man at podium

In Their Own Words: Ken Choo


The following speech by science teacher Ken Choo was delivered during the Class of 2020 Reunion on June 4, 2022. More here.

First off, standing before you is a great privilege. I hope you do not mind, but I have observed other addresses and almost all of them seem to start off with some acknowledgements, and so I do, too. I thank:

  • Head of School Robert Hill, who has navigated our school through the pandemic and oversaw the rise of a new Residential Quad.
  • The Deans Office, Admissions team, College Counseling staff, Advancement team, Business Office, Technology Office, and Athletic Department, including deans Tuleja, Noble, Fogg, Chambers, Koritkoski, Davey, Garrity, Dietrich, McDowell, McGraw, Yates, Shelffo, McCullaugh, and Conroy—and the rest of the staff who make tough calls every week that allow every day at this school to occur.
  • The Board of Trustees for keeping an eye on the big picture.
  • The teachers, my peers, many of whom I now find are closer in age to you, the graduates, than to myself.
  • The Physical Plant, Dining, and Security staff whose work is exemplary, and thus almost invisible.
  • My family, my wife, Bridget, who has slowly, but steadily replaced most of my clothing choices with more suitable attire, and my son and daughter, Jack and Mary, who are teaching me more than I them.
  • The families of you before me whose love and sacrifice I cannot fathom….

So you, the class of 2020, who return to these grounds yet again, for whom this day is set aside. What should an address like this actually… address? This question, what to say to you, is a conundrum. I could give you advice but that is a dubious endeavor. I’m convinced that older people might be wiser…but I also think that a lot of that wisdom came from making mistakes—this has oftentimes been the case for me. Telling a graduate, “Trust me, do this, avoid doing that,” when doing or not doing is exactly how one finds out the absolute darkness of heartbreak, or the mouthful of bitterness that is disappointment, or the levitating sensation that is a hard-earned success, or the brightening of skies that is falling in love. Those choices are the fuel for true wisdom more so than me telling you…

In addition, different situations call upon different approaches that, in turn, depend upon your strengths and weaknesses. Many of my colleagues could speak more eloquently than myself on the difference one student can make on class dynamics.

No, I’m not so sure that giving advice is the route I can personally take today. 

Maybe instead we could celebrate your present day endeavors…

I called several of you over the past few days. Some of you do not have voicemail boxes set up yet. Some of you answer, but then stay silent, waiting to see if the call is from a telemarketer. Some of you sounded like you were at a party, some at a beach. Some of you answered me by name like it was no big deal, still having my contact information in your cell phone.

I called because this gathering is two years delayed, I wanted to feel that connection with you again. Your voices stirred visceral memories within me, not of how you did on your homework or performed on your tests, but of familiarity—of laughter and kindness and silliness and youthful vigor of years past—of a teacher’s pride in students now adults.

You are studying at universities and colleges, working at jobs and making money, researching at labs, making friends, getting internships, volunteering for causes, moving to different places, living on your own, declaring majors, making plans for the future, getting into trouble…

Maybe, instead, we could acknowledge your past achievements during your time on this campus

  • Five teams qualified for NEPSAC tournaments, and the boys and girls swim teams were undefeated.
  • Nat Markey set our course record for boys cross country
  • NEPSAC champions were crowned including William, Sam, Connor, Shogo, and Molly
  • End of year awards and prizes for academics, athletics, citizenship, and leadership were earned by Sam and Nick, Dylan and Maddy, Nat and Steven, Sarah and Eric, Lila and Nina, Brie and Jason, Jack and Anni, and Anna.
  • There was the fall play, the dance concert, singing and ensemble concerts.
  • You were either Williston Scholars or proctors or tutors or mentors or guides or good friends.

Past achievements, present day endeavors, future advice…Instead of speaking on any of these topics, today I would like to share a personal reflection of one PARTICULAR life.

My dear friend Paul Luikart died this year. Some of you knew him personally, perhaps as seventh graders in his middle school science class

I knew Paul for 17 years, so what facts could I tell you about him? In those 17 years, he shared his home with six dogs, four snakes (one of which my wife has adopted and now resides in our dining room), one snapping turtle procured from a batch right here next to the Williston pond, one frog that spent the entirety of its life living underground and so I never saw it, dozens of geckos and lizards, and two rescued baby squirrels, one of whom ran from one of my hands, across my shoulder, to my other hand, back and forth every time I turned my head to look at him. Paul could stack 27 dishes and bowls on top of each other in the sink to avoid washing them. Twice a year he would correct my understanding of scientific principles, and not too gently either, but with a passion that screamed, “This is important!”

I can extrapolate information about his life to make estimates:

After introducing him to the Korean dish Bulgogi he ate the meal almost every week. A half pound eaten for 52 weeks for 17 years leading me to conclude he consumed 442 pounds of it.

He was a voracious reader. An estimate of three books a week seems like an underestimation: three books read every week for 52 weeks for 17 years indicates to me that he read 2,652 books.

But, of course, the numbers and extrapolations do not, could never tell you the whole story. He was the one who held me up when I was in despair because one of my family members was struggling with illness. My family camper was perpetually parked on his property in Vermont for the past two years where my family would spend the summers hiking, swimming, fishing, playing fetch with dogs, building fires, sharing the best meals. My son’s 12th birthday was on his property, four friends suddenly out of contact because of a pandemic, screaming and leaping into a pond, reinforcing what may very well turn out to be life-long bonds. My daughter’s 11th birthday was held there too. He would frequently tell me he loved me, and who doesn’t need to hear that. My Veracross password is one of Paul’s dog’s names. I complained about two screeching racoons outside of my then apartment above Health and Wellness, he responded by writing a splendid piece on their beauty, and the ultimate cuteness of baby raccoons. He once woke Bridget and me up at an ungodly hour to go fishing in the dark. He unabashedly cried while talking about his time living in Sierra Leone: once with me within the first week of meeting me.

When we first met I was new to the ways of Williston, hadn’t coached a lick, was shearing street signs in front of the athletic center from their bases as I drove the minibus, overwhelmed as I figured out the tempo of this place with its dash from teaching to coaching to advising to dorm duty to activity duty to phone calls to parents to meetings. He encouraged, scolded, cursed, hugged, hiked, laughed, advised, guided, shared his own missteps…he pulled for me. He invested in me until I understood more clearly, it’s not always about being easy or always being right or how you look. It’s about being there for another human being, being vulnerable in front of somebody else and letting them be vulnerable back, arguing wholeheartedly, mending your relationship, then arguing again.

I don’t tell you this to advise you what to do. These were my experiences and my feelings, and my musings of a lost friend, but I want you to know: Paul was exactly what I needed to survive and flourish here. You all have your people and your stories. I want you to know that YOU are exactly what we, the world, needs.

We need individuals forged and privileged by a past in this institution, who have learned and strived to understand the world in unique ways.

We need individuals who are achieving now deepening their expertise, their endurance to work hard, their ability to communicate, ability to empathetically lend support…

We need individuals, not bound by a single piece of advice, but adaptable to different environments, who have interacted with unique communities with different perspectives, with experience in different circumstances, who have succeeded and failed in different ways, who have fresh approaches.

You are exactly who we need to face this world emerging from a pandemic and fearful of another, with racial divides that seem to spurn every attempt to heal and reunite, a world in which the rich and poor are separated by a gap impossibly gaping.

You are exactly who we need, each and every one of you, in every circumstance, JUST AS YOU ARE.

And so my final words to you are…thank you. Thank you graduating class of 2020.

Thank you for honing your minds so that your contribution, however small or large, allows for the next great leap in scientific discovery or deepens the discourse in matters of profound importance.

Thank you for travelling the world so that you can speak up for those who are voiceless, hungry, impoverished

Thank you for experiencing heartbreak or doubt or racism or sexism, so that you can hold up those who are hurt too

Thank you, each and every one of you for being exactly who THIS WORLD needs.