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A Charge to the Class of 2020

A Charge to the Class of 2020
Andrew Webster

 

Andrew Webster, Head of School, offered his Charge to the Class of 2020 at the 137th Commencement Ceremony on July 17, 2020. 

Welcome. I come to you today freshly coiffed with my second homemade Covid haircut, courtesy of my fine wife who could stand it no longer. A lot of these guys are sporting the preferred Covid cut, which involves shaving down the sides, and leaving glorious, wavy locks on top. Once again, I do not get to be cool, a sad but true story. We all have our burdens to bear.

Good morning seniors, about to be graduates, parents and families, faculty and staff, Trustees, and friends of W+H. It is so good to bring you all together today on campus, for the first time since March 12. Good morning or evening to people joining us by livestream all over the world. Good evening to our international students who cannot be with us in person, but who have earned their right to be honored in this ceremony. We miss you today and see you in our mind’s eye. We also miss all those whose passing has left us feeling incomplete at a time of celebration. In particular, Lee Johnson and Rick Garces made their presence felt here for years, and we feel them with us still. Karen, Nancy, and your families, much love to you both. There may be others who similarly have people they wish could be here, and I don’t mean to neglect them.  Let’s take a quick moment to evoke them and recognize their presence.

That’s kind of a heavy start, but this is a group that has dealt with heavy. Though 2020 should give us perfect hindsight, today is not a day to look back, but to look forward. Today, it’s not the waking, it’s the rising, not about the crises but about the overcoming. The simple truth is that you have grown up, especially through your high school years, with conflicts, disasters, and diseases that are daunting. Today is a time to celebrate overcoming those things, learning about yourselves and the world, and stepping forward into a new, uncertain chapter that looks like it will try you anew. And you will have the opportunity again to choose how to respond and what kind of person you want to be.

Recently, I saw the picture of your grade entering Laidlaw for Convocation, to begin your senior year, with no way of knowing how differently this year would turn out. It has been a truly long and challenging journey. Often, you’ll hear people who have gone through difficult times say “And I wouldn’t change any of it if I could.” That is not true today. There is much I would change. And yet I have admired how you have dug deep, found ways to connect with one another, continued to learn and to grow, accepted that sometimes the only thing you can do is adapt to conditions you do not want and find ways to make the best of it. From what I have seen so far you have the fighting spirit, the hopeful spirit to keep moving forward, to make a better society. In fact, I have more faith in this generation to push for change than in any previous one in my lifetime. We must do better and we must be better, and you have a golden opportunity to make that happen. Voting, as Ricardo just noted, is an important part of that, but there’s more to do on a daily basis to address pandemic, systematic racism, economic inequality, and climate disruption, among other issues.

Usually, in the charge, as this part of the ceremony is called, I focus on what you should do. Today, I want to speak about what you should be, how you should live in this unsettling, uncertain world. 

I want to focus on two uncomfortable ideas. The first is that we are all weak and vulnerable, and the second relates to how people respond to the first fact.

As humans grow, we develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: we have fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life reflects our incompleteness: if we were truly masters of our destinies, we would not have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. (Nussbaum, Martha. Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two. ed. James L. Harmon)

But more than in other societies, our culture is imbued with the notion that we should be masters of our destiny, and if we are not, the failure is not only ours, but is essentially a moral failure. This is a major reason why we have never developed an effective safety net for those who are impoverished, ill, or unfortunate, and have blamed those who are not successful for failings that are described only as individual failures. It is also a reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. Fear and loss of control, especially when we do not recognize them, tend to express themselves in anger, and that emotion drives actions that can be reprehensible. You’ve seen some of that in the heavily armed demonstrators in Michigan a few months ago, in racist violence toward people of color, and in aggressive actions toward shopowners and even National Guardsmen who try to enforce mask policies or social distancing. 

So let us see something clearly. Even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve. That says something very important about the human condition and the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based, as the modern philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it, on “being more like a plant than a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility… To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things, that can lead you to be shattered by circumstances beyond your control, and for which you cannot be blamed.” So keep yourself open, even though that means you will sometimes get hurt. Your willingness to be vulnerable will actually make you stronger, connect you to a wider web of people, and make you more resilient. 

My other piece of advice is to be mindful of storytelling, which plays an important role in the process of human development. Simply put, we are the animal that tells stories. As we hear stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another person might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other person and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world. So, read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and the lives of those you love. Look for stories that go beyond the limited archetypal tales of the hero’s voyage. These stories are simple to tell but often obscure the fact that in real life, while there may be opportunities for heroic action, real heroes rely on a web of supporters without whom they could not be triumphant and they most often do not see themselves as heroes. They rely in fact on dependence, not on independence.

Superhero movies are proven box office winners, but they do not happen in real life. One aspect of the pandemic that has been appealing is that the hero stories are more complex, more real. It’s not that there’s a single brilliant doctor who saves the day, it’s the doctors, plus nurses, technicians, orderlies, dieticians and more, even the truckers who deliver the supplies and the restaurant workers who feed them. Paying attention to the stories of others helps us see the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We all create a sense of self that is embedded in the arc of a narrative about who we have been, who we are, and who we aim to be. Stories help us build empathy and self-awareness, and are especially important in helping us find our way through uncertain times. Today you are at the beginning of a new chapter. What are you going to do, but even more so how are you going to be?

I am pretty sure that many, perhaps most, of you have grown up with expectations geared toward achievement, toward setting clear goals and executing a plan to accomplish them. Perhaps this pandemic will help us rebalance priorities a bit and see that who we are and who we are becoming, and how we connect with and support others, is at least as important as what we do, what we achieve, and what rewards we accumulate for doing so. Build your sense of resilience, empathy, and self-awareness and these qualities will help you find success and happiness when things become difficult. Individual success is not enough. Yes, you will need to take care of yourself and perhaps a family, but you will also need to provide your children with a world worth inhabiting and that can only be done if you focus not just on yourself but on the well-being of others. I hope you will try to find ways to bind us all together so that we can build a sustainable future.

I hope, as our newest voting citizens, you will also pay attention to one of the prominent themes of the pandemic. Those who have responded with an emphasis on responsibility have saved lives. Those who have responded with strident insistence on their rights and liberties with no notion of their responsibility toward others have pushed for changes that are heedless of the unnecessary deaths they would cause.

As we emerge from the pandemic and learn to respond to its challenges, you will have voting power and other abilities as citizens to help society choose the conditions of its existence. Take the time now and in the coming months to ask yourself about the principles you wish to support. What is the good society you would like to live in? What values are most important to you? Do you see your nation as a place where groups of people need to establish dominance over others and maximize their control of resources at the expense of other groups? Or do you see the good society as one in which there is room for a more balanced sharing of resources with fewer extremes of wealth and poverty, power and marginalization? Don’t begin with parties or candidates, but begin with principles and try to find candidates who best represent them. Perhaps you can help us grow back not to what was before, but toward a different vision of what we can become.

It's been a tough year to be a senior, and indeed the coming year may be tough in similar ways. Your resilience will continue to be tested. We the teachers and administrators recognize that it has been hard for you to engage deeply in learning without the personal connections of the classroom, to focus on school when so much else seems in disarray. We also recognize that as a group you have risen well to the challenge and have not allowed yourselves to be too demoralized and or become stuck in passivity and despair. You have what it takes, the inner resources, to find your ways forward and to make the best of challenging situations. You are leaving, but we want to remain connected. Stay in touch and continue to share your stories with us. Remember what Dikembe Mutombo told you about checking in periodically with people in your networks because there may be ways you can support them or they can support you through future challenges.

Let me close today with a secular sort of benediction, which I’ve borrowed from an unknown author:

Because the world is filled with fear, go forth with courage;
Because the world is drowning in lies, speak the truth;
Because the world is sick of despair, go forth with joy;
Because the world is seldom fair; go do the work of justice;
Because the world is poor and starving; go forth with bread;
Because the world will die without it, always go with love.

Until we meet again, be well and do good, be good and do well.