Playing for the Archbishop of Polynesia – Kent R. Burnham – Fiji 1978

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Kent R. Burnham, Fiji, 1978

All Fulbrighters will agree that unexpected and serendipitous experiences often stand out far beyond our initial Fulbright job assignment. One such eye-opening experience has stayed with me for decades. Here is what happened:

I had the privilege of being a Fulbright Scholar at The University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, in 1978. I had the fascinating challenge of assessing the effectiveness of the University’s academic program that sent educational content to several islands, using a NASA telecommunications satellite.

In addition to my initial assignment, I was also a church organist, and occasionally I was asked to play at Suva’s beautiful Anglican Cathedral. One performance involved playing for the Archbishop of Polynesia. I began playing the processional march, and in strode a man who looked as though he came right out of Central Casting. He was a gentle giant of a man with a smile that was as broad as his shoulders. The way he carried himself assured everyone that he was the right person for the job. I finished the march and scooted off the organ bench, thinking that since I’m not Anglican, a speech by the Archbishop was of little relevance to me.

The Archbishop began by saying, “I have just returned from the World Council of Bishops, held just outside London. It was a beautiful morning; the organ was playing; the choir was singing; and we were in our finest vestments, all lined up to enter the main door of the cathedral.”

And then it happened.

Just as the Archbishop recalled the lined-up bishops in their elegant garb, he paused, smiled, and said with extraordinary and measured tones, “Ah, the Americans.”  (I perked up my ears.)  “They have such trouble handling dignity.” Having sat through many graduations at my institution, I could only guess what he had observed. Were some of these American bishops wearing Bermuda shorts under their robes?  Or, might their feet be clad in flip-flops? Or were they just exhibiting a demeanor that communicated either discomfort or a slight bit of embarrassment?  Whatever the condition, it was clear to the Archbishop that dignity was not the Americans’ strong suit.

I took this memory home to my university and repeated the story to every graduating senior class I taught for the next 30 years. I reminded them that different settings call for different demeanors. A football game is a venue for unleashing unfettered enthusiasm; a graduation ceremony is an opportunity for showing maturity, civility and class.

I don’t know how many minds I changed from my relating this story to my students, but I’d like to think that a few joyous seniors decided that using masking tape to spell out “Hi, Mom” on their mortar boards was a bit juvenile and tacky. If that were the case, I thank the Fulbright program for giving me a relatable experience that helped a few young people recognize that there are times when dignity is appropriate.

Kent R. Burnham – Fulbright to Fiji 1978

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