We need more shepherds like Dr. Morgan to move us together as one

Three months ago, as late June recessed into full-blown summer, a grainy video shared by WNYT News Channel 13’s Facebook account alighted on my newsfeed. My gut recognized “the Big Gym” of the Voorheesville Elementary School before I did, so I was already smiling in the millisecond it took to click “play” on the cell phone footage recorded by an attendee of the district’s fifth-grade graduation.

The video depicts a familiar scene: Children arrayed in a semi-circle, shoulder-to-shoulder, on three ascending levels of risers before a mass audience of gleeful parents seated in row after row of portably stackable chairs atop the hard gymnasium floor, with an overflow crowd spilling into the cheap seats of the Big Gym’s second-floor twin balconies.

And standing at the center of the action — as she has so many times before — is Dr. Mary Teresa Morgan, a beloved local institution in her own right after 30 years of teaching, poised to deliver her final performance as the retiring head of the Voorheesville Music Department.

The suspenseful silence is suddenly punctured by the inaugural notes of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” — released a year before I was born but as relevant today as it was in 1981. And now Dr. Morgan is overexaggerating the rhythmic thrust of her arms. And now she’s playfully donning sunglasses. And now she’s tossing an action cue to the parents in the audience, who rise obediently pursuant to some previously rehearsed stage direction. And now everyone is laughing, together.

Either in person or in the pages of The Enterprise — where Rebecca Tillou’s October 2018 letter to the editor movingly recounted the ovarian cancer Dr. Morgan vanquished a decade ago — thousands of us have become intimately familiar with Dr. Morgan’s heroics, “radiant curly hair,” and sparkling blue eyes.

And here, as always, the production is quintessential Dr. Morgan. (I @#$%&*ing love Dr. Morgan.)  Executing pitch-perfect satirical silliness over the responsive giggles of the fifth-graders and Journey’s unselfconscious blare, Dr. Morgan’s choreography is as much a signature of her charm now as it was more than 25 years ago when I was blessed to sit cross-legged in her music class.

Eventually, the audience floods forth into the space in front of the risers, and two generations’ worth of dance routines merge into one. In this moment, from the balcony above, the amateur videographer catches that elusive and infinitesimally short stage of life just before children realize, correctly, that they’re supposed to be humiliated by their parents.

Even more notable, though, is the video’s living proof that there yet exist people who can peaceably assemble in the service of enlivening their children’s graduation, even though they may harbor drastically different political perspectives. For what most caught my eye was a flutter at the top left of the screen.

Sitting in the balcony rafters is a man futilely combatting the stifling heat by waving a makeshift fan (maybe the ceremony’s program?) back and forth in front of his face. I literally laughed aloud when I saw it, feeling a rush of solidarity with that poor stranger’s recognizable misery. If ever there were a symbol of what it means to be a New Scot, this was it.

I salute you, Makeshift Fan-Waving Guy; your powerful example couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt so connected to someone.  

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I’m not doing well, folks; I grow more and more distressed at how mean everyone’s being to each other.  And it’s not just me; even retired Four-Star General and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis bemoans the tenor of our time.  Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 28, Secretary Mattis noted that:

“[O]ur own commons seems to be breaking apart ... We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions. All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment — and one that can be reversed. We all know that we’re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”

“[W]e need to get our own country’s act together first,” he writes, “especially if we are to help others.”   He’s right: The challenges we face as a species are insurmountable unless we confront them as Americans.

Our social media is spying on us. Our food is poisoning us. The bees are dying, the ice caps are melting, the seas are rising, the Amazon is on fire, and the hurricanes are all Category 5s, now.

Next year, my nephew will conduct his first live-shooter training drills as he begins his elementary education. Our unprecedented national debt is fueled by even more unprecedented deficits.

Anti-Semitism has returned — like clockwork — and our social norms are being tested and frayed by a national discourse that renders us more polarized than ever.

It’s getting easier and easier to lose myself in the din of so much social discord and indictment right when I so desperately need to feel like I’m part of something larger than myself.

Because what are we fighting for if not for each other? What was the point of this outrageous American experiment if *non* e pluribus unum?  If from many exotic backgrounds and many opposing perspectives and many differing experiences we can’t come together to declare ourselves an indivisible whole committed to the welfare of even the most ill-informed and obnoxious uncle spouting off at Thanksgiving?

I rise to declare that I don’t think you’re racist if you want to build the Wall, and I don’t think you’re a fascist if you want to ban my guns. I don’t think you’re a bigot if gender-neutral public restrooms make you uncomfortable, and I don’t think you’re a murderer if you support a woman’s right to choose.

I don’t perceive your concern about immigration policy to imply that you want children to die in cages, and I don’t believe your support for the public option means you’re actively fomenting a Bolshevik revolution.  Rather, I presume that your beliefs are held in good-faith, and formed by some personal experience about which I’ve yet to learn. And I’ll listen to you — even if I’m not thrilled by what I hear.

Your stance on global warming, on Israel, on the #MeToo movement, on tax policy, on the societal value of television drivel like “Ghost Hunters” may fundamentally differ from mine, but — if it does — that merely means we’re perfectly positioned to engage one another in lively discussion while waving makeshift fans together amid the sweltering heat of the Big Gym as our children file onto the risers.

We are all New Scots, and it doesn’t matter whether we reside on opposite sides of Voorheesville’s tracks or tune in to different cable news networks.

A collection of individuals whose opinions differ is “a community.” A collection of individuals whose opinions don’t differ is “a cult.” That’s the lesson of Makeshift Fan-Waving Guy.

More than once, I was a graduating student on those risers: first as a kindergartener proudly armed with colorful kazoo, and later as a pre-adolescent embarking on the rigorous rite of passage to high school.

And more than once did I then serve my time in that audience, enduring the stifling heat as I watched younger sisters follow in my footsteps. There’s perhaps only a handful of the Big Gym’s square inches that I didn’t once inhabit.

Seeing such hallowed ground filled with families and old friends instantly injected into my chaotic world a moment of peace that I haven’t experienced in a long time.

For we are Voorheesvillagers, all of us. And I would do anything for you, Makeshift Fan-Waving Guy, to include extending you my deepest respect for a differing opinion that I’ll do my best to understand.

And although the classmate who sat beside me as we sang along to the latest Disney musicals during early morning chorus rehearsals may have grown up to possess an opposing worldview, our shared experience of the magic emanating from Dr. Morgan’s incomparable upright piano binds us forever.

Dr. Morgan brought us together; she was one of the true pillars of our community. Let’s seize the opportunity of her retirement to fill her shoes and emulate her lifetime of public service, to ourselves become pillars of the largest communities of which we can conceive.

Dr. Morgan was neither movement leader nor fiery partisan advocate. She was, instead, a shepherd tending to a flock that spanned and united multiple generations. This era demands more shepherds — those who tend to our many opposing viewpoints, but who nonetheless move us together as one.

It’s a privilege to have myself once embodied the anonymous man waving a makeshift fan back-and-forth at a Voorheesville chorus recital, in solidarity with the people who made suffering the heat so worth it. And it’s a greater privilege to have served as one of the many students who over the years perched atop those risers to contribute a youthful soprano to the choruses Dr. Morgan led, where from many high-pitched voices emerged a single song.

One in particular was Dr. Morgan’s favorite. As such, and with apologies to the original authorship, I’ve adapted it to close out this column:

Dr. Morgan, Voorheesville’s still calling

from years ago, by alumni far and wide. 

The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying …

’tis you (’tis you) must go and we must bide.
 

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,

or when the village is hushed and white with snow.

’Tis we’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow —

Dr. Morgan, Voorheesville still loves you so.

Editor’s note:  Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper in the United States Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.

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