The 2020 Convocation Speech

So much can change overnight. We tend to label change as good or bad, putting it into a moral framework, but the truth is that sometimes the good in a situation does not immediately emerge.  

There is nothing good about COVID, but the changes it has brought in our lives just may offer us some learning opportunities, tests of character, and opportunities for progress, togetherness, and resiliency.

The questions and accountabilities that we are facing as a nation in the United States and in the world are just as huge and life changing as handling a pandemic.  They are different in nature from the pandemic, but they also are related to health and wellness, and they are spread out on the world stage because America represents a set of ideas for all.  

Systemic racism is its own disease, and it has been here in this country and in the world for over 400 years and since the earliest histories of mankind.  Systemic racism accompanied the formation of the colonies, and certainly beginning with the almost complete land grab and annihilating policies and actions toward Native Americans.  The emergence of transcontinental slavery, the triangle trade system, further built in prejudices, injustice, and dehumanization.  

The secret and difficult success equation in America is a commitment to capitalism, to free enterprise, and also to democracy, a system of government that rests the power in the hands of the people.  The United States is rooted in a system of checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, but we need to realize that democracy and capitalism must operate too in a system of checks and balances.  One makes the other better.  One is an ideological political system and the other is a system of  free enterprise in economic forces.  Yet they are inter-related, and we should stop thinking of them in separate silos.

We take great pride in the States of the Union, in the Founding Fathers, and in the system of capitalism and democracy that interface in unique ways in America -- where they cannot in other countries or have not been as successful.  Our job is to take care to grow in those original ideas and not to remain stagnant.  We are, as a human species, always evolving, and our understandings evolve.  If we do not make progress morally, spiritually, and intellectually, we are completely capable of initiating medievalism once again.  To me, this is not a Republican or Democrat truth.  This is our legacy, and we must preserve the Union but make it better.  

We must listen to each other and secure equal opportunity for all.  The Constitution begins with lines you know well:  “WE the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  The Founding Fathers designed this document as law, as a blueprint for the operations of the country, but those opening words also identify many key phrases that are ACTIVE, that are living.  I would argue that “a more perfect Union” is not a fixed state, it is ever evolving with human understanding.  The Civil War tested our understanding of what it means to be a Union, and we evolved and made ourselves better with every life lost; and the Civil Rights movement, and the protests and debates happening now are going to make us better too.  A perfect Union is a living thing that we must all engage in as citizens.  Another active phrase to me is in the idea that we must “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”  Those blessings are not fixed, nor are they ever mutually available to all.  It is our job to protect that idea, that commitment to Liberty and Justice for All.  The conversations we should be having, the debates this year around our election should last our lifetime because we must always be vigilant in protecting democratic processes, a more perfect Union, and the Blessings of Liberty.  It is our job to do so, to vote, to be a good citizen, and to engage in the living entity that is democracy.  

This summer, I stopped to buy a couple of ski posters for my son’s bedroom in our house on the South shore of Boston, and the man selling them wore a Trump hat.  We got to talking about politics, and he said that he feared that the great ideals of America left when John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot.  But he was wearing a Trump hat, Democrats might say.  He worried that we have lost what was good in the idea of America.  Have we lost it forever he asked me?  If Democrats just read him by his hat, they would never have heard the aching heart of this man.  I wanted to ask him when American greatness was shared by all, available to all, but I valued hearing his earnest concern, and I wanted to have a conversation.  We have lost so much in our divisions right now, and we are not in conversation. But we can come together, we can make a more perfect union if we all participate around a common purpose.  Nothing ever would have gotten done in this country if there were not a common purpose.

This year, I hope that we will, as a school, embrace some debates and conversations about our purpose, not just in America, but as the human race.  What are we here to do?  What constitutes a worthwhile life? What is our moral obligation to one another?  To our earth and all living things? What can we do each day to be more aware, to listen, to open our minds?  We need young people to help us, we need you to speak.

One of the ski posters I bought in that stop in Ludlow said, “If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you I came to Live out Loud.”  (Emile Zola).  The poster had a snowboarder leaping off a cliff and about to land in deep powder. Live out Loud, Vermont Academy.  Live out Loud this year. Masks cannot stop us from speaking or hearing or growing in a more perfect union.  That iconic ski jump in the middle of our campus is a metaphor and a reality -- a metaphor for taking risks in a safe community, and a reality of 30 meters that you can train to jump and achieve.  You can “get air” at Vermont Academy, and that can stay with you for life, that sensation of freedom, independence, healthy risk taking, and exhilarating self confidence.

On the first days of our return, all were excited about the unknown, about being together again.  But the business of being safe may not be much fun, and especially as the days continued before classes started.  Wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, being careful about numbers and congregating -- this is, I am convinced, the most challenging set of things for teenagers!  After all, you want to be free, to explore, to discover, to be together.  I saw masks dangling from ears, or below noses, or not on at all when students thought we might not be looking.  What we are asking is that you cultivate new habits and make them as common and understood as brushing your teeth.  I bet you all do that without thinking that it is an infringement on your freedom!  

We are creatures of habit, and habits of maintaining our physical health are right now, constant and unchanging.  But there are other habits that are evolving and flexible, and these can give you the sense of freedom you may not have when you put on a mask, so I ask you to turn to these for self expression and liberation.  

Habits of mind  are different from habits of COVID prevention, practices of safety for self and others.   Habits of mind can be the building blocks of exceptional inner strength and differentiation.  They are part of the recipe for excellence, but habits of mind need  to be changed up regularly, or they settle in and prevent us from resiliency and creativity.  If you do the same exercises, and if you leave your education stagnant rather than understanding that it is your responsibility to educate yourself for life, you will find yourself petrifying like an old stone.  

So you have to build habits of mind and then change them up -- all to improve your body, mind, and spirit -- to see more and be more, and do more and give more than you ever thought possible.  Be true to your habits of health and safety and keep them consistent, but work on developing your habits of mind with freedom and self expression, individuality and resilience.

Commitments and obligations must start with  the person in the mirror.  Is the person in the mirror doing what it takes?  You must be loyal to one another in a Vermont community, which Vermont Academy is.  We are a village, and we must  respect one another and think beyond oneself to preserve the union.  Respect the process.  Respect manifests itself as doing your part to further yourself and the school... and if you all can come together you will be ahead of most of the country.  Many cannot be in school in person or participate in athletic competition or see their friends except through a Zoom meeting. We have a unique set of circumstances in our favor here in Vermont.  Low COVID rates come from being rural, less population density, for sure, but they also come from the village.  From being aware of what it means to be a good neighbor and to take care of your neighbor in order to survive -- survive cold winters, floods, droughts, all these things in Vermont history, and now to survive a pandemic.  You are Vermonters while you are here, and we will follow Vermont law with pride.

Come in to work every day and get that day’s job done.  As I look out on our campus, our faculty, students, administrators and staff, I have never seen so much talent in one place, so much dedication and expertise, so much commitment to our students and to the secret sense of place that lies in our special history at Vermont Academy, in the surrounding forests, in the rivers, in the fields, in the morning mist, and the glistening dew.

Respect one another, believe in one another, live our Core Values, and practice creativity and resiliency. Resiliency, at its essence, means bending without losing your center, it means stretching and bending but retaining your essence so that the authentic person is still there but flexible and exploring while preserving that center.

Coming together as a unit is our only chance of success, and that success will define not just this academic year, but next year, the next decade, your lives, in fact.  Love and respect yourself  in the conviction that you are an integral part of US, Vermont Academy.  We will succeed as one because we must.  As John Kennedy said, “we don’t choose to go the moon because it’s EASY, we choose to go because it’s hard.”  This is hard, but I believe in you, I know that you will practice good habits of safety for self and others, that you will cultivate resilience and ever evolving habits of mind, and that you will come together around the task of creating a more perfect union -- an idea that goes beyond America to the great enterprise of humanity, character, and citizenship.

I am looking forward to seeing the new students and faculty and staff this year as you join us in signing the honor code of Vermont Academy, and that will happen later at Leavitt House, and in the historic office that has been used by the head of school since 1938.

Thank you all for everything you do every day to preserve our special community, our more perfect union.


* Inspiration came from the U.S. Constitution and Declaration, from Alexander de Toqueville, John F. Kennedy, Emila Zola, a chance meeting at a Vermont Flea market, and from Head Coach Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his speech to his team at this season’s opening.  
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Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.