Much has happened this school year. For many of us, it has been a year of immense transition: a time of difficulty, growth, and ultimately, breakthroughs.
As many of you could probably guess, the biggest transition for me was the birth of my daughter, Iris. Upon meeting her, never before had I been both inspired and completely terrified. I also, unfortunately, can’t ignore the fact that I haven’t had the best track record for the care of living things. Under my watch, classroom plants have come and gone and even an advisory pet fish couldn’t escape my negligence; rest in peace, dear Billy Bubbles.
So, for those of you not in the know, raising a child is hard. Much of the life I once knew has shifted or transformed since Iris’ arrival. There have been sleepless nights, confusion, the full spectrum of emotions, and poop. So much poop delivered in a seemingly gravity-defying myriad of ways. Yet I somehow managed to survive as I now stand before you with most of my hair intact albeit most likely grayer since February. Still through it all, as a good reflective English teacher, my mind would sometimes wonder during those sleepless nights and endless diaper changes towards big, existential questions like “Has she become my life’s meaning?” If so, “Who am I now?” and “When can I start teaching her volleyball?” Big important questions. Recently, these ponderings have lead to reflections of my own childhood, how my own father came to raise me, and even how his father came to raise him.
It is these two men that I hope to discuss with you today because upon significant reflection of their lives and life-changing decisions, one relevant characteristic emerged, a characteristic that helped define and shape my family and myself. A characteristic we talk about often in our community and fittingly is the driving force behind this morning’s gathering, yet in spite of this, this characteristic remains a very difficult and nuanced concept. That characteristic, the one I hope to explore with you now, is selflessness.
My Grandfather, James Andrew Palmore, was born in Louisville, Kentucky on May 9th, 1918 into a life of privilege and reputation. His father, my great-grandfather, Hovey Duncan Palmore, was a World War I veteran, a Kentucky Colonel (the southern equivalent of being knighted), and at one point was even vetted to become the Lt. Governor of the state. A romantic from his early years, Little James Andrew Palmore at the age of 7, politely informed my grandmother, Miriam, also age 7, he would marry her. They eventually did, at the appropriate age, of course, and soon after had two children of their own. When World War II broke out, my grandfather served his country not on the battlefield but in the factory; he helped build the filtration systems on submarines. Yet after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my grandparents, devout christians and members of the Presbyterian church, wanted to serve more: They wanted to serve as missionaries to Japan. Many others felt similarly, of course, so my grandparents were instead sent to the Philippines.
While not missionaries in the traditional sense, neither of them were ordained or held high positions in the church, their mission was to help build and run a school. My grandfather, an Ivy-League educated Engineer, would teach classes and design many of the buildings still standing there today. My grandmother played organ in the school’s chapel and taught music lessons. This school was Silliman University, a Pre-K to Graduate University Level school. My father would grow up and ultimately meet my Filipino mother here.
My father, Paul Duncan Palmore, was born in Dumaguete City on December 21st, 1952. The 4th of 5 children, they had 3 more in the Philippines, he was the second child born in their new home. Looking at his admittingly pale skin and 6’2 frame now, I doubt anyone could imagine that he grew up in a developing country and that English was his second language. In fact, his first word was “Tae,” a word he excitedly shared with one of his nannies while pointing towards his diaper. Tae, you see, means poop. They were all very proud of him. He grew up with little want as house services cost little in the Philippines then and to this day. Let’s just say that his being attended to did not end with diaper changes. He graduated Silliman’s high school when he was 16 and eventually received his undergraduate and Master’s degree from the University of Michigan (Go Blue, sorry Ms. T.) and while his original intention was to teach and work at the school his parents helped build, the marriage to my mother and the birth of my older brother caused a shift in his priorities. Fully aware of the educational possibilities of an American versus Filipino upbringing, my father decided to leave the Philippines and raise his family in the United States. At the time, his eldest brother, James, was living and working in Honolulu, Hawaii of all places; so for no other reason than that, and the possibility of a better life, specifically a better education, my father and mother selflessly left their familiar, comfortable Philippines. As many of you can probably guess, this decision and its subsequent effects shaped the man speaking before you.
My father and grandfather have lead or are leading noble, good lives. Yet now being a father myself, I realize that their decisions bore very real obstacles and consequences as well. Selflessness is undoubtedly layered and complex, and, let’s be honest, I am not the first person to reflect upon it or even parenting, for that matter. I am sure many of the adults here have given it some thought too. So again, being a good, reflective English teacher, I found a piece of writing that could expand upon much of what I have been thinking in arguably much better anecdotal fashion.
On November 4th, 2008, Presidential Election day, in Chicago Illinois, Michael Chabon, author of the aptly named “Manhood for Amateurs” from which I will read from shortly, with his own child hoisted on his shoulders, reflected upon the very same idea while witnessing a man with, admittingly, even more historic significance and selflessness than my father or grandfather. Let me share his ponderings with you:
“With his daughters darting around his long legs, I [this is Michael Chabon speaking] saw Barack Obama as a father, like me. And I folded my hands behind my son’s knobby back, to bolster him there on my shoulders, and gave his bottom a squeeze, and watched those radiant girls waving and smiling at the quarter-million of us, faces and voices and starry camera flashes and thought I would never have the nerve or the strength or the sense of mission or the grace or the cruelty to do that to you, kid. There are no moments more painful for a parent than those in which you contemplate your children’s perfect innocence or some imminent pain, misfortune or sorrow. That innocence (like every kind of innocence children have) is rooted in their trust of you, one that you will shortly be obliged to betray; whether it is fair or not, whether you can help it or not, you are always the ultimate guarantor or destroyer of that innocence. And so, for a moment that night, all I could do was look up at the smiling little Obamas and pity them for everything they did not realize they were now going to lose: My heart broke, and I had this wild wish to undo everything we all had worked and hoped so hard, for so long, to bring about.”
As a new father, Michael Chabon, like me, started to see people and events through a very specific lens. He saw Barack Obama not just as the newly appointed leader of the free world or even as a beacon of hope for change, but rather as a very mortal and very much flawed father. A man whose new position brought his family into a very unfamiliar, endlessly demanding, and possibly dangerous public world, one that also necessitated him putting the needs of so many others before the needs of his family, particularly his children. Like Michael Chabon as he witnessed Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, I looked to my father and grandfather and wondered how they could risk taking their family, their children, the very people they are suppose to protect into worlds so unfamiliar and foreign?
Let’s be honest, when I look upon the lives and decisions of my father and grandfather, I can’t help but feel inadequate, selfish, and conflicted, really. Nevertheless, what Chabon and my parents have made so abundantly clear and what I’m hoping to articulate today, however, is that selflessness is HARD; really really hard. It’s not something I could easily tell any of you to do. It possesses consequences positive and negative. Consequences, to me, that are very capable of affecting and shaping those immediately impacted by it.
For my grandparents, their move to the Philippines came with sacrifice. For instance at the time, my grandmother was training as a concert pianist at the Cincinnati Conservatory of music. She even performed with the late great Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov. She and her parents had spent countless dollars and hours training and grooming her. She gave this and the rest of her American life up to serve others and in response, her parents cut her off from financial and even emotional support. My father knows little of her side of the family to this day.
My father’s life in Dumaguete was not all sunshine and farts either. As a minority, he was often isolated and taken advantage of as a white man. This was made especially clear to me visiting the Philippines as a teenager. My mom would force my dad to wait outside of local shops so she can barter. The vendor’s, you see, would hike up prices if my caucasian dad was present. Speaking the same language, his first language, or growing up in the same town, his home, became irrelevant.
Yes, my father’s decision to selflessly move his family shaped me, still, growing up in Hawaii was not entirely a paradise. Yes, going to the beach and tanning was a regular, daily activity. I grew up eating food that drew influence from all over the world: Pork Adobo, Loco Moco, Spam Musubi, Malasadas, Poke, the list goes on. But the complex birth and growth of my racial identity also occurred here. I was blessed with being surrounded by diversity and pacific culture, it informed how I see race today, yet none of the races surrounding my childhood represented my own. Illokanos were and continue to be the largest Filipino ethnic group in Hawaii; my mother and I are Ilonggo. Adding to this, of course, is the fact that I actually identify most with being Cebuano, the Filipino culture of my white father. My best friends growing up were predominantly Japanese, so I, being half caucasian, was “haole” to my friends. “Haole,” for many of you that don’t know, is Hawaiian for “stranger” or “outsider” and is used to refer to any caucasian, local or otherwise. Thus to my friends, no matter how much time I spent at the beach trying to get more tanned, I was the token “haole,” an outsider, a foreigner. Growing up was hard and confusing.
Regardless of living in the Philippines, Hawaii, or even New England, growing up can be a difficult, complex journey. Yet what I can say with absolute certainty is that I am who I am, in all its flaws and strengths, its failures and successes, because of my parents and grandparents selflessness and it is through looking at their selflessness, and I hope this speech has made this clear, that I know myself, why I am the way I am, and where I come from all the more.
It is knowing all this that brings me back to why we are gathered here. Today, we are here to recognize citizenship, serving others before ourselves. We have students who have selflessly served this community. We have selfless alumni who have made decisions to serve things far greater than themselves. And we also have teachers who everyday sacrifice so much for the well-being of children not even their own. Selflessness demands sacrifice and the ability to look well-beyond individual needs or wants. Again, it is not easy, but what I can confidently say we can and should do is the following: recognize the selflessness around us. Recognize the selfless acts around you and how difficult and complicated they are since there is a good chance they have helped make you, you. This, at last, brings me back to my daughter. I love her. I love her so much that I am often overwhelmed by it. I love her so much that I can honestly say that everything I once thought of as a personal priority or need is now suddenly irrelevant or far less important. It is a feeling I am confident my father, his father, and countless of other parents have felt too. Thus it is in acknowledging these feelings and recognizing how I have grown from the selflessness of my parents and grandparents that makes me look at her and think maybe, just maybe, I can be at least a little selfless for her. And perhaps if we all took more time like today to recognize and acknowledge how selfless acts have affected each of us, then maybe, just maybe, we can all find reason to be a little more selfless too.