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  • Lela Hilton

Choosing to Celebrate Love: A Reflection on Clemente Graduations

Lela Hilton, Clemente's Executive Director, attended numerous virtual Clemente graduations this spring. She reflects on where we were in March 2020 and the heartening discoveries we've made along the way.

Lela Hilton

Over a year ago when we faced the unknown reality of Covid 19, I think we all had moments of real doubt about Clemente’s ability to weather the coming storm.

Our model of education relies so deeply on close-knit classroom communities, people and books, coffee, a sandwich or a slice of pizza. Our nightly discussions centered around age-old questions about justice, beauty, the nature of creativity, and the individual’s obligation to their communities provoke profound moments of both agitation and joy. We sense each other’s fear and offer comfort. We witness courage and celebrate it. We stand by and protect the silences that come into our classrooms as moments for refection, and raucously applaud other wonderful moments when humor and wisdom crash together in a resounding “A-ha!” Learning together in this way is profoundly emotional, and it gives us an enormous amount of pleasure.

In March of 2020 our classrooms closed literally overnight, with no time for faculty or students to prepare. The disparities in access to technology for our students were immediately obvious. Many of them were called to step into their now life-threatening jobs as essential workers, often without adequate support for their kids who were stuck at home with no access to schools or childcare. Under these circumstances, what could Clemente possibly still have to offer, and how could we make it accessible?

Well, it turns out that Clemente is its own particular force of nature, undaunted even by a global pandemic.

After a bit of a pause, most courses came back together through patchworks of interactive online classrooms, email, snail mail, and book drop-offs. And texts. Lots and lots of texts.

Community hosts helped raise funds for tablets and hotspots, supporters got their friends to donate used laptops, and faculty strapped go-pros on their heads to take their students on virtual art history tours. Commuting students attended classes on their phones. Others joined classes from their cars to access community hotspots because they didn’t have the internet at home.

And in May and June, across the country, like almost every other educational program in the world, we celebrated virtual graduations to honor the brilliance and resilience of our students, their families, and our Clemente faculty. And now, a year later, we have celebrated the Class of 2021 at all but two of our sites.

The record attendance was 250+ Zoom boxes, but every graduation was mighty. What struck me in those that I could attend was the profound sense of grace embodied by our graduates and the palpable love they had for each other and for their faculty. Love of courage, of difference, of the mind, of risk, of creativity, of struggle. And I wondered how this was still possible, given the disconnected, disembodied year we’d all experienced. How does love grow in a Zoom classroom?

Years ago, we had a community discussion in one of our Clemente classrooms about universal human rights, and after a rigorous debate about cultural appropriation, moral relativism, imperialism, colonialism, etc., a local poet and artist stood up and said, “Well, you know, to me human rights are really about treating everyone as if they are a guest in your house.”

When I think about Clemente, when I think about the hellish year we’ve all been through, I think about this simple observation. A good host is graceful and humble. A good host treats every guest with dignity, and doesn’t stint even in the face of scarcity. A good host sends you on your way feeling full, and longing to come back. And they do this not out of obligation, but out of love.

So, to honor the Class of 2021, I choose to celebrate Clemente love, and all the magnificent ways we have welcomed each other over this past year. Let’s see this graduation as another step in an ever-expanding journey through the community of ideas, in the company of the people who love them.

Congratulations to our darling Clementines, the Class of 2021!

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