Two Ways of Seeing a River -- 2022 Head of School Commencement Address

Good morning! Welcome families, graduates, faculty, and my esteemed colleagues on the podium including our board head, Mr. Chris Cota, Assistant Head, Brian Gilloran, and Dean of Academics, Lorna Schilling.

We are here to celebrate our seniors and postgraduates and to send them off to their exciting next steps in their lives! This is one of those moments that we can mark on that imaginary journey of our lives when we reach certain markers or signposts. This one is about going to college, a gap year, an athletic or arts experience like playing juniors or working as an apprentice or artisan. There are many possibilities, and more will keep appearing for the postgraduate experience, but all of you students have one thing in common on your journey. This is one of those moments of growing up. There is for the families and for you and for us as your faculty who are in loco parentis, a sense of a threshold. And it is not just Vermont Academy and this high school experience that you are departing from. It is also all of the games and play and struggles and successes that marked your childhood. I want you all to take a minute and remember that childhood and what it was like to discover, to test, to seek.  So much of what we are about at Vermont Academy embraces that world of hands on learning and what educators call high level “play” -- like a robotics lab or a physics classroom or environmental science or learning to write with your own voice.

Well, there is something gained and lost with these next steps you will take, and Mark Twain embraced that when he wrote about “two ways of seeing a river.” In 1883, he traveled back down the Mississippi, and he wrote about what it was like to learn to be a steamboat pilot and “read the river.” Twain calls the naivete or our young, untutored vision “bewitching,” and it led to “speechless rapture.” Well that might be taking childhood and young years through high school a little bit too far, but there is a romance, a sweetness to the spontaneity and discovery that we experience even if it is interlaced with all of those growth challenges that come with building a sense of authenticity and security, of knowing yourself and walking through the world as if you deserve space in it.

So graduates, there are two ways of seeing for you now. You should never lose the sense of wonder and the capacity to be bewitched. But you also now have your first sense of what it means to be fully conscious, disarmingly responsible – for after all, we must be responsible as adults, and it is disarming that we must be –and confidently focused on what you want your next steps to be. You are in a mode of inquiry. You are stepping forward with two ways of seeing – the way of remembered spontaneity and play and the way of core knowledge that leads to the next mode of inquiry. I would venture to guess that maybe you do not know what you will major in or what career you will pursue – some of you do, but others will be ready to explore something more specific.  You have refined your passions and focused a bit more so that you can take all of this knowledge that you gained at Vermont Academy and hone in on some choice of intellectual pursuit.  As you continue this process or refinement – and I like to think that this is one of the things we teach best at Vermont Academy -- refinement of thought through tests, queries, trails, failures, and persistence and tenaciousness -- as you continue through this process, you will feel these two ways of seeing the river, as Twain developed the metaphor. You will see what is new and splendid and beautiful and you will also bring this collection of knowledge in a true liberal arts repertoire to your next endeavors. So you will see freely and see with a tutored mind.

That is the first of three points I want to share with you. The second is that in a recent article in the New York Times, Jonathan Malesik, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas wrote that “In March 2020, essentially all of US higher education went remote overnight.” When classes returned in person in the fall of 2021, student performance did not bounce back. Here at Vermont Academy, we have enjoyed the luxury of our rural location and our ability to be present, but as you move on, graduates, you will encounter peers who did not have that experience or who found a sort of malaise creep in. With our screen-based addictions to cell phones, tablets and computers, and also with our rightful goal to be more sustainable, education often happens on a screen now. I would argue that we need to hold our books again. I would argue that there is something wrong going completely digital and encourage you, graduates, to set that compulsion aside.  We raise the bar at Vermont Academy, and now that Covid may be almost full past us, we will endeavor to increase performance expectations even more here on campus. This needs to come, however, from within you.  Keep striving always to reach ever higher expectations and goals, do not be satisfied with the merely good, aim for great! Cultivate that warrior spirit inside of you to be a striver, to know yourself and how to maximize your given talents so that you can live a fulfilled life. 

So far I am sending you off, graduates with an acknowledgement of your growing up and seeing in two ways, and an encouragement to strive, to set a high bar to actualize your potential and talents.

Finally, I want to encourage you to make personal happiness something well deserved in your life and to see yourself as worthy of happiness. Yes, you should strive, set the bar high, and continue to cultivate a moral self and a high level of consciousness about the world and your place in it, but you also may forget along the way to ask yourself when you are happy, what makes you happen and how you can get more of that!  Many people spend their lives overworking and spending time at work with people they do not like, and also being in enclosed spaces.  That sounds awful, doesn’t it? A big salary may come out of that, but will it make you happy? Author Seth Stephens Davidowitz states that data – and we all love data now – data says that we are happiest when we are with someone we love, exercising and gardening! I want everyone who is doing this frequently to raise their hand. I hope it is a lot of people! At VA, our entire community has the luxury of these three things, so come back and work here!

Go forth, graduates and remember your VA home where you were with classmates and faculty who cherished you and helped you grow, where you exercised a lot, and where you played in the garden of our wonderful campus.  Stay in touch with each other and with us. We are here for you always – whether you are 20 or 40 or 60 or 80!  This is your home. Forever. Homes are warm, welcoming, complicated but real spaces. This is one of them: Go VA.

Congratulations to the Class of 2022!

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.