President Boyle, Provost Gawelek, distinguished members of the stage, cherished faculty colleagues, dear staff, close friends and — most importantly — future alumnae of Seton Hill University…I thank you all for this dubious honor. I also want to thank two other major figures in my life, without whom I would not be here today: first, my wife, Renate, who chose to move from Germany to America just to be with me in 1987 and has been more supportive of my work than my very own backbone ever since. And secondly, I have to thank that special group of people who have always been there for me, giving me everything I ever needed during my entire career, and that would be the Starbucks Coffee Company.
But seriously, again, I thank all of you for this significant award and I will gladly accept it, but only on behalf of all the faculty gathered in this room, for each and every one of us is a Professor of the Year, to someone in our own special way. It isn’t fair that I am singled out when so many at Seton Hill work so tirelessly to contribute to your education, so I would ask everyone assembled to take a moment to think about a specific teacher (or colleague) who made a difference in your life this year, and I ask you to applaud those professors of the year right now.
Today is very special to me. Not only because of this honor, which is great, but because it’s Friday the 13th and everyone is dressed in black. Now if only you were all wearing hockey masks, too…then it would be perfect.
You’ve been here at Seton Hill for four long years. I’m sure you’ve loved it for the most part, and you probably can’t believe it’s finally over. But it’s also been hard. Just a few days ago you were probably wondering if the madness would ever end. There may have been days when you felt trapped, isolated, homesick and scared. Now, tomorrow you will be set free. We’ll still be here, but you’ll be gone, and the place will seem empty without you. No, not empty. Haunted. So I wrote a poem for you. It’s called…
The Hotel La Setonia
On a dark Lincoln Highway,
cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of Velveeta,
rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance,
I saw a sycamore hill
My head grew heavy as I approached Admin,
then my heart stopped with a chill.
A griffin stood in the doorway;
I heard that weird grandfather clock’s bell.
And I was thinking to myself:
is that lion or eagle poop that I smell?
Then he lit up an ipad
and he showed me the way.
There were voices down the corridor,
thought I heard them say:
Welcome to the Hotel La Setonia.
We wear a cap and gown.
But the fun stuff’s downtown.
There’s not much room at the Hotel La Setonia.
Now’s “your chance to shine,”
if you can park in time.
The mascot’s smile was twisted
up inside of his beak
with lots of pretty, pretty teeth…
you know, it’s really kind of a freak.
And then we walked toward McKenna –
sweet Griffin sweat.
Pot holes to remember;
mud lots to forget.
I called out to the students,
“Fear nothing but a closed mind!”
But Griff said, “we haven’t used that slogan here
since Two Thousand and Nine.”
And still those voices are calling from far away,
They wake you up in the middle of the night
pounding on Steinways, singing…
Welcome to the Hotel La Setonia.
Logging on is rare,
in the Griffin’s Lair
They’re livin’ it up at the Hotel La Setonia.
What a nice surprise,
breakfast with curly fries!
Workouts before the sunrise;
night classes run late.
And Griff said “we are all just prisoners here,
behind the GriffinGate.”
And in the Greensburg Room Annex,
they gathered for the feast.
They cut the budget with their steely knives,
but tuition’s still increased!
Last thing I remember, I was
“Hazarding Yet Forward”;
I had to find the passage back
to where I first met that weird pawed-bird
“Relax,” said the Griffin,
“We are programmed to achieve.
Grab a shuttle any time you like,
but you never can never leave!”
Here the griffin would play a fantastic twenty-minute guitar solo. But I promise to keep the rest of this speech a little shorter than that. And I probably should say a few more words, because I don’t want you to leave Seton Hill with the impression that I am the Weird Al Yankovich of Higher Learning.
Oh no, I’m much weirder than that. Many of you know I write and teach horror fiction, so I want to share a few thoughts and lessons gleaned from my lifelong study of dread and disease, as something resembling parting advice.
The first is a reiteration of that famous line from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Fear nothing but a closed mind.” I love this slogan. I wonder if she ever was audited by the IRS, but I really do love those words. It’s a great way to approach whatever it is you fear in your future after college. But more than that, we live in a world of scary things, where everything from terrorists to tornadoes threaten to topple our security. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, then you know that the 21st Century has so far been one big never-ending horror show. But the truth is that life is and always has been unpredictable and scary — the problem, I think, is that we’re just more aware of it than ever, receiving all of our technology streams. It’s easy to become hypersensitive to threats and respond with paranoia — or to be completely desensitized and react with zombie-like ennui. But fear is always the cause of closed-mindedness. You can’t let fear immobilize you. You combat it with reason, ingenuity, education and humor.
The phrase “ignorance is bliss” is a cop-out. An outright lie. Ignorance is a third grader behind the wheel of a car, blissfully barreling down the road during rush hour. The ignorant don’t know any better — and always learn their lessons the hard way. (This is what I write about). The good drivers aren’t just people above the age of three — they are the defensive ones, the ones who know how to predict where danger might lurk. But still they drive. That’s what the college motto, “hazard yet forward,” is all about. Make it your road sign on the journey of life.
I think people like horror stories because they help us navigate the hazards and keep us alert to things that might surprise us along the way. When people ask me, “Why do you write such scary stuff? You’re such a normal looking person,” I always answer “The real question is, why on earth do people read it?” But if you want to find the answer, go to the horror movies, and look at the audience. People cover their eyes with their hands during the scary parts, and peer between their fingers. We play peekaboo with this stuff. The phrase “I can’t believe my eyes” comes to mind. And that is the second lesson I have for you: Play peekaboo with the universe. You’ll learn a lot. But it will always only be a partial view. So don’t cover your eyes, but don’t ever believe your eyes either. At least not entirely.
What do I mean by that?
Are you familiar with the surrealist painter Magritte? You might recognize his painting, Son of Man, which simply depicts a generic man in a gray suit wearing a bowler hat, with a large green apple strangely floating in the space in front of his face. When asked why he blocked out his subject’s face so weirdly, he said something simple but profound: “Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
I love this. Because it relates so closely to both horror fiction and the quest of education: to look beyond the obvious. Horror is art and — with the exception of my terrible poem at the beginning of this speech — art is not a car accident that invites rubbernecking, which people always compare it to. Art asks us to boldly look and understand our world differently. That’s one of my missions as an author. I’m not saying you should all be a horror fan, but I do think you should pay more attention to art, even if it disturbs you. Because art is paying attention to things that the world chooses to ignore. We always are limited by our own perception, but art — especially the scary kind — allows us to see beyond the habitual worldview and the limits of our senses.
But artists are weird, I know. Weirdness will always make us uncomfortable. But you have to be courageous. Don’t fear the weirdness. Embrace it in others and in yourself. Hug your inner freak and kiss it on its fang-laden mouth. And give a firm handshake to the strange people in your life. You can always use hand sanitizer. It’s worth it because these strangers — no matter how scary they might seem at first — have lessons to teach you. If you are scared by someone who is different than you, who looks differently or acts differently, then that fear is a sign that you have a lot left to learn about them and everything they represent.
The truth is, everyone’s weird, but few have the courage to admit it. So to the class of 2011 I say: “COURAGE, WEIRDOS!”
Congratulations and Happy Friday the 13th.
Thank you to all my students and colleagues for daring to dub me “Professor of the Year” and giving me this fantastic honor (which includes a nice parking spot next year!). I loved giving the above speech and hearing the laughter. The poem has a lot of inside jokes about the campus, but I was so happy everyone “got it” — especially all the parents in the room — and that the jokes didn’t bomb. Photos will be added as they come in.
Here’s the campus press release about the award.