Andrew Webster, Head of School, shared wisdom, reflections, and of course, a poem, in his Charge to the Class of 2021 at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School's 138th Commencement Ceremony:
Good morning, students and families, faculty and staff, Trustees, and friends. Good day or evening to all of you watching via live stream around the country and the world. And a special fond greeting to our international students, who have spent the year with us on Zoom. We have missed you. We wish you could be here today to celebrate together, and we wish you the best of luck as you move on to excellent colleges and universities. To those gathered on this field, please know that when we confer diplomas, we will read out the names of students who cannot be with us in person, and I ask you to give cheers loud enough to be heard around the world.
In preparing for graduation speeches each year, I think about the students in the class, their experiences, and the world that lies before them. As you have grown here the world has changed, often in ways that are unsettling or even alarming. It is not always clear that forces for good and for progress will win out, and it seems inevitable that you will have to battle for your whole lives to create communities where integrity, kindness, justice, and peace prevail, if these are ideals you wish to achieve. We have developed incredible powers as a species, but have so often used our advantages in truly disappointing ways.
I didn’t set out today to depress you, though, for graduation should always be a day of hope. One thing you have learned, maybe without recognizing it, is that even in difficult times, hope, kindness and courage are always possible and examples of them abound. The work of the heart is never done.
At an outdoor gathering at our house last weekend, one of my friends was admiring the trees in the yard that send their branches arcing high above us, providing shade and framing our view of the sky. I’ve often sat on my patio, when the weather’s nice, to feel the breeze and watch the branches sway and enjoy the bird song. Trees know something about life that we have been reminded of with this pandemic. They know that their health depends upon the health of their whole ecosystems. In woods where trees are in close proximity, they somehow know when another tree is ill, and they send it extra carbon through fungal networks underground. That fact amazes me and surpasses my understanding.
They also know that life is cyclical, not linear. We are often taught that a lifetime is an arc. You are now well into the part where we build our powers, prepare for ever higher levels of self-improvement and success, which will lead later on in life to a gradual diminishment of energy and powers, although hopefully with the development of wisdom, until finally we depart this world. Trees know that, instead, cycles are briefer and that we will move through summery seasons of success and happiness and frequent winters of frustration, struggle and sadness. We are conditioned to blind ourselves to this inevitability, to ignore sadness and struggle, and to expect a fairly uninterrupted march of progress. When we run into our winters, then, they disorient us. We understand them as personal failures and blame ourselves; worse, when we see others struggling, we tend to see those individuals as failures, often finding their actions to be moral failures. The pandemic, I believe, helped us break through this conditioned worldview. Everyone, to one degree or another, was struggling. For even those who had it the roughest, the fault was not really theirs, and indeed that fate could easily be our own. Many people became kinder and more generous. That is worth holding onto as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
It is useful to consider the cycles deciduous trees go through. I always thought that they lost their leaves in the late fall, were dormant all winter, created new buds just before spring, and then burst into glory. But that is not the case. They form their buds in the summer, though they are hidden by the vibrant green leaves. Once the leaves fall to mulch the forest floor, the buds are revealed. Their nuts provide food for small mammals and their bark hosts hibernating insects and serves as food for hungry deer. They are not dead but are important participants in the life of the woods. Their roots draw up extra moisture to help them provide an anchor during storms. They knew in times of plenty that winter would arrive and prepared accordingly. We need to follow that lesson in the areas of physical and mental health. We also need to follow suit spiritually, and to welcome difficult seasons along with happy ones. We need to learn from both, and share that knowledge with each other.
Yesterday at graduation practice, senior dean Justine Borzumato expressed her fervent hope that I would be including a poem in these remarks. The truth is I had not done so, but I live to please of course, and with my faithful research assistant set out to find one last night that would actually fit with the metaphor of the trees. The poem, by Ada Limon, suits the season as well, now that we are past the season when flowering trees show their finery and into the brilliant greens of June. The poem is called…
Instructions on Not Giving Up
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
As I listened to the conversations at that gathering, my friends clearly recognized that everyone’s pandemic experiences were different, though everyone experienced some aspects of loss. It was not a morbid conversation and it focused in large part on gratitude that conditions are improving here. Still, you could hear a sadness that we have not fully attended to and a recognition of all we have come through. You could hear a sense of tentativeness as we step toward a way of living that seems more normal and less dominated by fear, loss, and anxiety. The strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, as the poet phrased. We’ll take it all.
As we look toward summer, though, I believe we need an additional period of wintering, the human version of that season, that is. Before we can move on from our sadnesses, we need to recognize them clearly and grieve whatever losses we have had. We need to answer some questions that the pandemic has posed to us about who we are as individuals and as a society. What do we stand for? How do we want to spend our lives? Within that, what is the role of work and of material success? What balances in our lives do we wish to strike? At the height of a crisis like the pandemic, there is no time or energy for such questions; we just focus on getting to better times. As we move into those better times, though, we should not shed the hard times like old clothes we no longer have use for, but should take the time to process slowly its lessons, letting them come to us at their own pace.
What does that mean for you as graduating seniors? My charge to you is to spend time with friends to talk about what you have gone through over the last 18 months. Get into the woods or down to the shore and absorb what they have to teach you. If your college assigns a summer book, read it slowly and carefully throughout the summer and dig into its meaning. If not, find one good book that promises to open new worlds to you or show you yours in a different light. You may need to or want to work at a summer job, and that work may not be intrinsically rewarding. It will, though, give you the opportunity to get to know people whose experiences are different from your own. Seek out and create those opportunities, which will give you good practice for college. Aim to dwell in the depths for this summer season of wintering and think about who you want to be in college, where you will arrive without baggage of others’ previous perceptions of you. It is rare to be in a circumstance where everyone you meet has no idea of who you really are, and you have an unfettered chance to shape that perception. Your ability to convey your best self relies on you having a clear understanding of the contours of that best self.
The fundamental two-part job that you have embarked on over the last several years, and will continue to work on in college and beyond, is to build that sense of self and self-awareness that will allow you to make choices wisely, for yourself and with and for others. Do that with intention, reflection, and care and you will create a world worth living in. Ignore it, and you are unlikely to be happy, regardless of whether you achieve the surface trappings of success. Be thankful for your burdens.
As the poet, playwright, and novelist Robert Penn Warren wrote in Democracy and Poetry, “the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious….The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.”
The second part of your job is to build an understanding of the world and its societies, and to determine how you, in all the multitudes you contain, fit into and can shape that society. That work goes on throughout your life, and the value of seasons of struggle lies in the opportunities they provide to deepen your sense of self and construct a richer life.
Spending time here at school with you is a great privilege. I and our whole community wish you the best on this journey of many seasons and we look forward to hearing about all that you find when our paths cross in the future. Spread love and kindness, reach for greatness where you can but not at the cost of goodness, and take good care of yourselves and our world. Congratulations, Class of 2021.
(n.b. some of the insights regarding trees and wintering can be found in Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May)