My Remarks Today at Syracuse University's Opening Convocation

Hello. Since my background is in creative writing I want to tell you a story. This one happens to be true though not all stories are honest representations of facts. This is one of the things you will grapple with as a student at Syracuse University–critical thinking requires us to see that not all stories fully represent the facts. But I swear this small personal narrative is true. 


I lost some friends on September 11, 2001. All of them were working in the World Trade towers when the planes struck. At the time I was a professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. I was scheduled to fly the very next day to New York to conduct a poetry workshop for teenagers. As you remember, all flights in the US were grounded indefinitely.  Like so many others I stayed home and grieved and tried to imagine the human consequences of what had happened. 


When about a week later I was finally able to fly to New York I called a cab for the airport. This is the part of the story we in the writer’s trade like to call the “meanwhile, back at the ranch gambit”–I need to give you some back story. Remember, there’s a taxi coming. 


In the mid 1990’s I was the director of student services at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the nation’s premier training centers for guide dogs. They’re located just outside  New York City and they provide impeccably trained dogs for blind people all over the world. One thing I discovered is that many cab drivers in New York City didn’t like picking up blind people with guide dogs. Some cabbies didn’t like the dogs, or they didn’t like the hassle. This made me quite angry and I immediately started working  with Mayor Giuliani’s office to change the laws governing taxi access for people with disabilities. The fines for refusing rides went up and the education process for drivers was improved. Believe it or not, things are better nowadays. They’re not perfect, but they’re better than they used to be. 


So there I was waiting for a taxi on the first day the airlines were flying again. I was feeling jumpy like everyone boarding a plane that morning. Would I get where I was going? Would everything be okay? Then the taxi appeared.


Picture me with a guide dog and a rolling suitcase making my way to the car. Picture me getting in with a large yellow Labrador, settling her on the floor behind the front seat, squeezing in with my stuff, feeling the awkwardness of my disability the whole time. No matter how much you travel, if you’re a person with a disability you know all about the awkwardness factor. All too often you don’t fit into the spaces allotted to you–toilets, airplane seats, stadium seating, taxicabs…


I told the driver I wanted to go to the airport. He didn’t say a word. He just pulled his cab into the street and drove. I thought that he probably didn’t like me, or he didn’t like having the dog in his cab–either way it’s the same thing. I was having a flashback to my New York advocacy days. Here was another inhospitable cab driver. I took his silence for hostility. 


Now you have to understand that I’m a big talker. I’m an extrovert. I like people. When you’re visually impaired this is an advantage. I talk all the time with total strangers. Many have helped me. Several of those strangers have become friends. Accordingly, the silence of the cab driver was all too easy for me to misinterpret. I firmly decided that he didn’t like me. 


Then something wonderful and strange happened. I’d been reading a book by Daniel Goleman called “Emotional Intelligence”. In his book, Goleman, argues that it’s not your IQ that matters when determining your potential success in life, it’s your emotional intelligence–how much creative and interpretive flexibility you can engage in your work and your relationships. He argues that human beings are genetically engineered through our evolution to either fight or flee when we’re presented with any circumstance that surprises us. He cites “road rage” as an example: we imagine that the person driving badly is our enemy. We become enraged. We take it personally. Goleman argues that once this rage occurs we’re victims of what he calls a “neurological hijacking” –in effect we’ve become primitive thinkers, emotionally unintelligent and incapable of thought. He suggests that we try to imagine ourselves as being outside of the conflict we find ourselves in, to see our circumstances as part of a dramatic presentation. See yourself as a character on a stage. Imagine that there’s something more going on than you presently realize. Slow down your impulsive response and use your imaginative skills. 


So not seeing well I began to listen, sitting in the back of that taxi. 


I thought, “What if this man’s silence isn’t about me?” 


Then I noticed the music coming from the radio. Someone was singing lines from the Koran, singing them with the kind of sweet, uptempo joy one hears in Jamaican Reggae. So I really began to listen. The arrangement had a wonderful horn section and behind the horns, an eccentric but lively beat. The effect was uplifting, life giving, and I found myself suddenly exclaiming: “Wow! That sounds like Pakistani Bob Marley!” 


“Oh God!” I thought. “What have I done? I’ve just made a perfect fool of myself!”


Have you ever heard jubilant relief in a man’s voice? It’s an unforgettable timbre, like water falling in Kyoto. The driver said: “You’re right! He is the Bob Marley of Pakistan! That is where I’m from! How did you know it was from Pakistan?”


I said I was a literature professor, that I had read the Koran and the music was absolutely life affirming. 


Suddenly I was in a different story than the one I’d imagined. My driver told me that no one had spoken with him in public since 9-11. Not a soul. I was the first man to say anything to him beyond muttered directions. And by God I knew something about his culture.  I was sharing my joy upon hearing the music–his music–the music that had gotten him through so many difficult hours. 


I direct the Renee Crown University Honors Program at Syracuse University. As you start your journey here I urge you to remain open and curious about your fellow students, your faculty, and the staff you meet every day. Curiosity is the core of emotional intelligence and it’s the best building block for success, not only in the classroom but in every thing you will ever do. Let your SU experience be your entry into worlds of inquiry and of surprises. 



Stephen Kuusisto







0 thoughts on “My Remarks Today at Syracuse University's Opening Convocation

  1. I commend the university on a good hire. Yeah, this is a story that a university needs to start the new academic year.


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