Thirty-year Class Reunion Speech

Class of 1979

by Brian Lifsec

Colegio Nueva Granada

Bogota, Colombia

May 15, 2009

I have the honor of representing the foreign nationals that attended Colegio Nueva Granada in the 70’s and who left this beautiful country anywhere from 30 to 35 years ago. I have been asked to reflect on our past and share my memories of those times …but I warn you, this will be coming from someone who, every day, asks his wife where he left his wallet and, on more than one occasion, returned to the house for a belt. So bear in mind, these are my memories.

I was 9 years old when I first said hello to many of you in September of 1970 and not yet sixteen when I said good-bye. Like many foreign nationals, I left Colombia not because I wanted to but because my parents, or my parents’ company, believed we had to. I will avoid reflecting on the complicated politics of that period and the gripping stories of kidnappings in Colombia that took root in the early 70’s and gradually increased until 2001. I will save that for the beers at the bar, but it needs mention because the subsequent Diaspora of foreign and Colombian families left us all with new realities and unfinished friendships.

I think back on those years with a fondness and, at the same time, a certain sadness that we will never be what we once were. We were a group of kids, acquaintances, and friends sheltered by our parents, our school, and, most certainly, our relative wealth. We were a diverse group of personalities and cultures that experienced growing up in a wonderful learning environment surrounded by inspiring and motivating teachers and administrators (Included in that definition of inspiration, is the kind that only Ms Schuttmat could provide a group of hormonally-challenged middle school boys when she drew perfect circles at the blackboard; also included is the kind of motivation only Mr. Burgess could generate when his face turned the color of his beard – of which Jack Azout and I were often the cause—although I never ended up in a garbage can).

So how is it, with everything going on in our respective lives, being as busy as we are and after so many years, that so many of us have traveled so far to be together? The most obvious reason is the catalytic energy of Claudia, Jack, Fernando and the entire organizing committee in preparing for this event (for this we are all grateful).

But their energy does not fully explain the remarkable enthusiasm and attendance. I believe the second reason we are all here is the pride we feel thinking about what we learned at CNG. Every day we entered this special place not only to be students, athletes, musicians, artists, and writers but also, and importantly, to share and experience the rewards of diversity. We are who we are, largely because of a diverse set of experiences that spanned pre-adolescence and adolescence, friendships and relationships, successes and disappointments. And, this weekend is a chance for all of us to figuratively (and literally) return to that experience and revisit our respective journeys.

A third reason I believe we come together is to mend and rekindle our interrupted friendships that never had a chance to mature. There is a part of me that resents that interruption and I think all of us are here in an attempt to push back on the effects of unchecked fear. A fear that even today can be felt driving people apart. There is no shortage of cynics who claim the world is increasingly dangerous and hold as proof the terror of 9/11, the spread of viruses, the wars in the Middle East, the expansion of religious extremism and the rise of isolationist governments. But to them I would say the friends in this room today can remember a decade enmeshed in a Viet Nam War, oil embargos, frequent hijackings, the horror of Munich, and multiple dictators across Latin America and the world. So when we compare to the 70’s, I think we all know the fears we face today are not necessarily greater, just different. And we all know that to allow these fears to dominate or indeed navigate our lives today would be to allow history to sadly repeat.

So what makes these friendships and our common experience at CNG so special? Beyond the education, CNG was a place that, by its very nature, held school in the all important lessons of diversity, multiculturalism, and peace. Idealism may influence my memory, but when my wife and I were researching New York City schools for our children I looked to CNG as my model for an ideal education. We found such a place in the United Nations International School.

What a place like CNG or the United Nations International School teaches us, and at a very young age, is that the more exposure we have to different cultures and different views the less extreme they appear and the more likely we can formulate understanding, acceptance and harmony. Ironically, in a world that, even then, was full of extremists and extremism, we began an education in our own brand of extremism… extreme moderation. This oxymoron represents a brand of extremism whose core value is a tolerance and understanding brought about by exposure to those unlike ourselves, the kind of exposure every one in this room has experienced. Let me give you some examples (From ‘my’ memory…)

My first lesson in extreme moderation came my first year in Colombia. It was a Parents Night performance by [picture this] the third-grade, first-year Spanish students. We practiced for weeks to learn to dance “La Cumbia” on a stage. First, picture every boy, half the size of every girl (and me ¼ the size). Second, the sound track was on a record player sitting on the stage, and third the first time dancing with lit candles was the night of the performance. I remember almost lighting up Kendra Brown as I desperately reached up to hold hands and hot wax burned down my arm to the sound of “La Pollera Colora” skipping across the record as we bounced around the stage trying to keep time with the music. Now compare this to a typical school curriculum today that does not even offer language until middle school [let alone hot wax treatments…] and many students know Colombia only as a brand of sportswear. Canvassed this way, you begin to understand the extreme exposure of the extremely moderate.

Another lesson in extreme moderation came a few years later. I was late to girlfriend/boyfriend game, in fact, I am pretty sure I was dead last but Colombian girls and boys (girls especially) matured much faster than the Americans (boys especially). While the Colombian crowd was dancing Salsa, dating, attending wild Bar-mitzvahs and fashionably spending lunch sunning in the bleachers, I and many of my American compatriots were setting off stink bombs, throwing water balloons and rolling around in the dirt. The Colombian boys would come back from lunch tan and nicely dressed, the American boys looking like pigs. Nonetheless, in spite of our behavior, Amelia Toro and Fernanda Perez would practice a brand of extreme moderation and still put love notes in my desk and the desks of who knows how many other dirty boys. Of course I stayed away from girls, fearing they all carried the dreaded Machaca virus. (Which I thought was same as cooties…)

I want to be careful not to over-idealize our existence; there certainly was frustration between the cultures. After-all, Kristian Bickenbach rarely let me forget I was an: “estupid-Gringo-pendejo,” which, I am convinced, he thought was one word. When I first arrived I contested being called stupid. Once I learned Spanish, I contested being called a “Pendejo.” Today, because I am not young enough to know everything and my views are extremely moderated, I believe Kristian’s label fits in certain situations. Like when I got behind the wheel of my father’s Dodge Dart and popped the clutch in the parking lot of a Carulla or, frankly, when my government thinks it’s wise to trade liberties for safety.

I also want to be careful not to over-idealize our existence because if we think back, there was plenty of danger and suffering. Television, for example, was comprised mainly of black and white Spanish Soap Operas, Sabados Felices and Topo Gigo re-runs. To this day, and this is no joke, because of this exposure, I don’t have a television. And Jack Azout, so I hear, only recently learned Angus MacGyver speaks English not Spanish. And talk about danger… Remember “Clackers?” (or Whackers or Click-Clacks)...Once you had those things going, the only thing that could stop them was your arm, the person standing next to you, or the glass balls shattering in your face. Of course my greatest suffering came during the American influenced marbles craze and at the hands of Jorge Bermudez or Victor Idrovo. Although a great American tradition, if you ever played those boys you lost your marbles… you suffered…

So what makes us unique, all of us in this room today, is that we are products of an extreme multicultural experience that causes us to reach out to those around us with tolerance and moderation. We have in each of us, the experience and exposure to people and cultures that are not of our origin and, with this experience, we have the ability to arbitrate and to relate to people who we do not fully understand and who do not understand us. We know that it is up to us to push back on the malevolence of intolerance and the scourge of war by allowing moderate voices to be heard. We recognize that we must be the people who can agree to disagree and seek understanding long before influence. We know that we must recognize the heroics of tolerance, support free speech around the world, and fight stereotypes. We know Colombia is not a country filled with drug-pushing, soccer-player killing, communist-seeking, brown people; any more than the United States is a country filled with drug taking, Jewish-influenced, world-dominating white people.

As this planet becomes smaller (and you only need to look at the rapid proliferation of i-pods, satellite news, and Uggs to know that this is happening), it becomes increasingly important to recognize our sameness and celebrate our differences. If for no other reason, that is why I came to this reunion… to reconnect with old friends, embrace our heritage of multiculturalism and expand the practice of extreme moderation.

…thank you for listening.