Finding Our Stories: Maria Archer Commencement Address, 2019

June 3, 2019 / Andrea Wenger
Maria Archer with class of 2019 members who attended Eastern Mennonite Elementary School
Maria Archer with class of 2019 members who attended Eastern Mennonite Elementary School

Maria Archer, k-8 principal, addressed the class of 2019 at their graduation ceremony on June 2. Archer was invited to speak, in part, because of her unique connection to the class; several of the graduating seniors had attended Eastern Mennonite Elementary School, including three who were part of the program’s inaugural kindergarten class in fall of 2006.

Finding our Stories

Good afternoon, graduates, students, parents, families of graduates, and friends of EMS. It is truly an honor to be speaking to you this afternoon.

About 2 weeks ago, I was asking myself “why in the world did I say yes to this”…but as usual, in the midst of the busyness and sense of being overwhelmed, as I am sure seniors, you have been feeling for the past while, I often find that clarity can come, if we are open to hearing it.

I have known some of you for a long time, some of you I learned to know at EMES during your elementary years, some of you I learned to know as I would come on main campus, and others by our interactions this year, or by simply observing you.

As I mentioned, some of you I have known for a long time. In fact, 13 years ago, in the fall of 2006, during the second year of our elementary school, several of you were a part of our very first kindergarten class. Felicity and Adam, you were in this first kindergarten class…you went to other schools after kindergarten and then came back and joined your classmates.

Sukainah, you came to EMES as a kindergarten student a year later, and you transitioned into this class in fifth grade. And three of you have been at EMS for all 13 years, K-12, Brendan, Karly, and Lauren, this is quite an honor for you and to us.

I was searching in my files a few weeks ago, I don’t throw anything away that students make for me, and I found three cards… [See photo, right]

Even in kindergarten, the story of you, had begun, your personalities were developing. And that is true for all of you, seniors, not just EMES’ers.

This year, I gave myself a challenge when I knew that I would be the speaker at graduation. I made a copy of your photos and names and kept them hanging near my desk. I wanted to make sure that I learned your names and kept you each in my mind during the year. I also gave myself the goal of having a short conversation with you during the school year….or at the very least saying hello and calling you by name. I hope that doesn’t feel like I was stalking you, but I wanted you to know that I noticed each of you even before today’s event.

Noticing you and making connections with you is something that every member of our faculty and staff sitting behind me today…. works hard to accomplish each year. We do this because we believe that each student has a place here at school, and we work hard to make sure you feel like you belong. We don’t always succeed, but it is important to us that you have a voice, and that you are empowered to be yourself.

Now finding your place or discovering how you fit in anywhere takes work….work from those welcoming you, and from you. And I believe the experiences that you bring, your experiences help to shape the community, and the community’s ongoing story helps to shape you. Now when I say “you” today, I’m talking to you seniors, but I’m also talking to everyone here….because we all are constantly finding our own places in the communities we are a part of.

So the title of my talk today is “Finding our stories”. I believe that part of how we find our place in a community is by embracing and understanding our own story, letting that be known to others, and then really listening to others and allowing ourselves to be shaped by others’ stories as well.

This year, in my neighbor group, seven 6th grade boys and I read a poem each week at the end of our time together. It’s written by Margaret Wheatley entitled, Turning to One Another, and it talks about ways we interact with others. One phrase from the poem reads:

Talk to people you know
Talk to people you don’t know Talk to people you never talk to

This line and others led to many interesting discussions about how we go about each day in school. And I think connects with my theme of finding our stories.

I want to share a bit of my own journey or story….because where I have been and who I have known has greatly influenced me.

I was born in Meridian, MS. I lived there for the first 6 years of my life from 1963 – 1969, and living there was to be one of the greatest influences in my life. I have some memories of my time living there, but we also returned there for many visits over the years and maintained connections that we would continue throughout my life, and ones that still continue today.

My parents, Titus and Ann, went to MS in 1958 (5 years before I was born) to start a voluntary service unit and a Mennonite church. They spent the next 11 years there, living through the 1960’s in a very volatile place and time in our country’s history as we struggled as a society to recognize so many groups of people that were being mistreated and not given equal rights, in Mississippi particularly African American and Choctaw Indian families.

My parents were raising three children as well, and they found themselves living amidst the civil rights movement, a movement that would change them forever. There is a whole story about that..but that’s not my story today.

My story today is about the Cross family.

My parents learned to know Ida and Mac Cross soon after they came to Mississippi. They became a part of our church community, and they often babysat me and my two siblings. They had three teenage children of their own and always welcomed us into their very modest home. They did not come from a churched family, and in fact they considered themselves to be people who grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks”, and they did not see themselves as community changers. In fact they really avoided being seen as bucking the the tide of segregation in Mississippi; they simply were trying to survive.

One Christmas Eve, our family stopped in to see them and to bring a small Christmas gift to their family. They were just getting up from a meal with their relatives and there was food left on the table. They insisted that we sit and eat as they brought everything else out that they had (as we discovered later) to the table. Ida insisted that we eat the last bite.

Later we discovered there had been no food left in the refrigerator for Christmas the next day. We also found out that as roofers, the Cross sons had a rainy couple of weeks, and with no work there was no money for Christmas presents. Nevertheless, they had offered all they had to us.

My father wrote about this in some of his published works over the years and stated that “Our pangs of guilt were severe when we realized we had cleaned them out of food that Christmas Eve.” And he remembers Ida watching with obvious pleasure as we ate. Ida Cross seldom used religious language, or professed a creed of faith, but she often displayed this spirit of

sacrifice that was truly Jesus-like. She and her family shattered our stereotypes of persons labeled by some as “losers”, backward, or uneducated.

Although I don’t really remember this event, it’s as if I do, because this became a story about me, because it, along with others like it were told to me over and over again by my parents, a story of the Bender family, and now a story of the Archer family for my girls. This story has shaped me, how I look at others, and how I understand God. I learned that the love of God can come from places we don’t expect. Sacrifice, loyalty, dedication, love, and genuineness aren’t tied to social class, to race or background, to how well-traveled we are, or how educated we are… these things raise their head in the most unlikely place, places we don’t expect, and when they do, it’s quite humbling. For our family, this was God’s work….God being love and hope to us, through the Cross family.

So as you listen to one of my stories, maybe you understand a little more about me.

As many of us up on stage and in the audience have listened to your stories during senior presentations this year, we understand a little more about you. We are amazed at the ways you already articulate who you are.

I encourage you to continue to find your own stories….events that have shaped who you are, ones that you have experienced, and ones that have been passed down to you. Embrace them; they are a part of you. You decide how they will shape you; you decide what you want to carry with you. These are stories worth telling, and worth listening to and will give you strength as you leave this place.

Along with finding our own stories, it’s important to listen to the stories of others. This is the part that can be the most challenging, especially if we are listening to someone who is very different from us. But it’s by truly listening to others that we begin to understand who they are….what they believe ……and how they make sense of the world. And we can learn from each other. This is how we make connections and build community…..something I believe God has intended for us. He knows that we need each other if we are going to find our way in this world and be the people he wants us to be.

Jesus was the ultimate story-teller and listener of stories. Jesus would talk with anybody….people with whom he spent lots of time, those who he just met, those who were familiar, and those who were very different than him, those with power, those who were outcasts, and those who weren’t even noticed.

Jesus listened to them all and knew their stories and helped them understand who they were and often what they needed to do with that story…..whether it was proclaiming that they were healed, asking for forgiveness, walking away and re-examining themselves, or making amends and changing their ways. He brought people in and helped them understand themselves. He was planting seeds of love and hope, not only for them to experience, but for others to see that they were worthy too, they had something to give.

Talk to people you know
Talk to people you don’t know
Talk to people you never talk to

And now I come back to the challenge that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk. I do believe that I managed to say “Hello” to each of you and call you by name at least one time during the school year. Thank you for saying “hello” back to me, and for the conversations we had.

I began that challenge of speaking to each one as a way to make sure you knew I was noticing you. But as I did this throughout the year, I realized that I wasn’t only doing this for you, it was also for me….I wanted to be connected to you in some way. I wanted to learn to know you, but I also wanted to be known by you.

Being on main campus this year, I have experienced the fact that you, Seniors, have made your mark here at EMS. Who you are and what you have said and done has added to the 101 year old Eastern Mennonite School story. Being a part of a community is not only about conforming to the group, but it’s also about bringing yourself to the group and finding ways to make a difference. Your presence will linger here and help us to open our minds to new ways of looking at life and the world. We thank you for that, and you will always have a place here.

And so, class of 2019, as you move on to your new settings, and as you find yourself in new communities, I encourage you to talk with people who are known and unknown to you. Take your own stories with you and listen to the new ones you hear, and find ways to grow into the people you want to be. And may God’s spirit surround you in these coming days.

Thank you.

Check out some more photos from this story

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