We never met, but when I read of your death earlier this evening, I knew I had to write this letter.
I’m not an artist; I gave up on drawing after a classmate made fun of my clown drawing in primary school. “Amy,” she spat, with real venom, “Your clown has six fingers on one hand and eleven on the other.” It wasn’t good enough, she said, clowns had five fingers on each hand, she explained. So, I’m going to honour you the only way I know how to, and that is to write about how your words have affected my life.
You received an honorary degree at my graduation in 2009. You were the second person to receive a degree, the first being Jonathan Mills, the Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, but his speech was, dare I say, very, very boring.
I was starting to drift off with my degree certificate sat smugly on my lap when you stood up and slowly moved to the front of the stage. You fumbled with the papers you’d written your speech on, you seemed nervous. “Oh dear” I thought, “It looks like we’re in for another dull speech.” And I prepared myself for a long morning.
You began by thanking the university and launching into a speech about looking out from the stage to all the young graduates assembled. But then, you paused, and uttered the now immortal words, “Well, if I’m honest, I’ve forgotten my glasses, so all I can see is darkness.”
The audience laughed; we cheered, we giggled, I think there was even a round of applause. You had won us over with your confession. You were honest, you were on our side. You cast aside your speech, and launched into what can only be described as something truly extraordinary. To call it a pep talk would be insulting; you were preparing us for battle.
As you gazed into the darkness of the theatre, trying to make out the faces of the hundreds of graduates gazing back at you in awe, you said that we were going to come up against barriers once we graduated. We were, you assured us, going to experience having “…many doors slammed in our faces”. But, we were not to be disheartened, you said, instead, we were to pound on the doors that would be slammed in our faces. We were to pound on them repeatedly, until our knuckles bled. I remember you held your hands up, and squeezed them into tight fists as you punched the air, your eyes screwed tight, pounding on all the doors that had ever been slammed in your face.
I can remember imagining a nondescript pine door being slammed shut as you smashed the figurative doors that had stood in your way for years. It’s the same pine door that I see now when I get yet another job rejection. It’s the same pine door that closes when an editor tells me I don’t have enough experience. It’s the same pine door that rattles in its frame as it slams closed when a promising internship turns out to be another dead-end.
But whenever that nondescript pine door has smacked me in the face as it closed – and it’s been closed to me so often, and it will be closed to me again – I’ve heard your words. And suddenly I can see you again in my mind’s eye, on that stage, slamming your fists into your own imaginary door over and over again.
So I started knocking; I would ask that editor for feedback. I would pound my fists against the door; I would look for new opportunities and ways to build up my portfolio. I would start to smash the panels of that door, one by one and then I would pick myself up and try again.
I’ve never been in a fight, but my knuckles have been split open and bloodied many, many times. You taught me that when you go out into the big bad world, you’re not always fighting other people; more often than not, you’re fighting with yourself. Battling self-doubt and a lack of drive is hard, but that’s why they call it work. More than anything, persistence is key.
I’m sorry that we never got the chance to meet, if we had I would have thanked you for your wise words, and I would have told you how much they meant to me on the day I graduated, and how much more they mean to me now, just four years later.
Thank you, John. Thank you for speaking to a sea of excited and unsullied graduates that day. Thank you for showing us that you’d been there, that you knew the struggles that we would face and for giving us all the advice that we will never forget:
“Always do your own thing. Don’t follow trends. Be your own person.”
Thank you, so, so much.
Class of 2009