Friday, June 27, 2008

Cortina: Why I Have A Crush On J.K. Rowling

Part 1 from J.K. Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard (June, 2008):

Part 2:

Yes, this is a tango blog, but please indulge me today, since I feel compelled to confess my new crush on J.K. Rowling. So, can we just consider today's post a cortina?

Let me start at the beginning. My Mom had an exchange student (Chi Hai) from Beijing live with her for a year back in 1998 when he was in high school. He quickly became part of our family and we've become good friends with his parents, too. Well, Chi Hai just graduated from business school, so we all went to his graduation earlier this month at Harvard.

The commencement speaker this year was J.K. Rowling, the famed author of the Harry Potter books. When I heard she was going to be speaking I thought to myself "Well, this should be fun. She'll tell a lot of Harry Potter jokes, talk about her success and give us a few of her favorite 'life lessons learned', all of which will be forgotten by days end."

Not quite.

I sensed something was different about J.K. as I watched her facial expressions and body language while she was being introduced (I can use her first name, can't I, given that I have a crush on her or is that presumptious?). She seemed genuinely nervous sitting there waiting her turn, but who wouldn't be given all eyes were on her and the pageantry of Harvard's graduation ceremonies. There were many men wearing top hats and tails, the school band came marching through playing joyfully, and school songs were sung. It was great fun for all of us in the audience. But now J.K. was supposed to stand up and say something memorable. Just as her introduction was nearly finished I caught another glimpse of J.K. and she looked anxious.

After Harvard's President (Drew Faust--a very impressive woman) finished introducing her, J.K. walked to the podium and said "The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention." Her joke about 'fear and nausea" seemed quite sincere. And that was a very funny Harry Potter reference. I'm sure it's one of a dozen to come. So, now she'll start with the the predictable philosophy-lite given by most commencement speakers, right?


J.K. followed with the bravest, most personal and memorable commencement speech I've ever heard. In fact, it was one of the best speeches I've heard in my life. Her intellect, sense of humor, modesty and humanity were all on full display.

J.K. talked about the importance of failure in life, relieving poverty and the need to improve human rights worldwide. But what made it so powerful was that she talked about her personal experience of growing up poor and being poor again after her divorce. She said she was 'as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.'

Likewise, when she spoke about improving human rights, she didn't do it with platitudes, but by describing some of the horrors she heard personally while working for Amnesty International.

And towards the end when she could have coasted home to an easy ending, she instead threw down the gauntlet towards all of us:

"The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

The lioness finished and sat down to one of the longest standing ovations I've ever seen, all of which she received with great modesty, even surprise. But so often it's that way, isn't it? The brave don't realize they're being brave because they're just being who they are. All of which made J.K. even more irresistable and explains my crush.

I'm often wrong, but never in doubt. But I can't remember being more wrong about a person in the past five years. I don't know who her husband is, but he's a lucky man. And we were all lucky to hear J.K. speak for twenty shining minutes.

God bless J.K. Rowling.


Debbi said...

After Harvard's graduation, I had heard raves about J.K.'s speech there. I wish I had been able to go to hear it myself.... She is a remarkable woman!
So you were in my home town very recently! Did you come out dancing while you were here? Did I see you at one of our local milongas and did not realize it?
Sorry to insert tango into the cortina, but I could not help myself.... ;-)

Mark Andersen said...

Wow, Debbi--I wish you could have been there, but at least you can watch the videos. J.K. was simply amazing. I went to a tango performance last night & over dinner my 5 friends & I talked about J.K. and what a special woman she is. I completely forgot to mention in my post all the fantastic charity work J.K. does, too.

And, yes, I was in your hometown! Thank you for inserting tango into this cortina. I was born & raised in Mystic, Connecticut, but most of my family lives in the Boston area. The word on the street here in SF is that Boston has excellent tango. I really regretted not being able to tango on this trip, but my trip was packed to the rim with graduation ceremonies & my sister-in-law's baby shower. Actually, I sang her & my brother a song I wrote (based on that eternal baby shower song--the Darth Vader march from Star Wars)for their soon-to-arrive daughter and I can confidently say I have the worst voice you've ever heard in your life.

Next time I'm in Boston I'll let you know--it would be great to join you all at a milonga there! Please do the same when you're in SF--we have a great/fun group of tango dancers here.

La Tanguera said...

I think this is a really wonderful speech. I watched it several times; many thanks for sharing it!

Mary said...

JK is the best!! She's awesome and I don't believe people say she's not a good writer! SHE'S THE BEST EVER!!
She wrote the most popular story for kids of all time!! I just found a list and she is now the 2nd richest woman in the world for doing this!! Check it out at

Jules said...

Thanks you from the bottom of my heart for this post and for the good fortune of discovering it. My daughter is currently living in the east end of London and teaching the poorest of poor children in the schools in that area. The hardest thing for her to get used to was the obvious child neglect: many children have no teeth, or have seriously damaged and decayed teeth, open sores on their faces. I'm sending this to her as her committment wavers in the face of such poverty...But she hopes to eventually go into human rights and immigration law. JK is one of her heros!