Yesterday I helped host the celebration of my colleague James Harding’s 20th year of teaching at our school. In fact, we have a shared a life for 25 years, but through a complicated story and three years where he worked at another school, we celebrated his 20th now. It was a beautiful event and if you had come to it having never met James, you would have left feeling like you knew him. And intrigued to know more.
Would that all of us have such public moments of recognition. Not the gold watch and clichéd speeches or mean roasting stories, but the kind that gets to the heart of the matter and reveals that you have been deeply known and seen and appreciated for the unique force of your character. And would that it happen before our memorial service!
The event opened with James’ parents and beloved colleague Sofía playing recorder with a nostalgic slide show behind them. Opening words from the head of school and then James’ lovely original song sung by elementary school kids spiraling around him and ending in a hug:
“Round the oak tree, ‘round the oak tree, walk with me.
In every acorn, every little acorn, there’s a tree.
Something great is inside of me.”
On to a slide presentation of his newly-published book, “From Wibbleton to Wobbleton” and then a showing of various short films he has made with the kids over the years. (I believe a James Harding short film festival is in order— they’re delightful!) Speeches from an alum, two school colleagues, a song about him to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” more accolades from Sofía and I, his partners in crime. Mine began like this:
“James is a genius," is the prevailing wisdom. Most of us think about Einstein or Mozart when we say that, associating genius with extraordinary intelligence or talent. And there is that in James for sure. But the older definition of genius comes from the Roman concept of the “attendant spirit of a person or place.” In this sense, none of us are a genius, but all of us have a particular genius within, that something-great-acorn inside of us that carries the blueprint for the splendid oak we’re each meant to be. That genius is our own way of seeing the world, our particular way of speaking and expressing ourselves and making our way through this complex vale of joy and sorrow. Our job is to search for that particular genius that entered the world with us, to be able to recognize its voice, to open a conversation with that genius and keep that conversation alive and vibrant amidst all the noise in the world trying to drown it out. And to follow it no matter what the cost.
Sounds easy, but perhaps is the most difficult thing we have to do in this life. Not only because the world is trying to make us into everyone else, seeks to flatten us or brainwash us so that we will be lifelong consumers or obedient citizens whose consent can be manufactured in the factories of compliance. But also because the genius is so demanding and uncompromising and requires so much from us. Make no mistake, our life will no longer be our own once we commit to its demands. We will have to work hard beyond all reasonable levels, often without compensation or recognition and never with complete assurance that the ladder we are climbing is up against the right wall.
And that’s what James has done. He is among the five most hard-working people I know, doing “whatever it takes,” even if it means making a movie to show at the Spring Concert 30 minutes before the concert! His genius leads him into the complex pathways of the imagination in all its myriad manifestations. Whether creating a film, writing a song, creating a dance, arranging a piece for Orff instruments, inventing game after game after game which will delight and challenge and inspire both the children and adults he teaches, James is in constant conversation with the imagination and submits to its demands. Like I said, making a film to show at the Spring concert 30 minutes before the concert, even if it means not meeting with me to talk about the program notes!
So what we admire, what we all admire, is the imagination at play and James’ unwavering commitment to keep the conversation with his genius alive. He reminds us how to see the miraculous in the simple, to see the immense possibilities in a cardboard box and the world is refreshed by his efforts.
And so Genius Bar. Not the place with hip young people hovering with their i-Pads helping you figure out something on a machine. I’m talking about the bar our genius sets for us and daily invites us to leap over. After celebrating James particular genius, I went on to pay attention to my own, performing a jazz concert with my fellow Pentatonics. Some exhilarating moments soaring over the bar, some moments knocking it off, but the Genuis actually doesn’t care that much about winning the track meet. It only cares that you show up for the event.
A three-day weekend begins and that inner voice is suggesting that I do all the boring work necessary— arranging flights, filling our Visa forms for Interns, making liner notes for a CD, etc.—to prepare the sacred ground of the genius at work and play. And I will.