by Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty
Welcome Stoneleigh-Burnham community and special guests, good morning class of 2015. Seniors, thank you for inviting me to share this day with you; I feel so honored to stand here and speak to you today. Nafisatou and Grace, it is a privilege to share the stage with you, you who model the many ways to find your voice, and use it. Thank you for your words.
Seniors, when Sally first asked me on your behalf to speak at graduation, I was both nervous and excited. A graduation speaker should be wise and eloquent, and have something important to say on this occasion that marks a significant accomplishment in the timeline of your lives. I graduated high school in a class of over 400 on a rainy day 23 years ago. I remember holding hands with my best friend on the drizzly green quad, waiting to enter the auditorium. We were all required to wear black caps and gowns, but the one indulgence we were allowed was to decorate the top of our caps. I used masking tape to make a Superman “S” for Shawn on the top of mine, because graduating high school did feel like a super-heroic achievement, considering the tremendous amount of energy, hard work, and perseverance required to get through high school. You know exactly what I mean.
I was hoping to find inspiration for this speech in thinking about the words of wisdom the speaker shared at my own graduation. But the truth is, I have no memory of who spoke. So I posted something on the alumni Facebook page of my class, asking if anyone remembered who it was. 13 out of my 400 classmates responded, and not one of them did. I even went to my high school website, found the list of graduation speakers in the school archives, and posted the name of ours. Still, no one remembered who she was or what she had to say. What my classmates did post was a flood of little memories: the old sheriff dude who always started graduation by banging his staff on the stage and calling everyone to order, the smell of cigar smoke in the rain after the ceremony, the switching of the tassel from one side to the other, a sea of black caps and gowns and rising above them, a beautiful, bright Native American feather headdress worn by one of our classmates.
I recently read about something called the “reminiscence bump.” It’s the term researchers use for the “bump” in memory storage most people experience during adolescence and early adulthood. There are several theories about why this might be, but the basic idea is that during this time, our brains hold on to more memories more vividly than during any other period of our lives.
Yet even though you’re in the reminiscence bump right now, I don’t presume that you will remember my words long beyond this moment, as my own story demonstrates. Memory is a funny thing. Unfurled, it’s like a piece of lace, held together but full of holes. Each of you will remember what’s important to you from this day.
I looked for inspiration in a lot of places as I wrote this speech. Let me tell you, typing “best commencement addresses” into Google is not a wise thing to do when you’re feeling panicky, when you’re starting to resent Grace Powers a little bit because she has already turned a draft of her speech into PB while all you’ve got are some notes scribbled onto the back of a 1st grade field trip permission form. And one of the first speeches that pops up on Google is— my students will appreciate this— by Toni Morrison, delivered at Wellesley College. You know you shouldn’t even read it— I mean: The woman. Won. A. Nobel. Prize— yet it’s like a horrific traffic accident or an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians— you just can’t look away and before you know it you’ve crumbled into a little pile of dust of your own failure.
So I did the sensible thing— I stopped reading other people’s words— I closed my laptop, because the internet is a really bad place to be when you’re desperate. And I started to think about you all as individuals and about how we, your faculty, see you as a class.
Throughout this year we have pushed and challenged you, tested you, and graded you. We’ve watched you discuss, debate, write, sketch, paint, play, fight, cry, stumble, flutter, and soar. We’ve seen you dance on stage and in the dimly lit gyms of other schools, dance with each other to a thumping bass, laughing. We’ve heard your stories and read your stories. We’ve seen your strength and resilience, your grace and humor as you took on many challenges: living oceans away from home, learning in a second or third language, surviving TOK and IB exams and Ms. L-T’s class.
Collectively, you prove that there is not one way to be a young woman in this world, and I appreciate that about all of you. Two weeks ago I covered a forum class with 12 of you, teaching you how to sew a button and a running stitch. That short half hour perfectly illustrated what I’m trying to say. Each of you approached the simple task in your own unique way. One of you talked about the anti-feminist message of the sewing lesson, how sewing buttons would never be taught in a boys’ school; one of you was so intent on mastering the skill that you kept exclaiming, “I’m sweating! I’m sweating!” Some of you needed to see it to understand it—how to place the button, how to knot the thread. Others of you just quietly and methodically went along with sewing your little stitches; several of you reviewed the causes of WWII as you worked. In my own work with many of you as an English teacher, I spent a lot of time reaching deep into subtext, talking about thesis statements and logical sequencing of arguments, pondering abstract and ambiguous ideas. It was only half an hour, but it was nice to just sit with you and sew a button, listen to your chatter. You’re genuinely pleasant people to be around.
The best moments with you have been the times when you have shown us who you really are, when you have shared the private rooms inside yourselves. Some of you hung your souls on the walls of Geissler. You made basketballs sing as they swished through the net, hit softballs so cleanly across the blue sky, busted out hip hop dances, saxophone solos, drum solos, guitar solos. You showed what it means to be a good Big Sister, a good twin sister, a loyal and supportive friend, a friend to all creatures as you stood for a quiet moment silhouetted in the field, resting your face against the flank of a grazing horse. You’ve wowed us with your epiphanies, your shoe collections, your incredible ability to fall asleep on the senior couch during house meetings, your voracious appetites for international news stories and gummy worms. Every time you asked for help or told us, “I don’t think I can do it,” you showed your vulnerability, doubts, and fears, and every time you told an underclassman at the advisory table, “it’s ok, it’s not that bad, you can do it,” you showed your wisdom, growth, and leadership.
Your accomplishments are impressive, but the ones that matter the most are not the ones that go on your resume. The big milestones, the trophies and awards, the college acceptances, the IB certificates and diplomas— even this momentous occasion, your graduation, are fleeting moments in the wide scope of your lives. To your parents, your accomplishments are huge and unbelievable, when just yesterday, it seems, they rocked you in their arms while you slept, brushing the hair back from your beautiful little faces. That’s why these big moments are so precious, because they are ephemeral, because before you and they and we know it, here you are, ready to head off to college and into the shiny future.
The lives we really lead are not made up of days like today, but of many, many small and ordinary ones. Your parents have known this for years: that each ordinary day with you is a gift. From the moment they first met you and held you in their arms, marveling at the miracle of your newness, they started dreaming for you, and cheered you on as you reached those many milestones that got you to where you are today. And they held you through many of those small and ordinary days, touching your feverish cheeks, their hearts breaking with your tears, their hearts expanding at seeing the wonder of the world through your eyes. I know not all of you have parents here today, and I hope you know how proud they would be, how proud they are, of the women you have become.
We live in a world that is very beautiful but also very broken: in this country where frustration rages on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, where stupid people can get famous for nothing, where everyone seems to have an opinion about what women should and should not be, how we should dress, parent, love, think; and in other countries across the globe where terrorists kill girls on their way to school, because they’re on their way to school, and where polar bears swim and swim for miles as their icy world melts away.
It was tempting to use this speech as a platform to talk about my own strong opinions on the state of our world and the messages and demands our society places on young women. I pictured giving a TED talk, cruising around the stage with a headset and a clicker, looking all hip and modern as I delivered my memorized speech, complete with flashy graphics and lots of gesticulation and dramatic pauses.
Yet the simple truth is that the world you’re going off into is complicated and murky, which makes it more important than ever to be a good person, to give your gifts freely, to find your own ways to add a little beauty as you travel through life.
Boarding school is intense. I know, because I went to one. It doesn’t matter whether you live here or not; your friends become another family. When I went on to college in the Midwest, a lot of people I met had never known someone who went to boarding school. “What did you do?” they asked me, “Why did you get sent away?” as if I had gone to reform school. There will never be another time or place quite like this in your lives.
College is intense in its own ways, but it’s also bigger in every sense of the word. I went to a high school with very distinct groups: the hippie kids who played Frisbee on the quad and wore anklets with little bells on them, the goth kids, the preps, the jocks, the preppy jocks. I didn’t quite fit into any group, and that always made me feel a little deficient, a little lost. Then I went to college, and those groups didn’t matter anymore. Everyone was weird and smart and cool and cared a little less about self-definition and compartmentalization. I’m so excited for you that your daily world is about to expand. You’ll get to pick from courses in Philosophy and Art History and Geology. You’ll see protests on campus and clubs for every cause you can imagine, including ones you never knew existed. Plus, you’ll get ice cream in the dining hall every single day.
As you move on to the world beyond SBS, here are some of my hopes for you:
I hope you will not be bashful about compliments: accept them gracefully and know that they do not need to be deflected or returned. Own what you’ve done well with a simple, “thank you, it feels really good to hear you say that.”
I hope that you’ll get a lot of crappy jobs in the years to come. Because usually the crappy jobs teach you more than the good ones, and you meet the coolest people in restaurants.
I hope that you won’t accept boredom in college. If you’re bored, you’re taking the wrong classes. And if the good ones are full or hard to get into, be persistent. No one is going to hand you your college experience: you have to make it. You won’t have a Ms. L-T requiring— I mean inviting— you for extra math help; you won’t have a Durfey couch to flop down on at the end of a long day; you won’t have a faculty baby to hold in the dining hall, a house parent to make you cappuccinos or dumplings. But show up for office hours. Ask your RA or TA for help if you need it. Join the African drumming club. Study abroad. Get an internship. Take Italian or badminton, just because. Fall in love frequently and intensely.
I hope you’ll find a learning community that pushes and inspires you. But I also hope you’ll remember that the most important learning is the stuff that goes on in the quiet of your own mind. Take a lot of notes. Find a back corner of the library and live in it. Learn to block out the noise and chatter around you, to be still with your thoughts, to be alone with your thoughts, to trust in the mystery and power of your creative process.
So now it is time to talk about endings. The end of each spring at Stoneleigh-Burnham has its own rhythm. The graduating class year is spray-painted onto the grassy hill, vespers are spoken, the teachers mock the seniors in the final skit, making fun of their many quirks, tears are shed, last hugs and gifts and goodbyes are given, and by four o’clock today, campus will be eerily quiet.
I wrote most of this speech sitting in the archives room above reception because I needed a quiet spot, away from all the end-of-year chaos. Many of you have been up there and know that it’s filled with tattered photos and yearbooks, old school blazers and boxes of memorabilia from the countless students who have passed through this school. Sally is part of that history, and Allison Porter, and Sara Gibbons, and Nafisatou, and as of today, you too, will become part of the history of this school.
Earlier this week you stood in the courtyard and sang about friendship, the glow of your lanterns bright in the darkness. You passed those little globes of light on to the junior class, as countless other classes before you have done, as countless other classes after you will do. I know this is a gesture meant to symbolize the passing of school leadership on to the next group of seniors, but I see it as more than that, as you leaving a little of your brightness behind. This is a brightness that could never be archived in a box, that no photograph could ever capture. Hold on it carefully; it is a precious gift, one that deserves protecting, especially on the days when it seems the whole world conspires to snuff it out. But it is yours to hold on to and to give freely as you move beyond Stoneleigh-Burnham, and I hope you will do so, because the vast, velvet night of our world is in desperate need of your light.
Congratulations and best wishes to you all, class of 2015.