This past Thursday, October 13, 2022 author, poet, and activist Ru Freeman visited Poly to host multiple assemblies and a Global Initiatives Program event for parents, students, and alumni of the Poly community. Born in Sri Lanka, Freeman is an immigrant and dual citizen, making her an expert in the international world. Over the summer, us global scholars were invited to read one of Freeman’s many books On Sal Mal Lane to prepare for her visit. In On Sal Mal Lane and her countless other works, Freeman explores the boundaries of identity and the larger world. On Thursday, she talked with us about the art of risk and understanding.
When Poly hosts speakers, they almost always start with a short biography about their accomplishments and/or work if applicable, then deliver a structured, precise speech with persuasive language, alongside a formal powerpoint. However, Freeman prefaced her Upper School assembly with an explanation that she was not going to follow a script or bulleted powerpoint but instead speak organically about her experiences, allowing her presentation to develop as the assembly progressed. I found Freeman’s style of speaking very engaging since her lack of direct structure enticed the listeners to wonder where each anecdote would take the conversation. Freeman talked about her identity as a Sri Lankan immigrant, her process as a writer, and her role as the head of the art program at Narrative 4. Freeman mainly used a combination of anecdotes and reflection to convey the importance of connection and risk taking.
One anecdote that particularly stuck with me was one that happened to her on her way to the airport to fly to Los Angeles earlier in the week. Freeman explained that she got into her taxi to travel a few hours to the airport and kept to herself at first. Subconciously, Freeman thought of the driver as just a driver and not a whole person. To her surprise, she happened to start a conversation with the driver and by the end of the car ride ended up learning so much about the driver and herself in the process. Freeman reflected that if she had never decided to talk to the driver, should would not have learned so much or even just seen the driver as a whole person. I thought Freeman’s anecdote was a really effective way to show the benefits of risk taking.
Through other anecdotes, Freeman described the differences between gratitude in Sri Lankan and American culture. Freeman explained that, unlike American culture, saying “thank you” or “sorry” is not enough in Sri Lakan culture. In Sri Lakan culture, there is a larger emphasis on the action and intentions behind the words than the words themselves. Thus, instead of saying sorry to someone who you have wronged, you would invite them to get coffee or hang out and them agreeing to go with you would be the equivalent to accepting an apology. I really liked this idea and appreciated that Ms. Freeman shared it because I find that people often say apologies or speak about certain standards for themselves but are unable to support those words with their actions, creating a feeling of superficial empathy or false connection. Finally, Freeman ended the assembly by asking the audience this question: what will you risk and what will it lead you to find?
I left the assembly pondering her final question and still do, but it helped me mentally prepare for her Global Initiatives Program event later that evening. At 6PM that day, Freeman held another event that focused on her role as an author and global citizen.
Freeman began this event by shifting my view of what I consider “global.” Normally, I think of “global” as anything outside of the United States; however, Freeman reminded the audience that America itself is global. Every topic, every decision made in America has effects on the world outside it and vice versa, such that we are all intricately connected in a way that we become one. Then, Freeman shared a powerful anecdote about an interaction between her, her mother, and a homeless person. Ultimately, the moral of the story was to see people in their entirety, not just as how they appear on the outside.
When asked how she writes fiction, Freeman responded that she views fiction not really as fiction at all. She says that to write her fiction, she pulls from the interactions she has in her own life and from those that she hears from others. Then, Freeman went through one of the short stories in one of her book and described the inspiration behind each character and story.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed Ru Freeman’s visit to Poly. Her impactful anecdotes and careful reflection left me pondering my own life and how I perceive others in such a way that I feel like I view the world differently now, more whole than before.