June 4, 2017: Commencement Remarks

Honored guests, members of the Board of Trustees, colleagues, parents, grandparents, family, friends and members of the Class of 2017, it is my privilege to open this Commencement.

We gather today for the most important event of the academic year. Commencement signals the formal completion of the secondary school experience for these young men and women as well as their transition from students at, to alumni of, Gill St. Bernard’s. Every senior has followed his or her own unique path to earn a diploma, and we celebrate each of them this afternoon.

Before we do that however, a number of thank you’s and acknowledgements are in order. First, I would like to ask the members of the graduating class to please stand and applaud your parents. Without their love, support (and tuition payments), you would not be here today.

Second, I ask that you give a round of applause to your teachers. They have worked closely with you both inside and outside of the classroom in so many ways, and today their formal work is done.

Finally, I ask that you applaud our Board of Trustees. These men and women give generously of their time, abilities and resources to make our school a better one, with no thought of receiving anything in return. This represents the definition of service.

Two more acknowledgements: First we have 6 international students in the graduating class. Each one has travelled thousands of miles, and lived away from their families in order to earn a GSB diploma. A special congratulations to them and their parents. Finally, I would like to congratulate junior, C.J. Licata, who yesterday won both the shot put and discus at the state championship. This is the first time this has ever happened in the history of our school and in the process, C. J. broke a 22 year old record. 

During a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, the topic of graduation speeches came up. She caught me somewhat off guard asking “are you going to start with a joke and end with a quote?” I suppose that such a blunt assessment - beginning one’s remarks on these occasions with humor and finishing with some words of inspiration (usually not your own) - has now become the expected format. Perhaps so much so that it naturally invites a level of cynicism. Indeed, most of us are familiar with the usual themes of these messages, and what is typically shared.

There are many wonderful commencement speeches online; I know because I have watched a number of them recently on YouTube (all in the name of research, of course). Most are fairly predictable – and a lot of them do start with a joke and end with a quote – but there are also several that are truly memorable. These are the ones that make us laugh, share profound insights, or inspire us to act.

Certainly, I consider Steve Job’s commencement address at Stanford in 2005 as one of those that are truly remarkable. Among the observations he made that day was the notion that “it is easier to connect the dots looking backwards.” I have said that quite a bit in the last few years, though not always remembering to give him credit. Yet, it is true; it is easier to connect the dots looking backward. Toni Morrison delivered a wonderful address at Wellesley the previous year where she encouraged all of the graduates “to write their own narrative;” their own personal story. This is something we regularly remind all our students to do. I also watched President Kennedy’s “Peace” speech given in 1963 at American University. It was a wonderful moment in our nation’s history and you can even see a man in the background with no sense of history, walking to his car to drive away. In those remarks, Kennedy noted that since our problems are manmade, man, (and I would add today woman) can and should solve them. “Peace” he said, “not in our time, but for all time.” These were all memorable speeches, by very famous people.

One of the better recent Commencement addresses was given last year by James Ryan who is the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In fact, Ryan was able to convert his speech into a book which was just published entitled Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions. In case you are interested there are five, according to Ryan, but you’ll have to read the book to learn them. It is an easy (and quick) read – I have a copy of it here – with a powerful message. Ryan suggests that “Questions are like keys. The right question asked at the right time, will open a door to something you don’t yet know, something you haven’t yet realized or something you haven’t even considered – about others and yourself.”

A good question speaks to the importance of understanding the nature of a problem before you try to determine the proper solution. All too often, we skip this essential first step. Asking a question also requires that you carefully listen to others and consider what they have to say.

I have spent a good deal of my time these past few months searching more and more for the right questions, especially as answers have become harder and harder to come by.
Now, more than ever, we need thoughtful, constructive and respectful conversations. It is self-evident that as a nation we are struggling with many complex and difficult problems. Climate change, economic inequality, senseless violence, intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, systemic racism; each one is very real and negatively impacts everyone. It should be equally self-evident that we all have a responsibility to act in ways that will help, and not hurt, others or our planet. Together, we have a chance to address them, and achieve that peace, which Kennedy spoke of more than 50 years ago.

The members of the Class of 2017 are not merely seniors at Gill St. Bernard’s. Each one is also a citizen of the world with all of the duties and responsibilities that come with that citizenship. As they leave our campus today, soon enough to head off to college, I ask each one to consider the nature of what it means to be a citizen in today’s world.

Although the weather has been rather “unseasonal,” the calendar indicates that it is still springtime. This time of the year and today’s celebration remind me of a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, A Prayer in Spring.
A Prayer in Spring
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy as the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends he will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.
Frost often compared the stages of our lives with the seasons of the year in his poems. Spring always brings with it the promise of new life. It is youth, possibility and hope. Hope, “which it only needs that we fulfill.”
Rather than start with a joke and end with a quote, I prefer to begin by thanking everyone and selecting a poem for the audience to think about. However, mine is not a commencement speech, as our Commencement speakers today are members of the senior class. In song, poetry and personal reflection, their eloquence will far exceed mine, as does their importance today.

I began this academic year at Convocation asking all in our school; students, teachers, parents; to commit to being part of a community of learners. As the year now comes to a close, perhaps one of the most important lessons has been that we all have even more to learn.
Best wishes to the Class of 2017 and Godspeed as you begin the next stage of your life’s journey.

Thank you.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.