In Their Own Words: Head of School Robert W. Hill III, Commencement Ceremony Introduction


Good morning. Good morning everyone. Seniors, you look great. It’s so nice to have 145 of you here this morning. I sometimes wondered about that at points in the spring, so this is awesome.

Good morning and welcome to Williston Northampton School’s 182nd commencement exercises. A special welcome to parents, families, friends, goslings, students, faculty, trustees, chair of the board, John Hazen White Jr., and of course, and especially, the class of 2023. I also want to acknowledge our special guest, S.A. Fogleman, class of 2010, who traveled cross-country to speak here this morning. Thank you, SA. There’s more about her at the end of my remarks. There’s a tradition we have seniors, so before you get to settled, I want you to stand again and turn to face all of those behind you and show them the gratitude for all they’ve done to get you here today. So up you go. Turn around. We’re gonna applaud ’em. So still standing, seniors, let’s face the faculty and show them the gratitude you have for all they’ve done.

As I noted, seniors, at the dinner the other night, there are only a few times in your life when you are surrounded by so many people who have your back and who want to see you succeed—and this is one of those times. Today marks a somewhat conventional moment in your life journey, but you are far from a conventional class. The class of 2023 across this nation will forever be remembered as the OG Covid class, since you began your ninth grade year in normal fashion, were sent home to living rooms and bedrooms and was what at the time, a novelty of Zoom classes. You returned as sophomores for a year restricted by extraordinary safety measures during a time of fear and isolation. You answered our call to reclaim the joy as juniors. And then you joined me and Mrs. Hill in our mantra this year to sustain the joy as seniors.

Just recounting that makes my stomach uneasy, and I’m not gonna list all the ways that the global pandemic disrupted and has forever changed our world, because you all know that litany already. Instead, as I was considering my remarks for this important moment, I turned to two of the biggest influencers in the world today—Taylor Swift, and ChatGPT. Now, Mr. Koritkoski’s advisory, which is my adopted advisory, knows that I get into fierce daily debates with ChatGPT every morning over history and politics. So for today, I said, “Hey, chat. What would Taylor Swift sing about comparing graduation from high school to a breakup?
ChatTaylor came up with full lyrics just like that, but I’ll share just the chorus, which reads: “this graduation feels like a breakup song saying goodbye, moving on. But staying strong, we’ll take our lessons, the highs and the lows, and chase our dreams wherever life goes.”

Not bad ChatTaylor, but you’ll never, ever, ever be real Taylor. Besides, I don’t want to think of the departure today, class of 2023, as a breakup. You all sustained the joy and created connections through a year that challenged us with personal and institutional sorrows. You have not allowed yourself to be defined by the weight of the roulette wheel of history, as Shakespeare would say, the slings and sorrows of outrageous fortune. But instead, you have pursued your goals with optimism and determination and a certain “we got this” generational defining ethos. You the 145 members of this undaunted senior class have built lasting ties to Williston and to each other. I’ve seen these bonds form and those of you newest to the class like Jenna Guglilemi, who don goal uniforms for not one, but two record setting varsity teams or Junior Poiser, recalling that when I first met this big, quiet kid from Toronto, he almost broke my hand with his grip, and now I just fist bump him.

I see these bonds form every single time Katherine Kang makes a WildestCat announcement. Or when Elsa talks about the unit circle, and I see community building when Siga explains her methods and aesthetic and ceramics. Or when Riley Van Son easily moves from the ice to the choral music stage, I see community building in classrooms, Adirondack chair circles by the fire pits, coaches talks with teams, cornhole games on the quad, literally everywhere I wander. You know, graduation talks are supposed to always contain a pearl of wisdom, and they almost always seem to be reducible to a cliche of one sort or another. So in keeping with your expectations, but what I hope will be in a succinct fashion, I’m gonna offer you just my one solitary piece of advice as you await your diplomas. That one piece of advice is this: Think small. That’s right.

Think small, not big. I can see some eye rolls of skepticism. Dom Di Fillipo, maybe next year at Harvard, you can take their most popular class, Positive Psychology 1504, and tell me if I’m wrong. Your generation hears all the time about big problems facing you: the climate crisis, non-renewable energy, AI, food insecurity, and on and on. So why would my last chance to offer you some grand-sounding advice that meets these enormous challenges instead, be something so reductive to think small? Isn’t this where I’m supposed to say something like, shoot for the stars and you may just get a piece of the moon? Or maybe, thinking small is just a rhetorical trick, since you’ve all heard that when you take care of the little things, the big things will follow. Well call me hopelessly old fashioned, but I believe that small gestures really do matter, and that they are the building blocks that create the essential bonds of community.

You know the idea that something small can have an oversized impact is a pretty familiar one. Many of you might recall the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park explaining chaos theory about the butterfly effect. That’s the one that says, an atmospheric disturbance caused by a butterfly in one hemisphere can lead to a cyclone in another. I’m not a physicist, but I like to read. And in a compelling book I recently read called The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, the author explores how important connections get made in iconic groups like Seal Team Six, giant call centers like those in India, or even in standup comedy troupes. One of the experiments mentioned in the book comes out of Harvard Business School and it’s quite simple. The control group goes like this. You’re standing in the rain at a train station and a stranger politely says, “Can I borrow your cell phone?”

The experimental group is the same thing except for six additional words: “I’m sorry about the rain. Can I borrow your cell phone?” In the second version, where the person creates a seemingly insignificant bond by uttering six friendly words, the response rate to the question rose by over 400%. The idea that just a handful of words or slight gestures can send a powerful signal about building connections across real or perceived differences turns out to be true. So next year, whether it’s Owen Dietrich offering a helping hand backstage, or Dylan Haaland showing his trademark empathy to somebody he meets at McAllister, or Pierceson Squires offering to buy a stranger a cup of coffee at N.C. State, keep doing the little things. You don’t have to start a club or run for class president or captain a dance ensemble—those are all worthy goals—but I would urge you to embrace a philosophy of small gestures, class of 2023, since you will be the ones who strengthen human connections, bridge divides and build positive culture.

Oh, and one last thing. As you know, I don’t believe ChatTaylor’s song that graduation is like a breakup. And even though one of real Taylor’s hits was, we are never, ever, ever getting back together, to you, the class of 2023, I say, graduating is not a breakup. Williston expects you to get back together at homecomings, events and reunions. Your lasting connections to Williston and to each other is my segue to introduce S.A. Fogleman, class of 2010. I’m delighted that S.A. agreed to join us today for this celebration, since she has a close connection to the McCullaugh family and since Mr. McCullaugh, as most of you learned last night, if you didn’t know it already, we’ll also be graduating from Williston this year after 24 years of incredible service as a school’s chief financial officer.

S.A., after graduating from Williston, attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where she was a Division I lacrosse player and she learned to eat her meals in roughly 12 to 18 minutes. You may be sharing some of your stories about that plebe year S.A., but even if you don’t, I bet she could tell us the scores of every Army football game during her time there. After Annapolis, S.A. received her medical degree from Georgetown Medical School, and she now serves as a commissioned officer and orthopedic surgeon at Naval Medical Center, San Diego. Sarah embodies a life of service, dedication, and commitment, and it seems particularly appropriate that on this Memorial Day weekend, we welcome back to Williston, Dr. Lt. S.A. Fogleman.