me — yet. “We are taught to honor our parents, our country, our God — why not to look inside and honor what’s best in ourselves instead of what’s in our textbooks?” More movement  ‘out there’. “Shakespeare honored himself — therefore we honor Shakespeare — Rembrandt honored himself and so we honor Rembrandt. We honor them for honoring what was best in themselves. In my own work, as best as I can I try to choose those artists to write about who I feel are really honoring their own vision — who are true to themselves, who are not creating what others told them to create, who are not living their lives according to someone else’s plan. Someday, I hope that someone honors you — because you learned how to honor the best in yourself.” I remember receiving a standing ovation — but I never got invited back to speak at that high school.