July 17th, 2010
I talked to some Shads this week. Shad Valley kids, that is—48 of them to be exact, gathered here at Memorial for the last few weeks as part of the annual Shad Valley program. They count themselves off before each session, and so waiting to be introduced I watched them shout out their assigned numbers, all the way up to 48. Impressive, articulate, energetic, these youngsters aged 15 to 18 sure lived up to their reputation. As the web site boasts, “We find the best and make them better.” Aimed at excellent high school students, the program has flourished since 1981 when some forward-looking people acted on a very good idea. It’s all about leadership, of course; the Shad Valley mission “is to provide a transformational experience” for today’s most promising youth, the leaders of tomorrow.
The Shad Valley motto is Drive. Stretch. Dream. I like this trio of action verbs; it suggests possibilities, imagination, a life of the mind. It is much more appealing than “outwit, outplay, and outlast,” the Survivor manual to crafty endurance, a cynical trinity of imperatives, if ever there were one.
What started as a dream, indeed, is now a thriving international enterprise. In Canada this summer, ten campuses are playing host to the Shad program. That means about 500 lucky, smart Canadian high-school students are being treated to a rich and diverse set of workshops and seminars, with time for cultural excursions, sight-seeing, and the necessary opportunity for socializing with each other. Only good can come of such a thing.
The Dean in me thinks, maybe if I connect with them they will eventually think about enrolling in graduate studies, maybe even at Memorial. The less self-interested side of me wonders, how can I connect at all? Clearly I need not have worried too much. These kids are hungry for knowledge and experience and you can smell that teen spirit as soon as you enter the room. It’s like walking on to the set of Glee. Everyone looks alive and ready to burst into competitive-level song and dance.
When originally approached to participate many months ago by our campus rep, Dr. Leonard Lye, I really had no idea what I would talk to Shads about. I knew I had an hour and fifteen minutes in which to do so, and that my audience would be exposed to a varied set of speakers, each drawing on personal and professional experience to say something of interest—anything—to keep teenagers awake for the allotted time. Talk about film, he said. They’ll like that. Sure, I said, vaguely. Whatever.
Ultimately, I figured the best way to approach this would be to do a slide show of my own experience as a spectator and then as a student of film, allowing me to talk about the movies that changed or informed my life, and why. You might appreciate that I began with an image from Snow White (animation, Disney, seven dwarves, yada yada) and concluded with an image montage from the Twilight Series of Bella and Edward in a recurring, iconic embrace—not quite a kiss, almost a kiss, a vampire’s kiss, a kiss that could kill. In between I flashed up images from Wizard of Oz (every Shad kid had seen that one), Gone with the Wind, several Hitchcock movies (one female Shadster could identify each of his films from my slides), a John Ford Western, Fellini’s 8½, and Some Like it Hot, all of these being just a few of my favourite things.
From Marilyn Monroe it is a small step to Madonna and then on to Lady Gaga and a discussion of how popular images circulate, reproduce, and eventually influence our attitude to music and fashion, not to mention language and speech. Do Shadsters care about any of this? I hope so. It’s where they—and we—all live. As I had thought at the outset, though, when I showed the first of the Twilight slides there were audible groans and giggles from the group, with several of the male Shads holding their noses and signaling thumbs down. I get it. The whole vampire saga is just a little too popular, too aggressively marketed, too much of the here and now for smart young people to take seriously or want to be seen confirming to. I used to feel the same way about Star Wars. Forgive me. I’m older now.
My message? See it first, then judge. And, remember that even if you don’t approve or find it to your taste then at least try to understand why the bloodsucking drama has such enormous appeal. What does such popular appeal have to say about us? Viewers are as keen to follow the plot of the Twilight series as they were to read it over a hundred years ago when Bram Stoker first published Dracula, a novel that’s never been out of print. Lots to talk about, after all.
Anyhow, I don’t know about them but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Good luck Shad Valley students. I look forward to seeing where life takes you.