man in academic robe at podium

In Their Own Words: Robert Hill Commencement Address


Good morning family members, friends, Mr. White, trustees, faculty and staff, our honored speaker, those of you watching by live stream, and especially members of the inspiring and resilient class of 2021.  Welcome to the 180th Commencement exercises of the Williston Northampton School, live and in person. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to say that!  I have had the great honor of presiding over the last 10 of Williston’s graduation ceremonies, and yet this morning, I scarcely know where to begin.

Last night at the Senior Dinner, I could not see you from the stage because of the lights—but I can today, and you look great all dressed up. We heard from your classmates last night like Tomi, who acknowledged how important it was to recognize others as she did for the warm-hearted always-friendly folks in dining services who kept us fed with take out meals and treats; or from Mr. Porter who shouted out our nurses who gave front line care, sometimes dorm by dorm, all year—and for that you dedicated to them this year’s Log. This was an all-hands-on-deck year for Williston, and staff from the Business Office, or Technology, Athletics, or Advancement, routinely could be found under the testing tents manning computers. Or there’s JT who drove roundtrip 40 times to the Broad Institute in Boston every Wednesday taking our PCR tests so that we would have results the next day.  It’s easy to forget how much uncertainty and fear permeated the year. Heck, some of you guys thought that the power outage in January and a day of remote classes was actually me pulling the plug since I was worried about positive test results. And throughout it all, Williston’s staff answered the call to duty—Phys Plant was here last night at 9 p.m. to begin tent set-up, and think of all the classrooms they created and took down this year in the gym. Please join me in thanking Williston’s courageous and selfless staff!

I am acutely aware that try as we have, we are not all present together and that classmates are removed by oceans and screens as the effects of the pandemic continue to impact even this most festive and propitious occasion. I am equally aware of the grief of those who have lost loved ones this year due to COVID-19 or other causes, since we have been deprived of normal modes of support and grieving for our loved ones. This horrific pandemic, which has been particularly devastating to the elderly, means that some of you today are missing grandparents—they would be so proud of you.  The staggering toll from the coronavirus means that nearly everyone knows somebody who lost a loved one.

Even while we in the United States are returning to normal, we know that the pandemic still rages in places around the world. Class of 2021, we are citizens of this world and we must empathize and offer our support with those who suffer anywhere. I also know that there are some of you here today for whom pandemic restrictions and remote learning have not been all about Zoom wear and fuzzy slippers, but have instead led to feelings of loneliness and isolation, and those emotions must be named and accepted so we can all support one another in the weeks and months ahead.

And finally, I am keenly aware that graduating today are your classmates of color, particularly your Black classmates, who have courageously stepped forward to lead our community through a moment of great racial reckoning.  Just a year ago, countless numbers, including some of you, took to the streets and public squares to reignite a movement demanding racial justice. Thanks to the efforts of Williston alumni, students, and faculty of color, Williston has embarked on positive steps to ensure that every student feels as if they belong, as respected and valued members of this ever-changing and always rejuvenating community.  As I said, I scarcely know where to begin.

Perhaps, seniors, you are feeling a bit like me. You are holding onto a multitude of emotions at one time; maybe you are feeling relief, fatigue, and happiness, or maybe even a little sadness and even uncertainty?

You know, so far, this really isn’t sounding like the start of a cheerful, optimistic graduation address.

So, let me shift gears, because when I look out at you this morning, the largest in person gathering of the year, I cannot help but feel hopeful. Class of 2021, look around you, you are surrounded by your friends and supported by family, and sitting around you are your teachers. Your teachers and coaches and advisers and dorm parents—they encouraged you to do your best work, to be respectful of one another, to clean up your room, and they tirelessly cheered you on, whether you heard them or not. In a year where each of us, but particularly true of your teachers who were in such close daily contact with you, began with justifiable concerns for their own health and that of their families, this faculty answered the call and produced, uninterrupted, in-person learning and living together. And thanks to student efforts to maintain the COVID bubble, Williston carried on as well as any school I know of in what will surely go down in history as the most disruptive to education and society in 100 years.

So, seniors, let’s stand, and please join me in a round of applause for the faculty.

Thank you and please be seated. Let me try to get even more into the festive mood of graduation speeches, the ones that give you three-to-five pearls of wisdom, which you will forget before I sit back down. I’m aiming for only one, and I will get there by counting down. So, here’s my Buzz-Feed-style List of the Top-10 COVID-19 Pandemic Expressions That You Never Want to Hear Again:

Number 10—The Williston Compact

Number 9—Maintain Six Feet of Distance

Number 8—“Tap to Allow Location Services”

Number 7—The Rule of Three

Number 6—Because of COVID…

Number 5—Inter-Squad Scrimmage

Number 4— Please Answer the PCR Test Day Survey Questions

Number 3—Socially Distanced Outdoor Singing

Number 2—Please Pull Your Mask Up Over Your Nose

And finally, Number 1—Can You Please Unmute Yourself?

You probably have your own top-10 list but I bet we share many terms in common if not in spirit.  I saved “unmute” for last intentionally. As you embark on the next stage of your educational lives, my one piece of advice to you is: “unmute yourself.” I don’t mean that lightly, because the last thing we need is uniformed chatter—there’s plenty of that on major cable outlets, YouTube, Facebook, you know what I mean. My enjoinder, to “unmute,” however, comes with a set of conditions.

Unmute yourself when you see injustice. Unmute yourself for a noble cause. Unmute yourself for a friend’s performance, to show your love of your family or grief at a funeral. Unmute yourself cheering on the sidelines. Unmute yourself in your future classrooms.

I fervently hope that you have discovered your voices while at Williston, and that you have grown to appreciate the power that your words have on others. Chosen carefully, your words soothe a friend, make someone laugh, or open a conversation. Chosen poorly, your words could hurt, offend, or mislead. And we all know that staying silent can be the most hurtful choice of all. Class of 2021, if you commit to lives of learning, to knowing history and to separating scholarly facts from charlatan opinion, the power of your words will be boundless.

Some of you may find that you have large audiences—big platforms and big followings. Gabby Thomas, for instance, summer Olympic hopeful and professional track athlete from the Williston Class of 2015 has over 15k followers on Instagram which seems like a pretty big number to me.

Our speaker today is also an alumna, from the Williston class of 1987, and she has spent her professional lifetime with an unmuted mic. Susan Del Percio has about 37k followers on Twitter, and so hers is a big platform.

I got to know Susan way before she knew me, since I confess to being a slightly addicted viewer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” where she is a frequent guest, and where my interest in politics and love of coffee converge.

Susan came to Williston from Long Island, and in hindsight she would probably describe herself as a fish out of water in terms of teen culture at that time. The New England boarding school back then was quite a bit more inward looking than it is today. So, when Susan showed up sporting a rhinestone “5-1-6-lapel pin,” in honor of her Long Island area code, her Williston peers looked at her a little funny. Of course, now area codes appear everywhere from Instagram bios to tattoos, so maybe Susan you were just ahead of your time.

Susan is a businesswoman who runs her own eponymous strategy and communications company, she is a nationally recognized crisis management expert, and is a political and policy maven who contributes regularly to myriad news outlets. Having consulted and worked for major political figures from both sides of the aisle, she is especially well suited to talk about the issues that you seniors will confront. I am delighted to welcome Susan Del Percio back to Williston as the keynote speaker for the graduating class of 2021; please join me in giving Ms. Del Percio a warm Williston welcome.