All posts by Kate Snyder

Cum Laude Speaker Ann Sonnenfeld

OK, so it has only been 42 years since I have been on campus. Seems like yesterday.  The last time I was here was graduation day, 1975.  As luck always had it in the days before hair straighteners, it was a humid hot day, I was 15, dressed in an ivory peasant dress with a high waist that, according to my mother, made me look fat, and my hair was frizzy.  I brought the picture with me and yes, mom, you were right, the dress made me look fat. The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead were wafting out from dorm room windows at Ford Hall and students who were not graduating were wearing plaid shirts, jeans and clogs.  Remarkably enough, I am still wearing plaid shirts, jeans and clogs much of the time. But no more peasant dresses and no kinky hair.

When Eric Yates asked me to give this Cum Laude address, I was pleased to learn I am a member of the Cum Laude Society, a fact I had forgotten completely if I ever knew it. Anyway, this will be the 70s Cum Laude Address—recalling many people, things and events you have never heard of and most likely don’t care about much.

So what do I remember of my short two years at Williston? Oddly, I recall more from my two years here from August of 1973 to June of 1975 than from the ten years before that. Perhaps as a segue into the rest of this talk, the word for my time here would be RISK. And by that I mean positive and negative. I came from a very conventional background on what is called the Main Line in Philadelphia where people mostly went to private single sex schools, wore uniforms, played tennis at the Club and followed lots of rules. Parents also played tennis and drank martinis. At the Club. Even the Club had lots of rules. At least that is what it seemed like to me. I did not want to go to single sex school, follow rules, play tennis, field hockey or golf. I abhorred the Club and I desperately wanted to be a hippie, learn about interesting things, and meet different people. Williston attracted me because there seemed to be almost no rules, lots interesting people, none of whom wore uniforms and interesting things to learn and do. While Williston satisfied most of my wishes, I managed to break even the few rules there were, yet nevertheless graduated and went to a good college! That was certainly a miracle and I really give the credit to Williston.

I recall laughing, laughing a lot, laughing even more. I recall boys, freedom, boys (did I mention those already). I recall trying things that never would have occurred to me before coming here, such as calligraphy, modern dance and Hamlet. I recall reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, of which you may have heard, and Ram Dass of whom you may not have heard. (By the way Ram Dass, a.k.a., Richard Alpert, was an early experimenter with psychedelic drugs at Harvard and a spiritual guru of some note in the 70s, who graduated from Williston and was in the Cum Laude Society according to Wikipedia—who knew?)

So I have broken this talk into smaller bits, with numbered paragraphs:

  1. Much is forgiven of those who achieve academically. As observed in the seminal work of my 70s youth that was somehow robbed of the Oscar, yes Love Story, “School came easily to me.” I was an annoyingly good student. I was diligent and worked hard, but academic success came relatively easily to me, all the way through law school. I was an early academic achiever, unhappy at home, and socially precocious. I had been put ahead in most of my classes beginning in middle school and then somehow I skipped 10th and 11th grade here at Williston and graduated at the ridiculous age of 15. There were and are lots of things wrong with that picture. However, when other things went wrong (which they often did), or I went off track (which I did in so many interesting and risky ways), academic achievement helped. Things were forgiven. Perhaps not the best lesson for an adolescent, but an advantage you will have. Remember though, it can be also be a curse because you may never learn anything from your mistakes until you are really old, like me. So even if you can maintain an A average while staying out all night every night and crashing your car or treating people like dirt, it really doesn’t matter—you have made mistakes and you need to learn from them and become a better person. The chickens will come home to roost.
  2. Figure out who you are, and try to like yourself. So, I am a lawyer. I graduated from Williston, went to college, became a paralegal, then went to law school and became a partner at a big shot firm in Philadelphia. Funny thing, though, I never wanted to be a lawyer. I became a lawyer because I wanted to be able to support myself even if I never had the rich husband I deserved, or even if I got divorced like my mom. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else. And people with good grades who are good at school are good at law school. What did I really want? I wanted things that took talent, not analytical skills, hard work, long hours, and the ability to argue. Beginning in about 1970 when I was 11, I wanted to be a folk singer. I came to Williston with my stereo and my record collection and I wanted to be Joni Mitchell. I still want to be Joni Mitchell, or at least the Joni Mitchell as she was in the 1970s. I still practice being Joni Mitchell by singing loudly where no one can hear me. I wanted to be poetic and mystical and thin with straight blonde hair and an amazing voice—that was my aspiration. I also wanted to be a ballet dancer. Graceful, winsome, or a modern dancer like Martha Graham. You get the picture. But what is the use when one cannot play the guitar, cannot really even point one’s toes, when one has a deep alto voice and was not and would never be thin. I suggest, forget it and realize that you CAN be something amazing and successful and that you, yourself may be good at math or science or be able to write essays, win arguments or tell jokes, or make robots or pottery or calligraphy or be the best friend there ever was.  For me, not feeling good in my own skin was the hardest thing about high school. I did not achieve feeling good about myself or liking myself at all until I was in my mid-30s. I am sure you can achieve this much earlier than I did and it will be the greatest gift you can give yourself.
  3. Reading can save your sanity and even your life. I suspect all of you Cum Laudes understand the power of reading. For me, it began in 5th grade when I realized I could escape from just about anything with a book.  Who cares about a distasteful unhappy family when there is a library within walking distance and a congenial librarian (I know, I know, there are no such things as libraries or cosy librarians anymore). Who cares that one is not thin and has been rejected by a boy (or many boys) when you will never run out of books with happy endings? Who cares if one has two children under age 3 and a full time job that includes lots of travel and decides to get divorced—there is always something good to read! (Maybe self-help books would be in order.) I had and have feminine old fashioned taste in books. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Daphne DuMurier, Georgette Heyer, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell. I know for a fact I was the only student at the University of Pennsylvania law school whiling away the exam period reading the entire works of Anthony Trollope while on the bus to exercise class. By the way, it helped. I never skipped studying or ceased writing detailed outlines of my courses in impeccable calligraphy (learned here at Williston in 1974), but I spent an equal number of hours escaping harsh, boring, and unromantic reality into books. My reading has evolved over time and now I listen to audiobooks while doing just about everything—laundry, driving, needlepoint, walking, running, walking the dogs, rowing, bicycling, grocery shopping, waiting for trains, waiting for planes, watching children’s sporting. Reading saved my life and I think it could at least improve yours.  And if you don’t have a life, it can be a wonderful substitute!
  4. Aerobic exertion cures many bad things. Along with my record player and Joni Mitchell albums, I arrived at Williston in 1973 with my 10-speed bike. I think the term “10 speed” was a product of the 1970s also. My current bike has dozens of gears and is vastly easier, but the same idea. Some things never change, like not being able to change a tire in the 70s and not being able to change a tire now! I was miserably homesick for the first month or so at boarding school. It was inexplicable to me. I hated my home, hated my parents, hated my siblings, hated my old school, yet I was terribly homesick. Mostly for my dog I think. But my bike was there for me. I lived in a house on the edge of campus with a roommate from Mill Valley California (a place of which I had never heard and never wanted to hear about again afterwards). To escape school and my loathsome roommate, I rode my bike. Long distances. I rode to Northampton and rode to Amherst and took long aimless rides. I explored the hippie stores in those towns and the country roads. I sang and rode. I daydreamed. So what is the moral of this self-indulgent story? I never participated in organized team sports—just never wanted to. But we learned in the 70s and 80s that physical exertion releases endorphins, undefinable things that make you feel good but are not drugs or alcohol. That theory has probably been roundly debunked a million times over, but the general life lesson for those prone to depression or sadness or anxiety or boredom or fear or self-loathing or alcoholism or drug addiction is that physical exertion will make it better. Jim Fixx. Another icon of the 1970s. He wrote this book called The Complete Book of Running. It was a completely new idea that ordinary people could run long distances and it would be good for them. Before that, only crazy people who wanted to run in the Olympics would run. I bought the book and began to run in 1978. I ran and ran and ran and ran. I ran about 10 marathons, dozens of half marathons, many country roads and city streets in unknown boring towns in the Midwest during horrible business trips, over the course of 35 years until my knee gave out. But at least it was just my knee. Jim Fixx – the father of running – dropped dead of a heart attack at age 52! I read another book called Long Slow Distance, which argued that mental illness and addiction and many other ills could be cured by running long and slow. Since I was a long slow runner and I knew it cured my insomnia, improved my anxiety, helped me over alcoholism and improved just about everything, I decided this was correct. That leads to another point.
  5. Drugs and Alcohol – or Inhibitions Are Good. Unfortunately for me and tragically for many others, the 70s were experienced through, a haze of drugs and alcohol, and with very little supervision, filled with unbridled risk-taking activities leaving me in shock and awe that I survived. Remember that it wasn’t the 60s, where people protested and believed in causes and seemed to want a better world. Vietnam was over and in the past. It was just experimentation and risk. Fortunately for parents, brain science has progressed and now we know why adolescents act in the stupid-idiot ways they do. Their brains are underdeveloped and cannot send the correct signals. Teenagers require rules and framework not just because we adults are annoying (but of course we are) but because taking ridiculous risks causes death and injury and disease and can ruin your future. The world is so much harsher now and does not forgive. It certainly does not forget, even if you get straight As, great SAT scores and are a three-sport varsity athlete. Ok, so that is my parental speech. I do not drink or take drugs now. I gave up drugs long long ago and I stopped drinking alcohol in 1992 after I had my first child. I realized I could not do “life” and have children and dogs and a job and drink too. I have no moderation in me, about anything.  I never wanted to wake up again not remembering exactly what happened the night before. I wanted to be the same lame, fallible, ridiculous and flawed human that I am every hour of every day.  For me it is all or nothing. I thank God that I was able to change and move on. I hope you all have more maturity than we had in the 70s (you certainly cannot have less) and I know you have more information than we had. We didn’t even have the Internet for God’s sake. How did we find anything out???
  6. Consider the different paths your life can take—not just one. Now we are all best friends and you know everything about me. You know that I took a linear, determined path in life. I did not realize or consider that there were different paths or other options. We didn’t have the Internet and people just never went to Machu Pichu, or hiked the Appalachian Trail or took a gap year. We didn’t even know these things existed! I thought you had to do one thing FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER and it had to be for money. I was so busy doing what I thought I should do, I didn’t consider what I wanted to do.  Part of my problem is I suffer from a condition my husband and I call Attention Surplus Disorder. Once I am doing something, I have superhuman sustained concentration to the exclusion of all else. (The funny thing is many persons in my family seem to have Attention Deficit Disorder, including our dogs and parrot—I got all the concentration.) So for me, starting in the 70s I just worked and worked and worked and it wasn’t until I was 50 that I figured out what was really important to me. My family, including my husband, three children, two dogs, and yes even the parrot, spending less time at work and more time exercising, needle pointing, gardening, and living in a house on this tiny island in Maine, Little Deer Isle, that looks out onto Penobscot Bay and the sunset. I am as happy as nature permits me to be (but super annoyed by so many things anyway!)

It took me a long time to find this level of happiness, perhaps longer because I am so single minded. There are, of course, many paths. There is travel when you are young, writing books, being a full-time mom or dad, taking care of your parents, working with underserved populations in foreign countries, taking a chance with Teach for America and so many other possibilities. Life is long and you can change careers and change your life and be a different person in each decade. You can take risks with new careers or years off or just decide that money and success are not important. Happiness comes in so many flavors. I envy you your unbounded futures. It will be great. I wish you all the best of luck and I hope we meet again someday. I will be the one singing Joni Mitchell songs.

Natalie Aquadro ’17 on the ‘Williston Magic’

Natalie Aquadro '17
Natalie Aquadro ’17

Five years ago when I came to Williston, 2017 seemed like generations away, and now it’s just around the corner. Five years ago I was 12 years old, it was 2011, and I was only about 2 inches shorter. Five years ago I never thought that I would be on this side of the stage. I hardly even had the courage to stand up and present in front of a class, and now here I am talking to the entire school. But that’s just what happens at Williston: you become someone that you only ever dreamed of being. Whether you’re in seventh grade, ninth grade, a PG, or anywhere in between, I guarantee that at some point in your time at Williston, you will feel the Williston magic. Williston is what I believe to be the friendliest place on earth. If you haven’t noticed it yet, I’m sure you will in just a matter of time. I’m somewhat convinced that to be enrolled in Williston you have to constantly be smiling, and I think that might be the first thing the admissions office checks when you come to visit campus.

All summer long, giving this speech was stuck in the back of my mind. I had absolutely no clue what it was that I wanted to say, or what it was that I was supposed to say. But then I realized that what I said to you today does not really matter in the long run. Because for the past five Convocations I have been in one of those chairs, listening to these speeches, and I do not remember a single one. I’m sure that they were really great, and trust me, while I was writing this I wish I had remembered them, but in about a week what I say to you will merely be a distant memory.

Now besides the fact that you will not remember what I say, what I say really does not matter because everybody here probably already has an idea in their head about how they want their year to go. Maybe you’re like me, and see yourself becoming Williston’s next best pole vaulter. Now I hate to break it to you, but you will not be the next best, or even the next next best, but you will have a lot of fun trying. Or maybe you’re like Mr. Doubleday who envisions the year as following strictly to plan, but the reality is that there may be a snow day or a fire drill that takes away one out of the precise number of extremely important, valuable classes. I hate to break it to you Mr. Doubleday, and everyone, things will not go exactly as planned. There will be ups, but there will most certainly be downs. However, one of the most valuable things I’ve learned here at Williston is from Coach Fulcher, and that is that it’s not about what gets thrown at you but it’s about how you respond to it.

This year you will face an infinite amount of obstacles that you did not plan for. Whether it’s a bad grade on a test, a falling out with a friend, or tragically slamming your back on the pole vault bar, the obstacles are inevitable—whether they are physical obstacles or not. But when we face these obstacles we are given multiple choices on how to handle them. You can tuck away the test in the back of your folder and pray that it doesn’t show up again on the final, or you can meet with the teacher day after day until you’ve mastered the material. You can pack away the pole for the season, or you can slam against the bar time and again just to clear the astonishing height of 5’6”. But that’s why we’re so lucky at Williston-because we’re given all the right ways to handle the inevitable. We have a community of teachers and peers eager to help us with any of the obstacles that come our way.

So whether you remember this speech or not, my point is to not be afraid of the inevitable. Do not be afraid of using all the resources given to you, because you do not have to conquer any obstacles alone. Feel free by all means to set goals for the year, and have an idea of what you want to accomplish, but do not be discouraged if things do not go exactly as planned. Remember that the way we respond to what we don’t plan for is what shapes who we are-because you may be given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it.

Convocation Address by Head of School Robert W. Hill III

Ed. note: Head of School Robert W. Hill III welcomed the audience to Convocation, officially opening the 176th school year, during a ceremony on the Quadrangle on September 16, 2016.


Head of School Robert W. Hill III at Convocation
Head of School Robert W. Hill III at Convocation

Good afternoon Williston and welcome to our 176th Convocation, our traditional ceremony that marks the official start and welcome to the academic year. Welcome to the Classes of 2022 to the great class of 2017.

And welcome also to Dr. Austin Sarat, whom I will say more about later, but who graciously came to our rescue when Dr. Beverly Tatum informed us yesterday of a death in her family preventing her from being here.

This morning, we recognized four outstanding teachers who were awarded Instructorships, honors which they will hold for a three-year period and which includes an annual stipend so that each can further her or his intellectual and co-curricular passions. Made possible by generous donations to the school’s permanent endowment, these Instructorships allow our teachers to be the best they can be in their craft and to model lives of learning. Here at Williston, we are surrounded by faculty who are all dedicated to areas of expertise and to passing on that love of subject to each of you. Please join me in recognizing your Williston’s outstanding faculty.

I was doing a little arithmetic the other day and the average Williston student has about 32 meetings per class, per term—so that’s around 96 meetings for each class over the entire year. If you have five classes, then that means that over the course of the whole year, you meet classes 480 times—some of you guys snapchat that many times in a single day. Outside of the Williston bubble, if you were working full time as an hourly employee, which is what most people in the real world do, then you would log 40 hour weeks for 50 weeks per year, or 2000 hours. Why the all the arithmetic? The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t really have that many hours in the classroom, and so you need to make the most of them. And for me, as I’ve said before, making the most of those hours boils down to learning critical thinking skills—to train your brain and to yearn to learn. And why do you need to hone your reasoning skills, you might wonder? That’s easy, so that you can assess, analyze, and synthesize facts and the world in a way that makes coherent sense. Put another way, living a good life depends on it.

Just before the school year began, a couple of incidents occurred that caught my attention, one you probably know about and the other maybe not so much. The first was NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem before games as a sign of protest for the continued racial inequality that he and others face in America.

Reaction was swift, forceful, and polarized. Some voices condemned his actions as selfish and disrespectful; others called them courageous and principled. To be honest, I was unsure at first of what I thought; I found myself having an argument with myself. Colin Kaepernick forced me to think about my own biases and limitations—there’s so much I don’t know of his life, background, and journey. I found that I had to exercise what is called “intellectual humility” in order to be open to a different perspective from my own. After all, why is what Kaepernick did fundamentally different than actions taken in years past by a number of my favorite sports heroes—Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Hank Aaron—who all used the visibility that comes with their considerable fame to speak out against injustice.

The argument I had with myself over this latest NFL controversy led me down the road of “intellectual humility” in order to open the door to the empathy needed to walk in someone else’s shoes. We often talk about someone having the “courage of her/his conviction,” standing firm on that which they believe. Not as often do we extol the virtue of having the intellectual courage to change our minds.

The second incident that caught my attention was the letter written to all new students this fall at the University of Chicago concerning “safe spaces.” For those of you not familiar with that term, safe spaces are designated places where certain topics are off limits. As it turns out, students on college campuses across the country are doing what I believe they should be doing as undergraduates: contesting ideas and exercising their First amendment rights. So I have had a hard time understanding why there has been such an intra-generational clash. I mean I get it if old guys like me take one stance and the college kids take the other; but I’m talking about college kids shouting each other down or ardently claiming that one group’s voice has no place on such-and-such a campus.

Unfortunately, I believe that the adult world is partly to blame and has let the kids down; that is, if WE are supposed to be role models for respectful dialogue. All you need to do is turn on cable news to see how our political leaders talk about their opponents. Go to one network and you hear people yelling at you from the political left; go to another network and the screaming comes from the right. Why should it be any different for college kids?

Williston’s teachers want you to become independent thinkers capable of understanding complex arguments and defending your informed opinion. We want you to exercise your free speech rights: but part of living in community is understanding that just because you have a right to say something does not make it RIGHT to say something. The words that you choose matter—and they matter a lot. If you hold onto the ideal that is one of Williston’s pillars, of respecting others, respecting viewpoints that are different from your own because someone’s life experience is different, then Williston will be a place that celebrates the very best of living and learning together in a vigorous intellectual community. Our safe space will be everywhere.

I am thrilled to introduce to you to today’s speaker. Coming out of the Amherst College bullpen with two out and three on in the bottom of the ninth inning, Professor Austin Sarat is no stranger to Williston. We are so appreciative that he agreed to speak to us this afternoon on such short notice, but to be honest I am not surprised he said yes. In fact, when I learned the news that Dr. Tatum could not be here, three different people said to me—can you ask Austin Sarat? I confess to being a little timid when I called him yesterday afternoon—for those who know of professor Sarat—and he has former students among your teachers—he is universally acknowledged to be one of the busiest people you will know. Professor Sarat holds the William Nelson Cromwell professorship of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College where he is, without hyperbole, a legendary teacher. He spoke at Williston as a guest of our student-led political awareness committee two years ago on his then newly published book: Gruesome Spectacles, Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty. I will not give you a lengthy account of his prodigious work, but suffice it to say, Professor Sarat embodies the very idea of the tireless pursuit of life-long learning that we have been celebrating these opening days. Please join me in welcoming Professor Austin Sarat.

 

2016 Convocation Speech by Austin Sarat

Ed. note: This speech was given by Convocation keynote Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Amherst College. Prof. Sarat graciously accepted our invitation to speak after our scheduled speaker, Dr. Beverly Tatum, had to cancel because of a death in the family.


Convocation keynote Professor Austin Sarat
Convocation keynote Professor Austin Sarat

Today I want to ask you to think about two quotations, the first from the great physicist Albert Einstein…

“Imagination,” Einstein said, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

The second quotation is attributed to the American author John C. Maxwell who said.

“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

If you pay heed to these two quotations, you’ll get much of what will make the forthcoming academic year special here at Williston.

But, before trying to make that case, let me say that I come today with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. You see I only learned that I would be giving this speech at 3 pm yesterday afternoon.

These speeches usually start with a litany of greetings and “thank yous” to the head of school, the board of trustees, the faculty, distinguished visitors and locals.

But, since I received the invitation to join you so late and had to work well past my normal bedtime writing these remarks, and, most importantly, since I missing seeing Hanley Ramirez hit a walk off home run to beat the Yankees last night, I think it would be better if we started off by you all thanking me.

A standing ovation at this point would be nice!

In addition to the ovation that I just demanded, given the last minute nature of my work on this speech, I may need help, at various points, from some of your teachers. Faculty, will you help me?

You might rightly wonder, what self-respecting person would accept a last minute invitation?

I could and should have pretended to be too busy or told Mr. Hill I’d have to see if I could clear my calendar, or get my people to call his people and discuss my conditions…a limo to pick me up, a year’s supply of Tandem Bagels, an honorary Williston diploma, a refund on the tuition I paid for my son’s Williston education, OR a one year moratorium on the use of the words…Purpose, Passion, and Integrity.

How about that last possibility?

In any case, I did no negotiating. Sorry. It is Purpose, Passion and Integrity for you all year long.

So with little hesitation and no negotiation I accepted Mr Hill’s request to step in for the real Convocation speaker for two reasons, one sentimental, and one cynical.

First sentiment…I accepted because of the enormous gratitude I feel to Williston for the ways people at this school cared for, and cared about, my son Ben, who graduated in 2014. Ben was a good-not-great student at Williston; a good-not-great baseball player; and a great comedian. Ben practiced his comedy everywhere on campus, including most especially the library. Mr Teller developed such a special relationship with Ben that my son was awarded the senior superlative “Most Liklely to be Kicked Out of the Library.”

But more about caring in a minute.

The other reason I accepted Mr. Hill’s last minute invitation was because I recalled how much Ben disliked this ceremony. He found it a bit pretentious and he intensely disliked having to dress up for the occasion. He used to complain that the Convocation speeches were too long and too boring. So I thought that I had nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up.

But mostly I accepted because I was confident that none of you would long remember what I said today.

To illustrate this point let me ask if any of the seniors assembled here whether they can remember who gave last year’s Convocation address or the address in 2014 or anything about what those people said.

Any members of the faculty want to give it a try?

To refresh your recollections…The speaker at the 2015 Convocation was John P. Booth. And, among the things he said, was that he had been tormented by having a name closely associated with the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

In 2014 the speaker was Julius Pryor III who talked about his book, Thriving in a Disruptive World.

For a minute I considered talking about one of my books…Maybe Sentencing White Collar Criminals or perhaps Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, or one that I knew you would all enjoy, Divorce Lawyers and Their Clients

How liberating. I get to talk at you, with little time to prepare, utterly confident that my words will not lodge themselves in the part of your brain where long term memories are stored. (Call on Mr. Choo).

What part of the brain stores long term memory? The cerebral cortex.

So here I am a substitute, a relief pitcher, an understudy suddenly and unexpectedly asked to play a leading role.

Let me be clear, despite the lateness of the invitation, I am really pleased to be here to help launch you on what I hope will be a very successful academic year.

Thinking that one day I’d have an opportunity like this would have been unimaginable to me when I was in high school. Back then I wasn’t cool, or popular or particularly comfortable speaking in front of crowds.

If I’d won a senior superlative it would only have been for being the Nerdiest kid in my high school class.

I was so nerdy that when I learned that my part in what was then called the senior class play required me to kiss Rena Rotenberg, the coolest girl in my high school class, I went straight to the public library looking for books about kissing and stood in front of the mirror for hours practicing various lip positions.

And, just to show that you I might still win an award for nerdiness, after I got off the phone with Mr. Hill and thought about being a substitute or an understudy, I went to the dictionary and looked up the definition of substitute. Here is what I found…

A substitute is a person or thing acting or serving in place of another.

So far so good, but the example offered didn’t life my spirits…‘soy milk is used as a substitute for dairy milk.’

Undeterred, I read on to find that our word substitute derives from Late Middle English (denoting a deputy or delegate) and from Latin (call on Ms. Cody)

Substitutus put in place of past participle of substituere, based on statuere, meaning to “set up.”

Aha, I now I got it, this invitation was a “set up.” Mr. Hill’s revenge for my failure to make sufficiently large contributions to the school’s annual fund.

Finally, things looked up when I found the following definition of substitute… In psychology a substitute is a person or thing that becomes the love object when someone is deprived of its natural outlet.

So think of me as an object of love…hence the earlier request for a standing ovation.

If I am a substitute, I guess I am also an understudy. Call on Emily.

Doing a bit of searching for things about being an understudy I learned such valuable facts as that the 110th episode of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld was called theThe Understudy.” It aired on May 18, 1995.

And, I found a YouTube video of a song “The Understudy” sung by Jessica Patty. Take out your phones and Google it.

But, once my nerdy research was done I still faced the bleak task of figuring out what I could say to help launch your year.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to say because people of my generation just do not understand yours. Maybe it is a chronic disease, this lack of understanding between the younger generation and the older one. But, I think there is something special and deep about our generation gap.

Take social media…Snap Chat, or Instagram, or Yick Yak or Facebook. How many of you use social media?

In conversation, many of you won’t tell us older people anything. Our conversations often go like this:

“How was school?” we ask.

“Good,” you say.

“What did you do at school today?” we continue hopefully.

“Stuff,” you respond.

Growing more desperate we pick a subject and press. “How about History? What did you study in history today?”

Quietly, quickly you say “The past.”

End of conversation!

In contrast, on social media like Facebook, you become regular chatterboxes, posting about everything from your athletic triumphs, to your social life (announcing to the world when you are “in a relationship”). You’ll even share the earth shattering news about some food you’ve eaten. And, you seem to think that no occasion means anything unless it can be photographed and posted online.

Maybe you are willing to share so much because there is some unwritten Facebook rule that says that no one is allowed to ask questions like “How was school?” or “What did you do at school today,” or “How about History? What did you study in history today?”

And, for my generation being a friend actually that you knew someone well and relied on them in good times and bad.

Members of your generation just sign up online for friendship. You count your friends like shepherds count sheep, and you list how many friends you have on your Facebook page.

If that wasn’t enough to mark our generation gap, there is the so called music you like…Alternative Rock, Hip Hop, Rap, whatever…

Writing about the great musicians of my generation–Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Lennon-the music critic David Hajdu recently noted that for them and for many great artists, the high school years were a “formative age. You’re in high school,” he continued, “confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool.”

Hadju went on to say that “Every age makes its own kind of genius. For hints of what the cultural giants of the future will be doing in their own time, we’d be well served to look in the high school lockers of today.”

If we looked in your lockers to see the cultural products you think are “cool” we’d probably conclude that you don’t like any music unless it is “sung,” if that is the right word, by someone who has been to, or is now, in prison, like Little Wayne, T-I, Maino, T-Pain, Snoop Dogg, Young Jezzy, Tory Lanez, or DJ Kaled.

In my generation, we had music with lyrics you actually could understand and remember. As the late Beatle John Lennon once sang…..

“Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today”

That was music. Those were lyrics.

So, let’s just say that I can’t pretend to understand what makes your generation tick, but I do think I understand both what makes teachers tick and what teachers at Williston will try to do with you this year.

In a word, imagination is at the center of their work.

Williston teachers do not just know and love the you they see everyday. When they are doing their job, your teachers work hard to see parts of you that you do not yet see. They call you to be selves that you have not yet discovered.

They imagine what you can be and call you to live up that imagining.

During this year, when Mr. Choo or Mr. Berghoff ask you to do a lab report, or Ms. Conroy or Ms. Baldwin ask you to redo a problem set, or Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Hanford insist that you develop your own voice as readers of literature and as literary critics, or when Mr. Johnson works you hard until you finally know the difference between utilitarian and deontological arguments in Ethics, it won’t be just to make sure you have no time to veg out or grab a slice of pizza at Antonio’s.

It will be because the hope to call a better, harder working self out of you, a self that will serve you well when you go to colleges or universities like Northeastern or Kenyon or Gettysburg or Wheaton.

Good teachers keep their imaginings of you alive no matter how hard you make it for them to do so.

Good teachers dare you to become they won’t just let you be.

It would, of course, be easier on you if they’d let you be.

What you might not understand is that it would be easier on your teachers as well. They’d have to invest less of themselves in bringing out the best in you.

The truth is that the gift of a teacher is to dream. What sustains many of Williston’s best teachers is their dreams of you. “You may say that I’m a dreamer,” John Lennon sang fifty years ago, “But I’m not the only one.” What he sang then, could be sung today about the faculty of this school.

In addition to their dreams, your teachers will want you to dream and to imagine worlds not yet glimpsed. They will want you to cultivate your imagination so you can truly understand.

They will want you to do more than just know the names of the four original members of George Washington’s cabinet. They will want you to imagine how they felt as they forged the governing institutions of a new nation. (Call on Mr. Gunn. Name the four original members of Washington’s cabinet.)

Your teachers will want you to do more than just know about Odeipus’s dilemma; they will want you to imagine how he felt as tragedy unfolded all around him.

They will want you to do more than just know about the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. They will want you to imagine the world of the terrorists who perpetrated that attack.

In addition, your teachers will encourage, prod, and urge you to imagine the world as you would want it to be.

Remember the quotation from Einstein. Einstein got it right when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

And, when Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” he captured the flavor of the dreams of inspired and inspiring teachers.

These are dreams of you, their students, and dreams that your teachers want you to have as well. This work of imagining the best in you and of asking you not just to know but to imagine as well, these are the most important things that Williston’s faculty will do with you this year.

Before I end let me move from discussing the place of imagination in the work of teaching to say something about the importance of teachers showing how much they care in the education they provide.

At first glance, Maxwell’s quote, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” leaves open the question of what it is that students want their teachers to care about—the school, the subjects they teach, and/or their students.

But, I think what the play on words really suggests is that students will only care how much their teachers know when they know that their teachers care for and about them.

Seems simple, but it is anything but simple.

Teachers, even Williston teachers, are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.

And working with teenagers, let’s face it, ain’t no beach party. You can be pretty surly and all too easily distracted by the urges of adolescent romance. And you are all too ready to complain about being bored.

You and your families may expect the Williston faculty to devote their every waking moment to guaranteeing your smooth passage into some prestigious institution of higher education.

You don’t always make it easy for teachers to show how much they care for and about you.

But, if my son’s experience here is any indication, your teachers are eager, if you’ll give them half a chance, to show you how much they care about you so you’ll be able to show how much you care about what they know and what they have to teach.

I’ve seen it first hand…

in the way Ms. Marsland worked to make my shy, quiet eighth grade son relax and feel comfortable during his admissions interview,

or in the way Mr. Sawyer worked hard to find a place where Ben could succeed as a Williston baseball player,

or in the flowers that Mrs. Sawyer brought for Ben and her other students after each of their theater performances,

or in Mr. Tujela’s unbelieveble patience and generosity in working out academic accommodations after Ben sustained a serious concussion in a collision on the baseball field,

or in Mrs. Conroy’s efforts to find ways to engage Ben in learning math, his least favorite subject, by connecting with him over their shared passion for college basketball,

and finally in Emily Ditkovski’s deep investment in nurturing Ben’s talents as an actor and comedian.

But for Emily, Ben would be well on his way to a successful and prosperous career in investment banking instead of on his sway to a career in improv where performers in even the best improv groups in the country get paid nothing at all.

Thanks for that Emily.

So, here is my hope for your year…that you’ll help your teachers imagine what you might become as they help you imagine worlds that do not yet exist.

And that you’ll be lucky enough to find your way to teachers like Ms. Marsland, Mr. Sawyer, Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Tuleja, Ms. Conroy, and Ms. Ditkovski, each of whom will show you how much they care for and about you.

Oh, and one last thing, before the next standing ovation.

I have an assignment for you. Before you leave the Quad tonight, find one of your teachers, hug him or her and whisper, “Thank you for imagining. Thank you for dreaming. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being my teacher.”

 

 

 

 

 

Ward Metal Recipient Ed Michael Reggie ’71

Ed. note: Ed Michael Reggie ’71 received the Ward Medal at a special assembly on May 13, 2016, in the Phillips Stevens Chapel. Read more here.

Ward Metal Winner Ed Michael Reggie '71//Photo by Joanna Chattman
Ward Metal Winner Ed Michael Reggie ’71//Photo by Joanna Chattman

I am here to talk to you today about “Doing Good Well.” But I would like to say upfront that when it comes to giving back, I say no. And I encourage you to say no.

That’s right—I am saying don’t give back. So does that make me a heartless capitalist? How can I tell you not to give back? And with an attitude like mine, how did I even end up here before you this morning? Well, it wasn’t always a sure thing that I’d graduate from Williston much less end up here accepting this award. Let me tell you why.

I arrived at Williston from a small Cajun town in Louisiana when I was 15-years-old. If ever there was a fish out of water, I was it. Some of you here no doubt know the feeling.

It was the 1970s and it was a time of great turbulence in the world and here on campus.

In my senior year, I was elected student body president. And I protested everything from the war in Vietnam to the food we were being served.

So I got kicked out of school two months before graduation. I was only permitted to graduate if I completed and passed an independent study project – at home. I was banned from campus until graduation.

I ended up focusing my project on the history of banking in my parish – or as it is known in the 49 other states, my county. That topic –the history of banking – might not sound too exciting, but it allowed me to graduate from Williston. And it also started me on my career path.

After Williston, I graduated from college with a degree in Finance, then an MBA from Tulane. I became a banker in one of those parishes. I rose through the ranks to become bank president and made my living by making loans to small businesses.

I lent money to farmers borrowing to plant their crops. I lent money to chefs to open restaurants. I lent money to musicians looking to start their own jazz clubs – yes, I was in New Orleans! It was a great way to learn about business while at the same time giving people the financial backing to pursue their dreams. Eventually I left banking to found my first start-up business – a healthcare company.

Now during these early years of my career, I didn’t have a sophisticated approach to how I donated money. I followed the crowd. I gave without much thinking and mostly to those charities around me that asked.

But after selling my healthcare company, I became a venture capitalist. And my attitudes toward giving started to change.

So what is a venture capitalist? Answer: An early stage investor in new companies. When a new company is showing early signs of success, it almost always needs additional money to grow. And often these companies turn to a venture capitalist that needs to be skilled at evaluating start-ups to ensure that those in which they invest money have a viable plan and have demonstrated early success. We strike out a lot more times than we hit homeruns though.

And even though my company – it’s called Future Factory – primarily funds our own ideas, we do sometimes fund other startups. I’ve been pitched a thousand times by start-ups hoping to become the next Google. Now Google, of course, wouldn’t have become Google without venture capital. And it is not alone. Amazon, Facebook, Snapchat – to name just a few – all have benefitted from venture capital funding at critical times in their histories.

When you think of those names and consider that venture capital has also funded numerous other companies and is helping to fund new drugs to fight diseases, you can get a sense of the power of venture capital.

It is transformational. It has funded catalytic change in our society. And I’d argue, change for the good. So as I was developing my expertise in venture capital, I was beginning to re-think my approach to giving.

In 2003, I went to Haiti to observe a nonprofit organization called Freedom From Hunger. And it blew my mind. I saw this nonprofit making micro-loans to small business people:

  • A $40 dollar loan for a farmer raising chickens;
  • A $25 dollar loan to a baker selling bread in the market; and
  • A $50 dollar loan to a woman sewing and selling fish net.

These tiny loans were real and binding, and they were accompanied by an educational component. Most importantly, they had to be paid back. No handouts. Amazingly the repayment rate exceeded 99 percent. That’s a far higher repayment rate than banks ever get on loans in the U.S., and that is coming from the very, very poor.

You’ve heard the parable…Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed a man for a lifetime. That is what Freedom From Hunger is all about.

Yes, real sustainable businesses were being created that helped raise the living standards not just of the borrower and her family, but of the village as well. Seeing this system in action excited me and pointed me in a new philanthropic direction. Can you see how I looked at it? This micro-lending to third-world, poor business people was just another form of venture capital. The results – like venture capital – were very measurable.

How many loans got paid back? How many new businesses were created? Let’s measure how living standards were changed in the village after one year, after three years, after five years. And guess what followed? Savings programs. These business people actually started putting small amounts of money away. Real village banks were being created.

What I saw clearly in Haiti was that we had a long-term solution to poverty – a self-sustaining solution. Not just parachuting airdrops of food and medical supplies. Don’t get me wrong, those are vital. But capital is critical.

I was so impressed I served on the board of directors of Freedom From Hunger for 12 years. I also was a founding board member of two other micro-lending entities. I believed, and still believe, that micro-lending is huge and transformative. And it wasn’t surprising to me that the father of micro-finance, Mohammed Yunus of Bangladesh, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He has championed a new, more effective way to achieve transformational change.

And that is my main point — philanthropy should have as its aim the same goal venture capital has – to maximize return on investment. In the case of philanthropy, that means effecting transformational change.

But in today’s prevailing view, a philanthropist can be celebrated for giving away millions of dollars to a charity, but still not have advanced the cause very much at all. Why? Too many times there is no measurable proof that this big gift will result in real positive change. Donating is not an outcome. It is what happens with that money that creates outcomes!

I mean, do we care how much money was spent in creating a restaurant? No, we care only if it is good. Do we celebrate the people who put a ton of money into that restaurant? No, we celebrate great restaurants and those who make them happen, only when the outcome is excellent. If the outcome is failure, the money invested was a big waste.

Shouldn’t the same apply to philanthropy? The outcome is what matters much more than how much was given. Smart giving is what I am talking about. Big gifts are wonderful, but only if they are smart.

Consider that billions of dollars of aid were donated in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. But what happened to all that money? All those donations helped build important infrastructure like roads, bridges and buildings. But they didn’t provide much opportunity for Haitians themselves.

To me, that’s like spending a lot of money on new computer hardware, but not spending anything on new software – the operating system. Humans are the operating system.

What if some of those dollars had been directed to entrepreneurs in Haiti? What if those entrepreneurs had a great invention or an idea that would have helped or employed hundreds or even thousands of people, possibly raising employee wages and living standards in whole communities? Considering on average that most Haitians only earn $3 dollars a day (those that have jobs, that is), this could have been a game changer for so many lives.

Do you think that would be possible? Well, let’s think about how things changed when an entrepreneur in the U.S. did just that. Let’s talk about Henry Ford.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile or even the assembly line, but he was able to transform and revolutionize society by creating a company that was able to mass produce cars. Funding his dream were businessmen who were inspired by his vision.

Now does anyone bemoan the fact that Henry Ford wasn’t running a charity?

Probably not his employees at the time. He doubled their wages to $5 dollars a day to reduce turnover at his factory. And in doing that, he raised their living standards and actually turned them into car customers. That is transformational change.

Now what if those businessmen who backed Henry Ford had decided instead to invest their money in local charities during that time? A local shelter? A church to help the needy?

Certainly, those would have been worthwhile contributions, but the magnitude of positive change in the community would have been dwarfed in comparison to investing with Ford. Why shouldn’t the wealthy invest in innovations and at the same time create more wealth for those around them?

Why shouldn’t they and we be focused on the outcomes – catalytic change to save and improve lives; to raise living standards and help rescue those in poverty. Educate students. Cure diseases. Imagine if that had been done in Haiti.

It has been reported by The National Cancer Institute that more than $90 billion a year is being spent on the war against cancer and that there are 260 U.S. nonprofits fighting cancer. In addition many for-profit pharmaceutical companies and start-up firms are spending significant money to find a cure. One of my startups right now is running clinical drug trials across the country testing new medications.

Does it really matter to you who finds the cure first? The objective has to be the cure. Sometimes that cure might come from a for-profit company. I don’t care where it comes from. I just want great outcomes.

Last year, $60 billion dollars of venture capital was invested in start-up companies.

$360 billion dollars – six times more – was given to charities.

But consider that less than 10 percent of charities rigorously measure whether their programs are working or not, according to a University of Chicago study. So, in my humble opinion, most charities need to up their game if they want our money.

So if instead of $360 billion dollars going to charities, what if those dollars went to investing in entities – non-profit and for-profit companies – aimed at generating measurable improvements in society?

Entrepreneurs like billionaire Google CEO Larry Page are thinking about this idea. He has said that upon his death, he would prefer Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, to inherit his fortune rather than leaving it to his heirs or a non-profit. Page believes Musk is the kind of visionary whose ideas will do untold amount of good for the world. Would replacing gasoline-powered cars with vehicles powered by alternative energy be a transformational change for the betterment of our society? That is what Elon Musk is doing at Tesla.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It is structured as a company rather than a charitable foundation so it can fund non-profit organizations and make for-profit investments in its effort to advance human potential. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg might invest his $45 billion dollars and deliver better outcomes than a typical charity would? Think about it.

I wouldn’t sell Zuckerberg short.

But as I have said, we’ve gotten stuck on this notion that we are doing good only when we are giving lots of money. That is not enough! We must measure the impact of that investment.

You can bet that many philanthropists who give without demanding a plan and measurable results are wasting their money. Remember, only 10 percent of charities measure whether their programs actually work.

Add to that: we focus on “giving back” as if we are guilty of having a past due debt to society. We owe the community.

Instead, we should focus on the idea of giving as a wonderful voluntary act of generosity, not the paying off of some imaginary debt. Skip the guilt and let’s proactively give to those that convince us – prove to us – that they are positive agents in making society better.

Give forward. Yes, I am telling you to give forward.

Become an evangelist, tell your parents and promote giving with a focus on transformative results, not just what feels good. And when you are giving, make sure you’ve evaluated who you are giving to and why. Measure their success – or lack of it.

I give to Williston because it is an agent of change that is indeed making the world a better place. I know. It changed my life. And having served as a board member for 10 years, treasurer for eight, and having participated in writing the school’s last two strategic plans, I have taken its full measure. I urge you to read the most recent plan. See the benchmarks that Williston has established to measure its success.

I believe in Williston’s goals and believe this school is headed for a greater future and its students – you – will help us in our efforts to build a better society.

So, I ask you, my fellow Willies, to please join me. Don’t give back. Give forward.

Again, thank you so very much.

[Ed. note: see photos of the Ward Medal Assembly at our Flickr page.]