Head of School Robert W. Hill III gave this address during Williston Northampton School’s 181st Commencement on May 28, 2022. More here.
Good morning parents, family members and friends, faculty and staff, Trustees, Board Chair, Mr. White, and to you the class of 2022—Welcome to Williston Northampton School’s 181st commencement exercises. And a special welcome home to our speaker, Gabby Thomas, Class of 2015, thank you for running all the way here from Austin, Texas.
It is so nice to be back under this expansive tent with the whole school attending—a good portion of our journey this year has been to relearn the significance of school traditions and behaviors, ones that have been paused for nearly three years. Traditions and rituals are important to retain and easy to lose, they underpin community and how we live together, and so I hope all students in the back rows of the tent imagine yourselves in these senior seats one, two, or three years from now—do you aspire to be like one of the role models in front of me, aspiring to go to Union College, or Columbia University, or earning the White Blazer or Valedictory recognition? 9th, 10th, and 11th—you processed into the tent behind your Class banner, signifying the stages of your educational journey and that future that is Williston. And so, too, the class of 2022, you are literally, moving on today, and in doing so you are claiming your place among the ten thousand or so Williston Northampton School alumni.
Last year, at a scaled down and socially distanced and masked graduation, I challenged the class of 2021, some members of whom had been virtual for over a year, to “unmute” and find their voices as they headed off to college, after all, they had spent 18 months masked or mic-ed up.
For all of you, I began this year with the theme of Reclaiming the Joy, which the yearbook chose as its title and something for which, you, the class of 2022 will forever be remembered. I want to combine those two themes and ask that seniors stand with me and face the audience to show your appreciation for those here today who have supported you all along. Thank you. Next before you sit down, let’s give one final Williston roar for your teachers—those who have given everything these last two years to keep on teaching and advising, mentoring, and coaching.
Today, the spotlight is on you, 2022, the accomplishments that lie behind you and the horizons that extend beyond your imagined reach. Natalie Stott’s walk-off home run against Walkers is in the past; so is the shout I heard when Sara Markey told her friends she was heading to Yale; so are the last notes of Mamma Mia! on the night the show closed, and so are Coach Beaton’s words to his team before the last home game—all those events, some remembered and some not, constitute your time at Williston.
What a mark you have left this year—the year in which we have been celebrating 50 years of co-education. Mr. Conroy led the athletic recognition ceremony on Thursday and recapped the monumental year our female athletes had, winning the NEPSAC championships in both water polo and ice hockey, and being runners up in softball, not to mention Abigail Touhey’s record setting exploits in track and field and cross country. Girls rocked the record books and chose a perfect year to do so.
A few weeks ago on one of my infamous campus walkabouts, I noticed the faded blue dots on the pathway and steps behind the Reed Center. Perhaps you have noticed them too. Or maybe you walk over them every day without a second thought. Two years ago, those were bright blue dots and they determined where you were allowed to stand in the grab-n-go lines that snaked along the pathways during the most fearful and uncertain time of COVID—the fall of 2020. And those dots were just one of a number of steps that we enacted to allow us to be on campus and in community together. Those were difficult and strange times for schools, and this year, by contrast was certainly much more of a return to normal.
But I wonder about those blue dots, metaphorically speaking. Just as they are faded on the sidewalks but still visible, there are residuals of the pandemic that have stayed with you, though somewhat muted. What blue dots are part of your emotional and psychological landscape, your interior life? Every student here today has predominantly experienced Williston through the lens of the historical pandemic—if you began as a tenth grader, then 10 of your 12 trimesters were under pandemic rules. It stands to reason that you have been altered and affected in ways that are both obvious to you and hidden from you. Those effects are like the blue dots on the sidewalks, partly faded, maybe overlooked, but still present.
You should not have to live your lives in fear of the next pandemic. That is not to say that we might not be in a new age of highly transmissible viruses and that annual masking protocols will be advised by health experts. But its not about masks its about mindsets. Living with knowledge is not the same thing as living in fear. Fear of the unknown creates anxiety; fear that stems from understanding the magnitude of a critical issue, if you have the right mindset, might become your life’s purpose. Your generation faces, and you know this already, great challenges that might seem intractable or even overwhelming from an isolated or solo perspective. What can I do about climate change; or what can I do about the next pandemic? Or what can I do about food insecurity or fair living wages? By virtue of where you are sitting today, armed with a powerful education that is the envy of millions of teenagers worldwide, you can do something, each of you can do something, to make a difference. You should always use your intellectual gifts to study, analyze, and learn about the things that impact your lives and make informed choices—that’s a piece of universal advice, not just health related.
Much of pandemic restrictions that you endured as teenagers these past two and half years have been antithetical to the carefree, spontaneous, devil-may-care lives teenagers experienced before the pandemic. Mrs. Hill and I have been at Williston for 12 years and are pretty sure that staying six feet apart all the time and obsessively washing hands is not normal for you. Teenagers tend to be high contact, high energy, and not-so-clean….it’s like any dance on campus. And thankfully, we saw more of that return to normal this year than the other, but I still wonder about those fading blue dots and what might unconsciously be holding you back.
A book I am reading by the scholar/journalist James Carroll about Jerusalem muses on some of those big questions about what makes us human. I was struck by the quotation: “Animals live in the eternal present. Humans live in the eternal coming-into-being.” You all are coming-into-being, following the deepest human urge of a continual quest to find meaning in your lives, no matter what you do or where you are. On this joyful day, a day filled with symbolic value where you commence the next stage of your lives as young adults, I hope you will all take the lessons learned at Williston and apply them to the as yet defined “coming-into-being” experiences that lie ahead. You are the most resilient and equipped graduates in Williston’s history, since you have proven what you can do under such extra-ordinary circumstances. You will need to use all your considerable educational advantage as you accept the challenges that lie ahead—some of the great global and human issues of the day. But I know that I speak for the dedicated faculty who have mentored you, 2022, when I say that we have great faith that you will meet the moment. The next time I walk over the pathway and look down at those blue dots, I am going to think about each of you—and then on one of those clear beautiful Williston nights I’ll look up to the skies and see those other blue dots of light as representing the infinite possibilities for each of you—members of the Class of 2022.
Speaking of stars, the young woman sitting on the stage patiently waiting her turn is a Williston star from the Class of 2015. So, Gabby, while I have a few more things to say, this is your “on your marks and set” moment. Usually, I provide a little context about the graduation speaker, but I suspect that our youngest commencement speaker in my tenure at Williston is also our best known. Without further ado, let me introduce Gabby Thomas, Williston 2015, Harvard College 2019, and silver and gold medalist for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.