John M. McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor of Sewanee: The University of the South, president emeritus of Middlebury College, and an eminent historian, delivered the following remarks at Williston Northampton School’s 176th Commencement on May 28, 2017.
“Happy Are Those Who Find Wisdom”
Good morning! It is a pleasure and honor to be with you today, a time of ends and beginnings and a moment to recognize, accept, and perhaps even to celebrate both the continuities and the ambiguities of lives, which always, if kept in proper balance, are poised like the classical figure of Janus (for whom the month of January is named), with one eye fixed on the past, certain, known, remembered, and the other eye trained on the future, uncertain, unknown, anticipated. You stand today athwart the course of what Isaac Watts’s beloved hymn refers to as “time’s ever rolling stream,” which will eventually “bear all our souls away.” Continue reading →
When I was 15, I ran away from home. Now, as you’ll get to know, when I decide to do something, I do not mess around, which is why our story begins in a Santa Fe jail cell. Turns out it’s illegal to be a minor on the run 900 miles from home.
It was around this time my folks said to me, “You seem like a decent kid, but this whole ‘living at home’ thing just isn’t working out,” and so “I” (and by that, I mean “they”) started looking at boarding schools. I mean, between boarding school and jail, it was kind of a no-brainer…
Frankly, I was a really messed up teenager. I had a total inability to control my emotions, and ZERO ability to censor, which got me into plenty of trouble. I just felt really, really angry almost all of the time. I hated my body, I hated my family, I hated my own insecurity, and the mere whiff of any form of authority sent me into a core meltdown. Off the record, I will admit that authority is something I still really struggle with…. Which is why I start companies and work for myself.
Anyway, the main criteria for my boarding school choices, was that they had to be FAR, FAR AWAY. That was about it. For me, looking at schools was scary and upsetting. I wasn’t going by choice, I felt alone, and as though I was drifting, aimless, and unwanted. I was 16.
When I came for my Williston interview, I was SO intimidated. Everyone on campus looked so grown up and sophisticated. I felt like a Southern yokel in mom jeans and a sweater from The Limited — which you are too young to know about, but trust me — it’s bad. I had never really left home before, (apart from all the running away of course…), but I was beginning to realize that there was a BIG difference between Texas and Massachusetts, and I wanted in. The deal was sealed when a really hot junior guy gave me my tour, and I was like “Mom, I’m going HERE”.
Thankfully, Williston felt the same. I’ll be honest here — my grades were NOT impressive, and it was probably a pretty close call, but what sticks with me, is that Williston recognized a kid with potential. It was no secret that I came with baggage, but Williston was ready to give me a nurturing, attentive home when my own home wasn’t viable, and that is where this story truly begins.
Like I said, I had never left home before, and let me tell you —I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a spoiled brat, which became pretty clear when I was informed that there was, in fact, not a maid service, and I would be washing my own clothes. I had never even touched a washing machine before. I felt like an idiot. Too proud to ask for help, I decided that the best course of action was to hide my dirty clothes in my bed, under the fitted sheet. (and yes, this is a totally true story) Slowly, I ran out of clothes. Underwear became a distant memory. I was panic stricken, when, at last, my roommate noted that my bed was a full foot taller than hers and STUNK.
And so, eating a big slice of humble pie, I finally asked my dorm dad, Mr. Tulejah, to show me how those mysterious machines in the basement worked. It sounds silly, but that small step toward independence set me on a course that undeniably helped begin my healing and growing process.
I’ll take a brief break from memory lane here, and tell you who I am now, so that you don’t call security and have me removed.
I have since helped start two beauty companies, one called Butter London, and the other, Colour Prevails, and I consult globally for every company you’ve ever bought a nail polish, lipstick, or mascara from. So, did I leave Williston and go to Columbia? Attend Harvard Business School? Nope. I just learnt some crucial lessons here that helped me not only get IN to college, but also helped me understand that a meaningful educational journey is based on more than just good grades.
I started my first ever beauty business as a penniless illegal alien in London. Why was I in London? Well, because I followed a British boy home and he was going to be a rock star, so clearly, I was never going to have to do anything as pedestrian as get a job. When rock-stardom eluded us, I would stand outside the subway station in the Financial District every morning with a basket full of nail supplies and hand out little scraps of paper with my number on them. By lunchtime, I’d be fully booked going from office to office doing desk-side manicures for the fancy businesswomen. Now, I couldn’t have known that filing nails for ten pounds would eventually lead to a 20 million dollar nail polish company, but the important take away is this:
FIGURE SHIT OUT. Don’t just stand there wringing your hands when life doesn’t throw a 4.0 at you. Plot a course, be brave, and put one foot in front of the other. That’s it. You don’t have to be the smartest, you don’t have to be the prettiest, you don’t need over 10k followers. You don’t have to know what you’ll be doing in five years, just know what you are doing today. Oh yeah, for those of you ignoring this speech and playing on your Iphone my Insta handle is @noniecreme
Eventually, I got so good at doing nails that a top London agent picked me up, and started sending me out to do nails for Vogue cover stories, London and New York Fashion Week, and people like Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moss. It’s worth noting that a manicure at Kate Moss’s house can take three days of your life, and you won’t remember anything when you get home. Which is probably for the best. Anyway, I used to hand-mix all of my polishes, and they became a sort of cult thing that everyone in London wanted.
I knew I needed a nail polish company to sell this stuff, but like I said, I have no business degree, and had NO IDEA how to raise money or start a company. And then I met a girl about my age, who DID have a business degree, and DID know how to do those things. The only problem was that she lived in Seattle, and I lived in London. We agreed to share the company, and shoot for the stars. Our first office was her kitchen, and I created the Butter London polish range with $5,000 and a whole lot of hand mixing. I left everything to do this. I left my amazing job — that I had created all by myself, I left my beautiful London apartment, and most importantly, I left my British husband IN the apartment when I left, and we were long distance for TWO YEARS after.
(Oh yeah, I married the rock star skater kid. Partially because I loved him, and partially because I was still really pissed at my parents)
If you want to do great things with your life, you better be prepared to take some very real risks. Even today, any of my projects or companies could go down at any moment, and I’ve crashed and burned as many times as I’ve succeeded. Trying things is scary. You may go broke a couple of times. Check. You may fail publicly. Check. You may have your doctor tell you that your endocrine system is collapsing from chronic stress and fatigue. Double check. But then you have a hit. You create a company or product that takes off, and the money pours in, and you get to be a rock star after all. Man, that’s a feeling that’s just indescribable for a kid that grew up thinking she was a loser and a no-hoper.
When I gave the commencement speech at my college, Scripps College, last year, and I opened by stating that I was probably the first straight C student to ever give the Commencement Address, so let me go all in here at Williston, and tell you that I was lucky if I ever made a C here.
But don’t think for one SECOND that I wasn’t learning. Grades are based on a series of tests that are meant to gauge academic progress. What they don’t gauge is personal growth. Only you know how smart you really are, and only you can choose to use that intellect to succeed. Make good grades or don’t, but PLEASE, I beg you, graduate!!!!
PS: It turns out that I’m super-duper smart, and I’m able to operate in the business realm with NO business degree, and NO prior experience. Just a big mouth and a great education that taught me SO MUCH despite my many efforts to fail. So, if you didn’t get into the college you wanted, or you’re scared you won’t, please know that you can still be the next Steve Jobs (Don’t drop out!), or Estée Lauder, or Donald Trump — OK, I’m totally kidding. I strictly forbid you from becoming the next Donald Trump.
Boarding school is a unique experience. People who don’t go to boarding school can never really understand what it’s like. You are forced to be an adult from a really young age. You have to manage situations where there would normally be an adult mediator, and you have to figure them out, in order to keep the peace. When I was living in Willy, I was a chubby Goth kid. I listened to Dag Nasty and Suicidal Tendencies — thank you Pat Burns — and pierced my own ears weekly until there was no lobe left to pierce.
Friendships saved my life. I came to Williston from a classic Southern day school where jocks and cheerleaders ruled, and anyone different got shut out.
One of my best friends at Williston was a dude, a soccer jock named Ashley, who wore head to toe LL Bean and although we had ZERO in common from a style standpoint, we loved and accepted each other completely. Everyone here did. Dee Griffin is still one of my best friends, and all I can say is that even as adult, she overlooks my Mohawk and the many bikers I bring to her NYC home and THANK GOD her fiancé is a detective on NYPD’s finest, because, damn it all, bikers just love to get arrested.
But don’t take my word for it — my Willy tribe are all right here, right now, today, because first of all, YOU are my tribe, and whether you like it or not, you are stuck with me now. And also because several of my 40-something year old gang got on planes, trains, and automobiles to come and be with me here today as I give this speech — 25 years after our commencement.
Now THAT is what I call showing up Williston style!!!!
It’s important in high school and college to try stuff. That’s why you are here. It’s absolutely acceptable to be a punk one semester and a Prep the next. To try lacrosse one season, and then switch to advanced cigarette smoking (I was the captain of that team) Exploring different parts of your personality will be an asset when you are out in the real world. Do you know what WON’T be an asset when you are out in the real world? A neck tattoo. Now there’s a really bad idea.
As a silver haired Rick-Owens-wearing 44-year-old mom, who lives with a Grateful Dead tattoo on her ass, and a piece of 1990s tribal work across her skull, I can tell you I’m right on this one. In fact, I will give you a million bucks if you can call me up at 40 and tell me you love the tattoo you got at Off The Map. Pierce whatever you want — holes heal. And no, you can’t just get tattoos removed. My Dead Head tramp stamp now looks like someone wiped it with Windex. “Removal” made that thing BIGGER, not smaller — how is that even possible?
Williston would not give up on me, even when I did. They knew I had smarts and knew I could make it, if I could just stay out of my own way long enough. They had to invent an entirely new level of triple-secret-last-chance-for-real-this-time probation for me when I went here, and there weren’t enough clipboards in the world to dissuade me from floating kegs down the Manhan — which may be why they filled it in. Sorry.
Every time I messed up, or self destructed, the Williston Administration would firmly, but kindly, step in, and remind me that I would not be happy if I got sent home. My home was here, and here is where I was kept safe and allowed to make mistakes in a controlled environment, so that I could learn from them and mature.
We were a sort of self-governing group of teens. We had eachothers’ backs, but when someone was acting like a jerk, they got schooled. Our dorm parents and the Admin were there to oversee, but most of my social skills and a lot of my business acumen were born after hours at Willy, or, let’s be honest, Ford, since that’s where I actually slept most of the time — where nightly forums on ALL subjects guided us toward adulthood.
Those are skills that I have to use every day in my business now. Don’t believe me? Then YOU try to tell Anna Wintour that yes, this is your natural hair colour, and oh by the way, you forgot the custom mixed nail polish you made for her. Then run.
I retain more friendships from Williston than from any other period in my life and I’ve lived, people. That’s proof of how critical this place is, and how critical these relationships are to you at this stage of your life. There are limited “grown ups” here, and although the ones that are here are awesome, it’s YOU who are raising each other, and YOU are doing a really fucking good job.
Go to college. Study all sorts of stuff, not just the stuff you think will land you the best employment. Remember that being an artist and being a business leader are NOT mutually exclusive. And above all, remember to trust yourself, because you are the most important person you know.
It’s not lost on me that there are many people out there who might say a woman who won’t dye her hair and wears a skinhead and a septum ring doesn’t belong in the beauty industry, and certainly couldn’t be the meaningful Founder of a multi-million dollar business.
Well, because of the love and support I received right here, at Williston, I have the confidence to say “Screw you, I can do anything I want.” And so can you, and so WILL you.
Congratulations Class of 2016! Go kick some ass.
For purposes of clarification, Butter London was founded in 2005 in Seattle WA. Nonie Creme came to the company several months later as Founding Creative Director, creating the now-famous nail lacquer line, and helping grow Butter London into a global entity.
Headmaster Hill, members of the board, alumni, teachers, staff, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, friends of the school, that guy who just wandered in thinking this was a wedding with an open bar, and of course graduating students of the class of 2015; it’s an honor to speak to you all on this auspicious day, a day that I have been dreading since Headmaster Hill invited me to speak.
Being asked by the Headmaster of your high school to do what’s basically an oral report is a nightmare for me—and I mean that literally. For DECADES I’ve had a recurring nightmare about returning to Williston to give a report and nobody tells me what it’s supposed to be about. So, thanks for making my most horrible dream come true. At least I am wearing clothes, because in the nightmare I am often naked — though sometimes I am dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader. Oh, God—I AM dressed like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, so perhaps the nightmare is coming true; which is good news for you, because that means you’ll all get to meet Sofia Vergara in a minute, and believe me, SHE won’t be dressed like Ruth Bader Ginsberg…
So, you did it, class of 2015! You are graduating! You have been looking forward to this day, your High School graduation day, for at least 13 years. That’s how long you’ve been going to school. Can you believe that? Thirteen years, for nine months a year, five days a week—or in some cruel, barbaric institutions six days a week.
Well, now it’s over. You are through with school forever. Congratulations. You will never again have to attend another class, read another book, or write another paper ot get up before noon.
Oh—wait a second. That’s right. You’re just graduating from high school. Now you’ve got to go to college. And then graduate school. And then post-graduate school. And then prison, which is seven days a week unless you get one of these cool ankle bracelets…
Hello and once again welcome to everyone who is here today.
For the first time, perhaps in my life, I feel wise. I feel as though, by this point in time, I have gained enough knowledge, gone through enough personal experiences, succeeded and failed enough times, that I have accumulated at least some valuable information that others can truly benefit from hearing. And of course, as I continue to grow, so will this wisdom, but for now, I am honored to be given the opportunity to share with you today some of these things that I have learned. `
Now, the graduating class already know what this speech is about. But for the rest of you here, and for those who have forgotten, let me recap: this speech, it’s going to be odd. This speech, it’s going to be different. And I hope, more than anything, that this speech will be memorable. Because, you see, too often I have witnessed speeches become lost in their own words – perhaps eloquently written, but in the years or even days following, you can’t seem to remember what they were about, you cannot recall those reflections, life lessons, and stories that the speaker referred to and referenced. The challenging part however, about trying to write a memorable speech for graduation is that it is impossible to expect one person to sum up the infinitely diverse experiences of many into a single, all-encompassing, climactic address – and so faced with this challenge, I cheated.
Good morning and welcome to The Williston Northampton School’s 174th Commencement. Welcome to parents, families, guests, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff.
I want to begin this morning, by recognizing that this ceremony falls on Memorial Day weekend. So I would ask that we begin with a moment of silent reflection for all those who gave their lives in service to our country.
So welcome Classes of 2018, 2017, 2016, and especially, you, the Class of 2015.
Yesterday during our Academic Awards Ceremony, I asked the audience to acknowledge Williston’s astonishingly committed teachers who work so tirelessly and selflessly to help students achieve their goals. No doubt that Purpose, Passion, and Integrity don’t exist without the guidance of this fine faculty. In that spirit, 2015, there are a lot of people who came here today just for you, because they love you and supported you–parents, relatives, guardians, and friends. So I ask that 2015 stand and face the audience to show your collective appreciation for all of those folks in attendance this morning.
Class of 2015, you have been hearing for the past two weeks—from just about everyone—to cherish the memories of your Williston experience. Seriously, how are you supposed to do that when your 32 gig iPhone has been flashing the warning that “storage for the device is at capacity.” What a downer of a message for this fine morning: “You have no more capacity for memory.” Let’s think about that: What if, in the middle of one of your most exciting academic moments at Williston, say in a class debate when Emmett and Bickerstaff were squaring off, that a little signal went out in your brain that said “you have exceeded storage for this device.” What do you do then? Are you supposed to rush over to tech support screaming for Mr. Lorenzati? He probably knows you are on your way anyway since we track you guys with a little chip in your Surfaces. Can your brain really be filled to capacity?