Vermont Academy Commencement Address, May 2018

Dr. Jennifer L. Zaccara
Have you ever wanted to stop time? To put a moment or an experience “on hold?” We cannot, because time is moving--it may crawl or flee or fly or creep. We may say it seems to stand still only when we are reflecting on something sublime or recording a memory forever, consciously, and in the moment--but it is moving, in process. We cannot capture time, and though writers like T.S. Eliot and Wordsworth have contemplated “Still points” and “Spots of Time,” they are the products of moments of transcendence and they disappear when we try to hold them, like Jorge Borges’ “Book of Sand,” a book that dissolves in our fingers even as we try to hold onto it.

When I watched the freeski video two days ago and saw Jai and Andrew doing flips and turns and skiing backwards, I wondered what that sensation is like when you are poised above the earth, in air, and yet subject to the force of gravity, ultimately. Is it timeless to do that or are you most aware of time? Mike Tokarski, when you and Lauren were sitting in a town square on your VA global trip to Santiago, Spain, this summer, did you feel a timeless grandeur in the scene? Or when you walked on the Camino de Santiago? Did you feel something eternal in the history and sense of place shared?

There are families here, I know, who take great joy in all that you have achieved, graduates, but I also know, as a parent, how much I wanted to stop time and hold my two sons in a moment. I also remember the fierce anticipation of moving on, of leaving high school behind when I was a senior. You are off to the next adventure, seniors and PGs! To make friends for life that you do not even know yet. You and others are all coming together to a single new experience--college, work, a gap year--coming from other schools, all part of the globe, and other memories. To the degree that you might want to run into the future, though, your families might want to hit pause!

Time, unlike our perception of light or hearing of sound, comes to us indirectly, typically by what it contains. In his book Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation, Alan Burdick writes, "[T]ime is not a thing but a passage through things, not a noun but a verb... To acknowledge and mark the passage of time is to acknowledge change--in your surroundings, your situation, or even, as William James noted, the interior landscape of your thoughts. Things aren’t as they were before. Into the sense of now seeps an awareness of then" (Burdick 190-191). Lotti and Chloe, Holly, Maddie, Syd and Blanka, did you feel that joyous, fleeting moment of time when you and your team and your coaches won the Lakes Region and New England’s in ice hockey? Allie, Simi, did you feel it when you watched your shot fly almost magnetically through the air and into the basket? Brian Kim, did you feel that sense of time or is it timelessness when you played the clarinet in the Nita Choukas Theater and heard the notes and perfect tone sent out into the theater? Caitlyn McDermott, did you feel transported as you recited your memorized poem at the Vermont Poetry Aloud competition? Harie and Miks, when you played that amazing interpretation of Chopin’s Nocturne #2 in E flat, was there a sense of time or absence of time? Dariel, was it timeless when you and your team raced in the Nordic competitions through our gorgeous woods and trails? Karl-Antoine, when you sat in the Great Room on so many nights, taking attendance and watching out over a study time, did you feel the history of that room as a kind of timeless presence? Did you know that we all consider you an extension of the adult role of “administrator on duty” and that we believed that, in truth, you knew exactly where every student was at any given moment--or almost! Kihoon, when you sat at the board meeting in the winter and teared up about leaving Vermont Academy, did you know we all felt timelessness then? That the board members all cried too? Many had graduated from VA or were former or current parents. We felt what you felt and knew the experience like an old friend returning.

I would argue that there is something timeless about our school, about Vermont Academy. When you return, graduates, we will have done campus improvements, and we are poised to create a master campus plan for the future. Change is imminent in that way, but you will return for reunions and other visits, and see the things that remain forever: the Long Walk, Fuller Hall, the ski jump, Chivers, the Saxtons River, and fields and fields of grass and forests that stretch farther than most of you have walked or hiked or biked. You will see the faces of teachers and administrators and staff who will welcome you back home.

Let Vermont Academy, graduates, be an anchor in your life, a place that the Spanish call a querencia, a “wanting place,” a place to which one returns to contemplate, to be at peace, to reflect before a life change or turn, to be yourself, and to be accepted and valued for who you are.

In the end, maybe time is not a condition, but rather a simple product of consciousness. French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau remarked that “[i]t is not an a priori form that we impose on events. Time, as I see it, is nothing but a kind of systematic tendency, an organization of mental representations. And memory is nothing but the art of evoking and organizing these representations.” Time, in short, is our system for keeping our memories straight.

We at Vermont Academy, are the makers and keepers of memories. We will hold yours for you until you return again. I wish you all the understanding that you must now, as adults, step into the responsibility of directing your lives, of living a conscious and meaningful life, of giving to others. Maybe for every selfie taken, you should think about non ut sibi, “not for self,” how much have you given? One to one. One selfie, one gift, one selfie, one gift. The best gift is you. We are thankful for you all, a group of the very best gifts we have treasured--whether you know it now, or you find that truth when you return and see our faces light up to see you again.
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