My Speech at Harvard: Past Lives in Present Selves

The Remix: Past Lives in Present Selves
(Original Speech, without ad-libs. Delivered on November 14, 2012)

I believe our past lives live in our present selves. Some people call that nostalgia, but I think it’s more than that.

Three years ago, I went on a short road trip to San Francisco with my mother. She cranked up the radio when “It’s Too Late” by Carole King came on. I saw her nod and jive to the down beat.

“They don’t make music like that anymore,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” I replied. I was a little annoyed. “There’s plenty of great music in my generation. You’re just not paying attention.”

At the time, I felt my mother’s statement devalued the present. And I was personally offended, because, well, I am the present. If they stopped making good music after the 70s, then was I raised on junk? Now, before you accuse me of loving boy bands and Britney Spears, let me state for the record that you are in fact…correct.

Needless to say, the rest of the car ride with my mother was somewhat awkward. The generation gap rearing its ugly head.

***

I taught 8th grade in Arizona before landing here at the Kennedy School. There’s something about kids that I find so effortlessly profound. My students struggled. Some struggled through their home lives, struggled with disability. Many struggled through school and mercurial social lives. All of them struggled through puberty.

I was 23 when I started teaching, which wasn’t too far removed from my teenage years. Yet I had somehow forgotten one of the most fundamental things about being a kid: That belief in the bigness of our own lives. The funny thing is, when you’re 13, the world can throw as much trash and garbage at you, life can be angsty and dramatic and every moment can hang by a thread – but when you’re 13, every moment is big. Every moment is Now. “Ms. Shih,” said Cassidy, one of my 8th graders. “I’ve been writing poetry lately. I’m a poet.”

I also taught a high school elective. Toward the end of the school year, one of my high school students asked me, “Ms. Shih, do you think my life will be big?”

Somehow, for many of us, getting older and growing up means turning our statements into questions, turning our questions into silence.

***

I’m not sharing these stories to make us feel nostalgic. I’m not sharing these stories to say that these times are behind us. I don’t think they are. I’m sharing these stories because I believe our past lives live in our present selves. At this present moment, I am no longer 13. (I hope that doesn’t surprise anyone.) I am no longer 13, but all you have to do is put on some Britney Spears and I will dance awkwardly and sing the lyrics accurately. It can’t be stopped.

It can’t be stopped. And I wouldn’t be singing and dancing out of mere nostalgia, I would be singing and dancing because “Baby One More Time” lives in my veins. It’s not just part of who I was; it’s part of who I AM.

These days, I find myself saying, “Remember when I used to think life would be big? Remember when I used to think anything was possible?” Now THAT’S nostalgia: Remember When. I try to take Remember When out of my sentences when I can. I try to turn my questions back into statements. Because those past parts of me are also present parts of me. You see, if we turn on the music, we can dance anytime. Those moves are in our body, in our person. We don’t have to Remember When. We can Do, and Be, Now.

***

This past summer, I bought my mom a Carole King album. I was going to make her a mixed CD, but I wanted her to have the real thing. As “It’s Too Late” by Carole King played on in the background, my mom told me that when she was a teenager, she and my uncle would stay up late into the night glued to their radio, waiting for their favorite songs to come on. “These songs are a big part of me,” she said.

I know what she means.

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3 thoughts on “My Speech at Harvard: Past Lives in Present Selves

  1. I was raised on 80s music in the 90s/early 00s, because that’s what my mum listened to when she was a teenager.
    When I was thirteen, I started listening to punk, the music my dad found and survived through when he was the same age. Now I share my love of 60s jazz with my grandfather, who was young (and a lover of jazz) in the 60s.

    I love how different nostalgias/pieces of people blend in this way. My mum’s nostalgia, dad’s rescue and granddad’s passion are all part of me and my childhood/teenage years as well as theirs. But then there’s the 80s music only my mum can love, and there’s the Britneys and Spice girls my parents will never sing along to, as well. I guess we all have our unique mix of love, hate and love/hate relationships with, and memories of, music.

    • Absolutely. I think music, because it’s so visceral and more immediate than literature and (in some cases) visual art forms, is more distinctly and expectedly a part of every person’s life. And some songs are emblems of a collective era – for me, the music of puberty was the music I shared with friends, drawn from a certain mainstream. Other songs are emblems of a private moment, or a private association – shared with very few people and perhaps only with myself.

      I am fascinated by how we each define music – which is so much the curriculum of our own ongoing upbringing (imposed, self-selected and accidental). I am fascinated by how we introduce the music we love to others, because it must be so rich with our own DNA and with the DNA of cultures to which we subscribe. Perhaps in ways we don’t entirely unpack, letting others in on the music we love is like handing over a portfolio of who we are – more nakedly true and more comprehensive than any résumé could be.

      That is, if we think about it.

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