flowers for the class of 2018: a reflection by tom young

By Tom Young

To the class of 2018, and to our teachers. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you how grateful I am to have shared my time with you all at York St John University.

As I have progressed through my studies, I have come to realise that my education before uni was extremely limited. I felt a profound sense of shame when an American student, with whom I’d shared accommodation for a brief period of time during first year, was shocked to learn how little I knew of the history of English monarchs, of which he knew all.

I felt it again very recently, when I was writing my American Literature in the 20th Century essay and I realised that I was a 25-year-old man who knew nothing about the Dresden firestorm. At some point at the start of my studies I thought of a question, and the more I learn the more I find that I now cannot get this question out of my head:

Why am I so ignorant?

I got to thinking of the history I had learnt at school (a school now facing demolition due to the severe lack of funding and investment), and quickly realised that it was a fruitless task, as what I had been taught was not only so little, but also lacking any kind of coherence or direction. My literature studies, though slightly better, were much the same. It has only been since I have come to York that I have had any point of comparison from which I could generate this revelation, and when my housemate gave me Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, reading it made me feel like I was holding a mirror rather than a book.

I did not have a happy childhood or adolescence, which was largely due to self-destructive behaviours I had developed, as many of my peers did, in the isolated environment in which I had spent most of my life. The children of County Durham are forgotten, neglected, antagonised and vilified, and given no direction or outlet; many grow up to be stray adults, angry at their lack of purpose in life. The best way I can describe this is by referring to my favourite film, Billy Elliot. There is a scene in which Billy’s grandma tells him that she thinks he should get a trade, “something useful”, then in the same breath laments the fact that she could have been a professional dancer.
I am sad to say that I knew many boys who never made it to adulthood. They were killed by the destructive behaviours of either themselves or those around them, directly resulting from the fettered isolation that plagues their communities and the slow murder of their dreams. Representing these tragedies, and the perspectives, the stories and the voices behind them, was the basis for my creative dissertation. Writing this narrative is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I have never felt such a sense of value and worth in what I am doing.

The YSJ English Literature and Creative Writing faculties have opened the door to the home I never knew I had. They have provided me with the education I never knew I needed so badly. As Charlie Gordon so eloquently puts it, “A child may not know how to feed itself, or what to eat, yet it knows hunger”. Now, I have an outlet. Now, I have direction. The ill behaviours which caused me to have such a poor relationship with myself are gone, and what remains is confidence and energy for a vocation that I now believe I was born to take.

To consider that I ended up here purely by chance and luck frustrates me, and to consider all the young people I left behind that are still smacking their heads against dead ends and drowning themselves in regrets, that breaks my heart. We rejected the “useful” trades imposed on us, not because they’re not useful, but because we wanted something different. Like Billy, we wanted to dance. And against the odds, here we are, dancing, and I am proud of every single one of us.

But think of those we have left behind. Think of Billy’s grandma, sat silently at the kitchen table after pushing her boy out the front door towards the life he truly wants; what does she have left when Billy is gone? I want to give everyone I grew up with what I have been so fortunate to find, or as Joseph Gales once said, “to rescue my Countrymen from the darkness of Ignorance, and to awaken Them to a sense of their Privileges as Human Beings, and, as such, of their Importance in the grand scale of Creation”. With the lessons, the memories and the faith you have all given me, I feel I now have the power to do this. We have the power to teach the world to dance.

I don’t know if my words are successfully explaining my gratitude without them being misconstrued as melodrama. However, I know that the happiness education has given me will act as my catalyst to evolve into a more effective elocutionist in years to come, so that I can keep finding better ways of expressing what I feel. Until then, I rely on Daniel Keyes:

I’m living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed. Every part of me is attuned to the work. I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night—in the moments before I pass off into sleep—ideas explode into my head like fireworks. There is no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem. Incredible that anything could happen to take away this bubbling energy, the zest that fills everything I do. It’s as if all the knowledge I’ve soaked in during the past months has coalesced and lifted me to a peak of light and understanding. This is beauty, love, and truth all rolled into one. This is joy.

Thank you all. Good luck. Never lose sight of what you want most. Never stop dancing.