Departing Speech to the House of Reagan
President David Dantzler addresses the house
Men of Reagan,
It's sad to think that this may be the last time I address you all with those words.
I heard once, a description of wisdom and age, that everything we believe can be put into a circle. Now we believe most of that stuff because we've been told to, and we don't really have the time or desire to fully think about or grasp all those individual beliefs. But then, inside our circle of beliefs, is a smaller circle. These are the essentials, the things we don't budge on. As we grow old, our circle grows too, being filled each day with new memories and experiences. But the little circle, it grows smaller. We believe less and less things to be absolute. But the things we do keep in our little circles, we hold on to tighter.
Since I've been at King’s my big circle has grown (mostly with Plato and Aristotle and other things I don’t care too much about) and my little circle has shrunk. I've learned that I don't know everything, and that I can't know everything.
So I started thinking about what I know. And it's not much.
Most of the things I know, I know not because I've theorized about them or discussed them in class, but because I've experienced them. And as I got to thinking about all this I was reminded of a story. It's a story I told to my executive team at the beginning of the year, and so I figure I'll share with you all at the end.
As you may or may not know, I became a Christian five years ago in a jail cell. I don't think or talk about it much, because the events leading up to my incarceration, and thinking back on those days, makes me sick to my stomach. I blocked a lot of those days out, but I remember the day I came to Christ.
I had never really read a book before I came to jail and I never paid attention in class. So I started reading war literature. World War II fascinated me—the classic battle between good and evil. I remember reading one particular book. It was an anthology—a collection of poems, gathered from children at a concentration camp in Poland. The book was titled, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, named after one poem in the collection.
15, 000 kids under the age of 15 started at that camp, Terezin, in 1942 and two years later, by 1944, less than 100 remained. Gives you some perspective on the world.
During this time I worked as a trustee in B-Pod. It was the barracks for non-violent offenders and guys who were pretty much in and out, much different than where I lived in A pod lockdown. I had just got done reading this book and I was sitting in the hallway of B-pod during a shift. It was a long white hallway with high ceilings and there was nothing to do. I was falling asleep when I heard…
One of the guards approached me and he had in his hands a big beautiful butterfly. He said that the females found it in “the yard” and were swatting it around. It was almost dead. Now I love nature, and I hadn't seen any of it in a while—23 hour a day lockdown doesn’t allow for much adventure. I held that butterfly in my hands, and I thought about all those children who hadn't done a damn thing to deserve the evil that happened to them. I remember thinking about all the things I'd done to hurt people. All the violence I'd committed and people I’d betrayed. All the daughters and sons I’d sold substances to that carved great chasms in families.
Now that butterfly was beat up. I watched it flutter its wings for the last time in my hands. And I wept. I wept and I let out all the hatred that had composed me for so many years. I prayed to God. I didn’t ask him for anything. But I thanked Him. I thanked him that I was so lucky to have food and shelter and for not allowing me to die all those times I should have, and for that butterfly. Now I didn't believe in miracles. And I had just prayed what might have been the first real prayer of my life. And I watched that butterfly go from laying down dead in my hands on its side, to standing up. It slowly walked to the tip of my finger, moved its wings, and it flew up into the tall ceiling and out of my sight.
Among those pre-incarceration days, were many an acid-trip. I once tripped acid for seven days straight and woke up in a hospital bed. Apparently I was extremely dehydrated and had ingested infinitely more cocaine than any human is supposed to be able to. Now, I ate acid to escape reality, and I had had some weird, trippy experiences. But at that moment, I had what I think was my first and only out of body experience.
As that butterfly flew out of my hands and rose up, I felt myself rising with it. It was as if we died together, there in B-pod in that white hallway, and both were reborn. That day we found freedom. Not from the authorities of this world, but freedom in Christ.
The poem that the book was named after, “The Butterfly,” started off this way: "The last, the very last, so richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow. Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing against a white stone...such, such a yellow is carried way up high. It went away I'm sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye."
Now as the tears ran down my face and as I sat against that white stone wall in that long white hallway, with those high ceilings and mean men I kissed the world goodbye. I saw forgiveness that day and there is not a thing any one of you or anyone else in this world can say to make me change my mind. That moment is in my little circle and I hold on to it tightly.
Why do I tell you this? I remember when I first got put in Reagan. I hated it. I didn’t like the people; didn’t like the politics; I didn’t like the arrogance. I hated that the other houses hated us. But when Caz Crane first reached out to me—before he was president—I remember seeing in his eyes the fire for the House. How he talked about it and what it meant to him. I experienced, through him, the community I had never been a part of. And I envied it. So I slowly meandered into a few house events. And oddly, somehow one day became House president—with no thanks to the honorable Matt Moore.
Now today is my last day as house president. I cherished every moment and I wouldn't trade any of it for anything. And I remember back to that poem:
"The last, the very last, so richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow. Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing against a white stone...such, such a yellow is carried way up high. It went away I'm sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye. For seven weeks I've lived in here, penned up inside this ghetto. But I have found what I love here. The dandelions call to me and the white chestnut branches in the court. Only I never saw another butterfly. That butterfly was the last one. Butterflies don't live in here, in the ghetto."
Gentlemen, we cannot do life alone. As much as we want to we can't. Together we find freedom, we fly out of our prisons of selfishness and loneliness and shame. And we will all see another butterfly, that much I promise you.
One day shortly after the butterfly incident, I was standing on the second floor of the barracks I lived in. Me and a friend were standing up there, looking down on the other inmates playing spades, doing pushups and other things inmates do. Now the guy I was with was an old man. He’d been in and out of prison his whole life and he didn’t have any teeth from all the meth he’d done. As we stood up there he said something to me that I’ll never forget. He said, “son, if I could take all the days that you have been sentenced to this place and tack them onto the end of mine, I would.” He looked at me and said, “I love you kid. You’re going to do great things.”
This old man had no real family left and nobody called him or wrote him letters. He used to read the letters that were written to me, so he might imagine what it would feel like to have people who still cared for him. Thinking back, I don’t even remember the old man’s name; I lived with him for months. He’d been told by society he wasn’t worth anything. But what he showed me that day was invaluable. It was unquestioning loyalty. It was fraternity—not blind or preppy—but love-filled. And, above all, his words drove me to want to live a life of honor.
I heard a prayer recently, by Francis of Assisi.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
You want to learn to love the house, to love each other? Make it your goal, not to be loved, but to love. People come into the house and they want to know what it can give them and if there is going to be pizza at the next event.
You will never truly understand the house if all you do is take from it. But if you love it, if you give yourself to it, and to each other, we will create a community here unlike any other that this school has ever seen. And I think we’re well on our way to doing that.
And then we might understand the riddle of Old Honest, in Paul Bunyans Pilgrims Progress, who said:
“A man there was, tho’ some did count him mad / the more he cast away, the more he had.”
You are men of Reagan. Don't forget it. Don't ever apologize for it. Don't ever doubt the mission and aspiration of honor upon which this House rests; because as soon as you doubt it, it disappears. Don't ever let someone from another House tell you who we are. Look around, look at the fire in each other’s eyes. Defend one another, love one another, and one day maybe someone who doesn't want to be involved in the House or who is looking to be loved and listened to, will see in you something unique. And maybe, like me, that person will forever carve the House of Ronald Reagan into the center of his little circle of beliefs--always seeking to live a life of loyalty, fraternity, and honor--unable to be persuaded otherwise.
It's been an honor serving you. But now, it's Jonny's turn. Help him to lead by loving each other. Find community through serving. And at the end of it all, I suspect all of our little circles will overlap in the community we found here, in the House of Ronald Reagan.
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