Saturday, April 12, 2014

Volunteering and Classic Literature

(This is the speech I delivered at the library's volunteer appreciation dinner, Friday, April 11, 2014.)

Today I'd like to talk to you about volunteering. But first, we're going to talk about Shakespeare.

I understand Shakespeare is not to everyone's taste - for example, Tom and Benjamin both suggested I should rather write a speech about cats - and I suspect they were not referring to the long-running Broadway musical. However, based on a lifetime's experience as a cat owner, I don't believe cats know the first thing about volunteering.

Let me start over.


When chatting with my best friend, Sarah, a librarian in another state, the discussion frequently turns toward matters of librarianship: which books we're reading, events we're planning, and – that eternal librarian conundrum – what to do about the summer reading program.

She told me, "At Springdale, they have the teens volunteer and help with the kids."

I thought about the teen volunteer group I recently started."I'm working on something similar hereabouts," I said.

She continued, "Yeah, apparently one of the camps nearby requires volunteer hours for the kids to get into it, so they have kids as young as 11 volunteering."

"Wow. That's intense," I said. "I was so shy at that age, I'd have been like, 'Guess I'm not going to camp.'"

Sarah said her younger self would have reacted likewise.

I sighed. "So many things kids are made to do just don't make sense! Kids don't understand volunteering, foreign foods, or classic literature."

"Yes," Sarah countered, "but are they ever going to understand them if they're not forced to try them?"

No, I said: "They should be a reward for growing up. Outlaw them, like drinking: No Shakespeare until you're 21! Then, they'll all take up literature and volunteering as a form of rebellion! They'll say, 'Screw "the man", man! I'm going to feed the homeless!'"


And this is where Shakespeare comes into it:

When I was younger, I read fantasy. Exclusively. If it didn't have dragons on the cover, or in the title, or if dragons weren’t hinted at in the cover copy, I wanted nothing to do with it.

I tell you this as a person who grew up to be a librarian, a person who now reads anything and everything in every genre: I hated every novel I was required to read for my English classes without exception. I still hate many of them on principle, because I bristle so at the memory of being forced to read them.

I specifically remember hating Shakespeare. With the Cliff's Notes in one hand and a fat dictionary in the other, I'd prop a play up in front of me and struggle through it, stumbling over the Elizabethan monologues. I could have lectured King Lear on the meaning of suffering.

I didn't understand the characters' motivations. Why didn't Hamlet just shut up and do something already? Why was Titania being such a nag? Why was there ANY ado about nothing, let alone much? Why? Understanding these plays required a range of life experience that I just didn't have at that age.

Years and ages later, idly flipping channels one day, I came upon the Kenneth Brannagh adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and suddenly, it all made perfect sense. It was like the characters were speaking modern English. I soaked up every word. This led to several frantic months of Shakespeare immersion therapy. I read every play, every sonnet, rented every movie adaptation, bought my favorites on DVD. Monologues were memorized and recited at inappropriate times.

Remembering how much I hated it all as a teenager, I’m mystified that I grew up to adore Shakespeare. I love the poetic language, the depth of emotion, the changes the characters undergo. Now, I know what people mean when they say these stories are timeless. There is nothing better after a long day than to curl up under a fluffy blanket with a hot cup of tea (or, you know, “mostly” tea) while watching a Shakespeare movie.

When I say I love Shakespeare now but hated it before, don't misunderstand me: I was not a stupid kid. I was at least twice as clever back then and no less ornery. I just didn't GET IT, and no English teacher, however kind and even tempered - and I had some wonderful ones - no teacher anywhere had a snowball's chance of fitting those things into my brain at that time in my life.


I'm convinced volunteering is a lot like Shakespeare. Some people just don't GET IT, and therefore good volunteers are hard to find, as hard to find as good classic literature, as hard to find as good film adaptations of Henry V. Standing before all of you here tonight, I know you GET IT and that makes you rare and precious. You KNOW how it feels to do good work that needs doing, and that the work isn't just its own reward: it's your reward for growing up. You must be THIS tall to ride the roller coaster - you must be THIS tall to be a good volunteer.

We hope you know what you mean to us. When we have good volunteers like you fine people, people who have reached the point in their lives where they know what volunteering is all about, we make certain assumptions about your character.  

Therefore, tonight, it falls to me to tell you: We appreciate you. We're lucky to have such good-hearted, intelligent, stylish individuals, people with such excellent tastes and good manners.

And you know what else?
You rock.
You look great tonight.
That color looks fabulous on you.
Everyone was impressed with that thing you did.
You are a talented, creative, artistic person and you are SO put-together the rest of us should only hope to be so lucky.
When you walk into a room, people know you mean business.
Other people secretly want to be like you - if you ask them, they'll admit it, but we both know you're too classy to do so.
You're awesome and you're amazing and all of you are wonderful.

In closing, I'd like to leave you with the words of Shakespeare, spoken by Sebastian in Twelfth Night:
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks, and ever thanks. And oft good turns
Are shuffled off with such uncurrent pay.
But were my worth as is my conscience, firm,
You should find better dealing.

Thank you again and good night.