2020 Commencement Address

I woke up this morning thinking about all of our students and seeing quite vivid images of things that they would probably like to do now or to remember. 
Here are some of those images: 
  • I see an absolutely packed Statistics class in Fuller 102, and hear the booming voice of Mr. Mayhew, coaching multiple levels of students to push themselves and try this new problem he is presenting. 
  • I imagine Mrs. Frey’s French class asking her to have tea under the trees in the pine grove on South Lawn, happily chatting in French about the fine day and how much they will miss her. 
  • I see students packing into Ms. Baldvins’ apartment to watch a home-brewed experiment and then settle down for a board game and something she baked. 
  • I hear the jamming in the lower level of Shep as Mr. Cady encourages the musicians to have the courage to let themselves soar and perform their own riffs in the next jazz performance. 
  • I see lawn chairs on Long Walk and boom boxes and Frisbee, and cookouts with Mr. Ross and his team. 
  • I see us watching lacrosse games in the nippy air and hoping that it won’t rain so the fields will hold. 
  • I see Pie Club members whipping up another pie and playing with Sistine. 
  • I see Mr. Burch working with students in the Pottery studio, and Mr. Burmester coaching students in the last play or working up in the tech area like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, making each community meeting a multi-media event. 
  • I see Ms. Friel walking around campus with Ms. Poole and Findly, making that great virtual tour of VA, and then pouring her heart into the final Morning Mist video with that chanting song “Tomorrow” and the face of every student lovingly captured forever.
I wish that I could wave my arms like the Sorcerer in the Sorcerer’s apprentice and make it all so.
This has been a time when you might have felt powerless and frustrated to have to surrender to rules of isolation and limited engagement.
Yet you are powerful.  You are waiting, in a different way than you would have been if you were celebrating the traditions of spring at Vermont Academy.  This is a time of waiting, and it is exciting and totally unknown for every graduate here and all around the world, and every year for as long as students have studied.  We have a graduate at Oxford University, and her school, Magdalen College, started in 1458, created by William of Waynflete.  Just to put that in perspective, that was before the Canterbury Tales and Chaucer, when Leonardo da Vinci was a boy and Galileo was not yet born.  Liberal Arts education launched in the Renaissance, a long time ago, but the students who stood between grammar school, as they called it, and university, in that summer as you are now, were waiting and anticipating just as you are.  And they too had a smoldering power. This moment in your life connects you with all past graduates, poised on the edge of the unknown.  What will happen next year, in the next four?  What and who will you love?  What friends will you meet and will they be as close to you as your friends from Vermont Academy?  So many questions, so many unknowns, so much waiting over the summer!
Yet then it is all over, and you plunge forward into the best kind of intellectual freedom!  
You might be feeling a great desire to change things while at the same time being a bit unwilling to embrace change itself.  At this moment in your life, you are the most open to change though.  As we get older, we are less flexible, less willing to change what we know in our own everyday lives even if we want the world to change around us.  Each of you has so much power right now though you may not know it.  Your fresh perspectives, your dedication, your unfailing work ethic and focus could do so much good.  Start small though.  Think of your campus, your neighborhood, impacts on a local level before you take on larger issues.  That is the place to learn and to affect people’s lives in lasting ways.  You do not have to go far to find need and purpose.  Sometimes we see the larger issues but not the pressing needs in our own back yard.  
Build relationships and networks with people in your life who challenge you.  Do not seek out like-minded friends only.  The more that you have friends with different passions and beliefs, the more that you will flex your own thinking and understanding.
Recently, I listened to Ananda Giridharadas, host of Vice TV’s show “Seat at the Table.”  He had many things to say about billionaires who are helping in the time of crisis right now. To quote him: “The way the pandemic has unfolded in America is inseparable from that discrediting, defanging and defunding of government. So, when I see the very same class of people stepping up, I see arsonists returning to the scene of a fire and putting on a costume and claiming to be firefighters. In many ways, what they are doing is trying to buy mercy on the cheap, so we don’t actually fix this society in a way that reduces their power and makes us not so vulnerable the next time a pandemic like this or something else rolls around.” 
Hmmm.  Now imagine Ananda in a room with Steve Bannon, former executive of Brietbart news and White House Chief Strategist for President Trump early on in his leadership. Bannon believes in reducing what he calls the size of the administrative state, and having states rather than the federal government, manage things. There is a long history of American political thought that supports this view, both of these men are intelligent and passionate.  Ananda and Steven would have a lively conversation – that is, IF they allowed themselves to have one.  Of course, this is a nightmare of a conversation that I am proposing you imagine, and I would not wish it on you, but I went to extremes simply to make a point.  
If you want change and progress in the world, you have to sit in those rooms and listen and work with those who oppose your views.  It is super hard work!  It taxes your patience!  You can start in college by listening to those with different views and practicing your conflict resolution and negotiation.  But that is only if you want to better the world, and I hope that you do.  Remember, if you have not heard a new idea in a while, it could be because you are doing all of the talking.
So much of your life as a thinker started here at Vermont Academy.  You will find that growing from an adolescent into an adult is an experience of winnowing out competing voices in favor of composing your own song.  Yet I will return to the Jazz I referenced earlier.  The more that you can have a variety of motifs in your brain, the more you will develop into a true citizen of the world.  The life of the mind, if it is to be a true lifelong vocation, means that you must learn to riff and to listen.  To jam and to harmonize.  
The final wish I have for you is to keep your hearts open.  Keep your minds fiercely dedicated to multiple perceptions and views.  Keep your fellow human beings in mind so that your challenges and hopes and dreams do not fill the room so much that you cannot see those who need you most.
We here at Vermont Academy have loved watching you grow and flourish into the young adults you are today.  The truth is that you are powerful, but you must know that you are before you can use power for good
Goodbye from the land where you have to stop your car on the road for wild turkeys to pass, where you see a fox make a quick glance to the left and run off as you approach the chicken coop, where you walk out of the Great Room and a night of studying to look up to a sea of the brightest stars ever, and a place where a head of school stands at the top of our hill, peering into the village, looking for her wandering pups and two neighborhood boys on bikes stop and say, “We saw your red pups run over the bridge toward Westminster West, and lady, those dogs are gone!”  And I believed them.
Congratulations to the class of 2020 and to your families.  Come back to Vermont Academy often.  We will be waiting with a cup of tea on the lawn, ready to hear about your hopes and dreams.  

Education for Life - One Student at a Time

Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.