Marshall Curry '92
Thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you today.
When I went to Swarthmore – years ago – I majored in comparative religion. I really wanted to find answers to some of life’s big questions. Why do we believe the things we believe and do the things we do? At graduation though, I remember a friend saying to me, “You know, I’m still confused but just at a higher level.”
In the years since then, I still haven’t found a lot of black and white answers to Life’s big questions. But one of the things I like about making movies, is that it forces me to keep engaging. And it forces me to pay attention to the world around me.
I’m naturally an introvert, and like a lot of folks, I spend too much time looking at my phone and interacting with people who are just like me. But my mom was the opposite.
She was an amazing storyteller and always had something new she'd want to tell you about – a funny experience at the grocery store, or some interesting person she’d met on a plane, or some sad thing she’d overheard at the coffee shop.
When I was young, I was always a little jealous that so many colorful things happened to her. But as I got older I began to realize that it wasn’t that so many special things happened to her. It was just that she noticed the things that most of us overlook.
There’s an old story I like about a man and a woman who were walking down a busy street in New York City. There were horns honking and trucks roaring, but the woman said to the man, “Hey, you hear that cricket?” The man stopped and strained his ears and sure enough, there was a slight chirping of a cricket. He told the woman, “You must have amazing ears to have been able to hear that.” And the woman said, “No, my ears are the same as everyone else’s. It’s just a matter of what you are listening for.” And she pulled out a quarter and said, “Watch this.” And she dropped the quarter on the sidewalk, and it made the faintest “clink” sound, and everyone on the sidewalk stopped and looked around, and patted their pockets to make sure they hadn’t accidentally dropped a quarter. And the woman said, “See, it’s just a matter of what you’re listening for.”
My mom was like that woman. She loved to spot details that were note-worthy. And she also loved drawing out strangers, and getting to know people that most of us ignore.
She knew that the guy who worked security in her office building used to dream of being a jazz trumpet player. And she knew that the lady who cleaned the office at night had fled from Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
My mom took delight in that moment when you discover someone is different and more complicated than you thought at first. And she nurtured that delight in me.
Years ago, I started thinking about how strange it was that NASCAR was one of the largest spectator sports in America, but I didn’t know anything about it. I couldn’t name two NASCAR drivers – and not only that, almost nobody I knew could name two NASCAR drivers. And that seemed sort of pitiful.
It seemed like there were NASCAR fans and non-NASCAR fans, and if you mapped it, it would probably look a lot like a red-state, blue-state map. I thought that if I want to understand my country and the people who share it with me, I should spend time learning about the things they love.
So I shot Racing Dreams, a documentary about two boys and a girl who want to become NASCAR drivers when they grow up. They are 11 and 12 years old, and they race these go-karts that go 70 miles per hour in what is essentially the Little League for NASCAR.
Early in the film the mother of the little girl -- who is a racing prodigy -- says to me, “Some people don‘t understand racing—they think it’s just cars going around in circles. But we don‘t understand, like, baseball. To us, that‘s just guys standing out in a field hoping someone might hit them the ball—and they might not even hit it to him.”
I love that comment because it reminds me that anything you don‘t understand—whether it‘s racing or baseball or jazz or documentary film or religion—it all seems absurd when you look at it as an outsider.
But once you get inside a little bit and start to understand – for instance -- what makes a good pass in a race or why a knuckleball wobbles, then things that you didn’t even realize were blurry suddenly come into focus, and life becomes a little richer.
So as you leave here and pursue your dream – whatever it is – I hope you’ll make progress on some of life’s big questions. And I also hope you’ll carve out a little space to eavesdrop on conversations in the checkout line, to look up from your phone and notice who’s sitting next to you at the restaurant, to get to know people outside of your circle, and to listen for the sound of that cricket.
Remarks as submitted to Swarthmore College