The 2021 Convocation Speech

Welcome to the 2021-22 Vermont Academy Convocation -- a traditional gathering for our school and a formal opening to the school year.  In this meeting, you will hear about some of the achievements of your peers, there will be some prizes awarded, and new members of our community will sign the honor code, joining with the rest of the community members who signed when they also came here to our hilltop school.
Before we begin these festivities, I would ask you to take a look at this image in the cartoon for a moment (posted on the left).  One of my advisees from years ago posted this on her social media, and I instinctively knew what it was about before I could actually unpack all of its messages.  

Would anyone like to take a try at offering an interpretation of this meme?  The first thing to do is to figure out what is happening.  Can someone describe that?  There is not a single answer, and we all see different facets and meanings in images…

Maybe one summary could be that we are having trouble making lemonade from lemons.  My advisee said, “Possibly he is too exhausted to make more lemonade because life is just throwing way too many lemons!”

It would be too trite to say that at Vermont Academy we still believe in making lemonade from lemons and giving you opportunities to do so.  So I won’t say that, but….

I worry sometimes that the messages that we are sending and receiving have exhausted all possibilities -- possibilities of solutions to problems, exploration of opportunities, and recognition that one person’s loss might be another’s gain.  These negative messages about the future also fall hard on the ears of our young people who look at the future and wonder how they will navigate through it.

If we tell ourselves that climate change is so far beyond human intervention that we will inevitably be rained on and scorched to death in the next decades, or that water shortages are so severe that there will be a Bladerunner-like apocalypse soon where people will drive in old, beat up mega pickup trucks, and gangs will rule or that political division is so bad in this country that civil war is imminent, and the idea, the hope, and the reality of America is so far gone and so separated that we will be facing what many call the collapse of an empire -- well, if we do all of these things, how are we supporting our young people, helping them see a bright future, and learning from our own mistakes?

The fact is that every generation that this earth has known -- and many before human presence -- has experienced dire calamities.  Some of these calamities also had to do with the very survival of or the transformation of this planet, or with plague or pandemics, or wars, or deep systemic prejudice and inequity.  The study of history is so very important, and the unearthing of previously untaught chapters of history is very much a part of that study.  We are actively including chapters in American history right now that were not shared in schools, and in some cases, not even known by the teachers.  We have hidden parts of our past.  

The past was deeply challenging, but great ideas came about in dire times, and they came about because people were allowed to dream beyond their differences and make something better as a result.

Can anyone tell me what this symbol means? [Jennifer makes the Star Trek, “Live Long and Prosper” sign with her hand and students explain what it means and who said it]. In Star Trek, I always loved it when Spock said, “Live long, and prosper.”  Maybe we can also extend that to “live long and well, and prosper.”

We all can do that if we accept the reality and truth of our challenges and help each other to solve problems.  That does not mean convincing your neighbor to see the world exactly as you do or believe what you do by arguing them into a corner and harassing them with your viewpoint.  What it means is using your individual talents, strengths, and beliefs to make a collective attempt at problem solving, creating something better than what you were individually or what you were when you were hanging out with only those who believed exactly as you do or perceived things exactly as you do.

All schools should be in the business of helping students to build a future that will give them the opportunity for self fulfillment, and to “live long,  live well and prosper.”  Right now, we need to work together to solve world issues so that on the individual and collective levels, we have the opportunity to do so.

A long time ago, writer Virginia Woolf said we all need a room of our own, a place to create, a place of ownership, and self actualization.  I would also say that we need space to dream.  Vermont Academy is a dreamer’s paradise.  If we give students the opportunities to solve real world problems and begin with our campus, our neighborhood, our forest, our state, our county, our students will create habits of mind that enable them to work with others to solve even bigger problems.  When we do this, we can help others AND make money.  

My sister always gets frustrated about the ways in which we categorize things, and she will say to me, “If you want to help others, it is not a given that you do not want to make money someday.  Just as if you want to make money someday, it does not mean that you do not want to help others.”  If someone creates a business that is simple, clear and sustainable in regard to our earthly resources, one could be saving lives, saving quality of life, and making money.  That is just one example.  
Let’s see if we can lift that young child’s head in that cartoon, have him or her face the onslaught of lemons, and make something out of it.  We all would love to see a lemonade stand instead of a deluge of lemons, and we all would love to see the smiling face of that young entrepreneur.

Faculty, this means that you need to allow time to collaborate and time for reflection.  We are always all about doing, but we also need reflection, deliberate calm, and opportunities to sort through our experiences.  That might mean taking a moment to write first in class or to pause in the middle of a class and ask a big question or ask students to write.  We need to model how to stop the wheels of our well laid plans, and leave time for reflection, calm, and self understanding.  Personally, I turn to the arts when I am reflecting -- to music, writing, and art.  To performances, and to inner calm.

Remember that you are all storytellers.  Take the time to make the stories that you can live by.  Take the time to work together, and take the time to “live long, live well and prosper” this year and in the future.

Let’s have a great year!

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.