The word culture carries so many meanings, especially today when there are all sorts of cultural phenomena that are tempting to want to address. But here I’m speaking specifically of the culture among the adults–tutors, parents, grandparents–that are involved with Riverside. Adult culture is the most influential part of a young man or woman’s education.
The young watch their parents, uncles, aunts, priests, and other adults to see how we act in life. They watch how we work, how we play, what we talk about, and what we celebrate. At least in my experience, if they sense a lack of spirit and life in a culture of adults or if they perceive a boring existence of workday woes and adults relaxing on off hours simply to prepare for the next work day, most young people will seek another culture, often amongst their peers, that seems more meaningful, interesting, and full of life.
I often watched old movies growing up, the black and white kind, from World War II, and earlier. One thing I remember vividly is the exciting portrayal of adult living–nightclubs with men in tuxedos and women in gowns, moments of fellowship, from dancing and theatrical productions to sitting in cafes overlooking a European bay. These scenes of adult life were presented with glamor and occasion in so many films. Being an adult seemed fascinating, full of drama, friendships, love, and the beauty of the world. There also were depictions of brotherhood–soldiers fighting together in a war, or blue-collar workers making their way in mining towns. My favorite, however, were the movies that depicted the humorous culture of friendship and personality in a small Irish town, like Inishfree in The Quiet Man.
In these old movies, there was a sense that life and culture were at their peak in the years of adulthood. And yet, what have we seen in our own modern American culture? What does the youth witness during many adult gatherings? Often they see an uninspired culture, lacking in spirit and celebration of the most important things of life, and devoid of a deep sense of meaning and vitality. Instead, popular films, books, and music, often present the times of youth, college life or even earlier, as the spirited period that is lost with adulthood. Growing up is symbolized by the lonely masses entering into work life, the office, or boring suburban neighborhoods.
Therefore, at Riverside, we must create occasions of adult fellowship, community, and culture that are so rich in symbol, beauty, fellowship, meaning, and spirit, that the young look up to this culture as a reality they aspire to. Thus, part of the Riverside Way is to tie these types of occasions to the creative endeavors we embark upon with the youth.
Let me take a moment here, to touch upon the co-ed aspects of Riverside Although we teach boys only in the Riverside Tutorial, many of our cultural events, theatrical productions, and festivals are for the whole family and often now are in collaboration with the Girls’ program, the Riverside Studio. One problem I have witnessed in boys-only schools is that they lack collaboration with the other side of the human race, and therefore there is not a healthy and good way for the boys and girls to work alongside one another in creative endeavors. This is not something Riverside suffers from, for we see this collaborative relationship as wonderful and good, and much fruit has come from Tutorial’s collaboration with Riverside Studio, and Riverside Theatre.
The Bilbo Baggins Birthday party, aside from being one of our more popular annual events, illustrates how we express culture to the boys. The intent of this festival is to honor the esteemed Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, as he celebrates his Eleventy-first birthday–a celebration that we read about in J.R.R. Tolkien’s great story, The Hobbit. What the boys witness in this cultural festival is a blend of adult gifts and talents, together with their own contributions. Combined, these create an occasion that has become a great memory for many in our community. I remember one mother exclaiming how the party rivaled her own wedding reception! What the young see in this event is what happens when a great variety of gifts, ideas, and creative works come to bear on an event that expresses some core beliefs of a community.
What does the Bilbo party express? Tolkien had not only a lively creative imagination, but he conveyed a deep longing in the human heart for home, fellowship, beauty, and the need we all have for an oasis of delight and goodness along the hard journey of life. At our party, one sees dramatic vignettes from the world of Middle Earth enacted first during a main-stage performance and then along a tiki torch-lit path in a dark forest. Guests hear lively music and there is dancing, feasting, lively conversation, and times for prayer. The whole property is decked out with lanterns, lights of all kinds, and decorations that indeed rival many wedding receptions. Some families in the past have questioned the lavishness of the occasion. But my answer has always been and will continue to be that these children, and adults, will remember Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party as a time when we enjoyed each other not as strangers bound on individual journeys, but as fellow passengers to the grave, as Charles Dickens once wrote. What the young see at the Bilbo party are adults once again remembering the great story of this life and recognizing that it is a great adventure of fellowship and gifts realized while all the while heading towards our ultimate home. There are moments of darkness and despair along the road, but it is the memories of friendship, home, and human goodness that remind us that though there are dark clouds above, there will always be the sun and the stars that light our way..
I realize that Bilbo’s birthday party is not the apex of meaning compared to Christmas or Easter festivals (which should be celebrated with even more meaning and occasion), but it is intended to be what Pixar dubbed a “Core Memory” in the movie Inside Out. Through a meaningful cultural occasion, we have shown the young what we hold dear: the stories, the songs, and the community of friends that accompany us along the way. The young must see that we are not only play-acting but that we actually want to do these types of cultural events, which inspire us and enjoy reenacting the meaningful stories that give us core memories.
Part of the Riverside Way will always be to build worlds of culture, meaning, and true fellowship that express some of the deepest realities in life. However, the other aspect of Adult Culture for Tutors is our fellowship of creative endeavor. They must see us working together, expressing ideas and our gifts towards a meaningful end goal. They see this when we enter into creative projects with vitality and creativity, working together with a lively and humorous sense of the other’s personality, giftings, and ways to contribute to that goal. I once worked at a school where the adult culture was very strong. It was an inspiration in many ways. It was normal for the adults to compete in athletic competitions, to contribute to gatherings with a song, a poem, or a comic sketch. It was also normal for men to gather over pipes and brew to intellectualize about a great variety of things, or to chat about creative pursuits. The boys sensed that these men were part of a creative fellowship, and were not merely there to earn a paycheck, but to build a world to be enjoyed, to grow in, and to invite the young to be part of. The creative act is often a world-building exercise, but that is a discussion for another time.