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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.


Head of School Commencement Address 2016

Williston Northampton Commencement
175th Graduation
May 29, 2016

Good morning and welcome to The Williston Northampton School’s 175th Commencement.   Welcome to parents, families, guests, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff.

I want to begin this morning, as we have in the past, by recognizing that this ceremony falls on Memorial Day weekend and so I would ask that we begin with a moment of silent reflection for all those who give their lives in service to our country.

Thank you. And Welcome Classes of 2019, 2018, 2017—having you all here under the tent brings us together as a community one more time and makes sure that important traditions are transmitted from seniors to the classes that follow. And for you Class of 2016, the two weeks of celebration are coming to a close and our attention turns to you.

Yesterday during our Academic Awards Ceremony, I asked the audience to acknowledge Williston’s incredibly dedicated teachers who work so tirelessly and selflessly to help students achieve their goals. Class of 2016, you did not get to where you are today without support, love, and guidance. In that spirit, there are a lot of people at this ceremony just for you–parents, relatives, guardians, and friends. So I ask 2016 that you stand, turn around, and face the audience to show your collective appreciation to those who are here today.

As I look out at the 132 members of the Class of 2016 I know that some of you have been here six years and have literally grown up in front of our eyes–if you don’t believe that, think of, Abbie Foster or Nate Gordon’s pictures in Friday’s athletic awards ceremony.

Others of you, like Matt Folger or Rylee Leonard have been here for one short action packed year of engagement, leaving your mark in the classroom and on the fields. And some of you, like Maddy Scott, really don’t want to leave at all.

But high school years being what they are, and with adult freedom beckoning, I know that some of you have the Vietnam-era protest anthem in mind “We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place….” And that’s ok too.

Since this is the last time I get to speak to you as a class together, and since Commencement is all about imparting words of wisdom that you forget by the time you get to lunch, I’m going to ask you a question.

Why would you want to leave Williston, seriously? Think about it: No more ECBs or late night Diner runs; no more slices of Antonio’s chicken, bacon, and ranch; no more sightings of Imran hustling late to check in.

Do you really want to leave Williston? Who will instill in you the important life-long value of being part of a team, that when you put on a Williston jersey you represent your school, something bigger than yourself? If you had Mr. Ketcham for AP Biology, what college professor will could inspire you to call exams “opportunities?” Who among you might actually miss the attention you get when Mr. Koritkoski asks you to stop wearing a baseball hat inside school buildings.

Do you really want to leave Williston? What about those times with your best friends, the ones whom you hope to see at reunions just as you observed Williston alumni doing on campus a few weeks ago. Or what about those times in October when you look at the pond and see the foliage reflected back as if in a mirror. Think of all that you are going to be leaving behind.

Now let’s think for a moment about the adult world you are going to enter. This is a world of dissension and name calling. A world where you have to pay your own rent, consider the cost of a gallon of gas before a road trip, take your hat off before you enter your bosses office.

You might not realize this now, sitting here under the big tent, but as soon as you graduate from Williston a quantum change will take place with respect to how those college professors and university administrators perceive you.   They will see you as a full-blown adult, solely responsible for your words and deeds. If you miss class, mom or dad cannot call the deans’ office to get it excused. If you don’t get playing time in a game, no college coach will be speaking to your parents about that. If you mess up, your adviser will not be there for you the same way Ms. Marsland magically seems to appear whenever needed. And you still really want to leave Williston?

But you have to go, and pretty soon. You must leave Williston behind you and that’s as it should be.  This is one of those boundary moments that you learned about in literature or psychology where you cross a threshold and there is no turning back—you all read The Great Gatsby.

And if I were to be really honest right now, we are ready for you to go—we’ve done our job, hopefully really well, of preparing you for all of those challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Our honored speaker is here today from her home in Seattle, Washington, to explain how all of this works. For some of you it will be a straight line, for others a crooked path

Nonie Cream graduated from Williston in 1990, when the first president Bush was in office. She carries a Williston diploma with pride and traces some of her most meaningful life influences to her alma mater and teachers who remain friends to this day. Ms. Cream is an entrepreneur, successful business woman, creative talent, and most importantly a loyal Willy. I won’t spoil too much of her biography for you, but I hope she tells us whether being dubbed a “Fashionista” is a good thing or not. In any event, after a highly successful career with the famous brand Butter London, Ms. Cream launched out on her own—a fiercely independent impulse that she has had her whole life. Please join me in welcoming back, Nonie Cream.

Closing remarks:

This really is a big moment for you the Class of 2016. Not only are you leaving Williston but your setting forth corresponds to a national election—I think even the youngest of you will be able to cast your first vote for President of the United States. Most people, no matter how old recall their high school graduation, and the same can be said for your first presidential vote. You are more than ready to be serious citizens of the world, and I wish to close with a traditional Williston prayer.

Regardless, as you think about your time at Williston, I bet that each of you feels a sense of time’s compression, the compacting that takes place in your mind’s thumb drive as you reflect on the countless events that have happened in your Williston career.

I am equally certain that whether you think of one of your best moments or one of your most challenging, you will recall a teacher figuring prominently in that memory. Yes, Williston is a place defined by 194 Main, or Ford House, or John Wright, or other spaces of significance, but its true essence lies in its people.

Think about it this way: each of you seniors has worked with a teacher, coach, or adviser to achieve conspicuous victories and imperceptible transformations. While it is perhaps easier to recognize and celebrate those larger public events, conversely, it is harder to identify and therefore acknowledge those subtler and maybe even more important moments that have changed you, altered your course, changed the way you think.

Perhaps it was a new way of solving a math problem, or perhaps you broke out of your circle of friends to get to know someone who just might impact your life many years from now. Whatever it might be, I hope that you take reflect on your Williston experience so that it can become a touchstone for you in college and the years beyond.

Living as we do in this digital age, your cell phones or iCloud accounts are probably filled with digital reminders of your time at Williston. You guys are the Snap Chat generation, but sometimes I worry that what should be a direct human interaction has become a digital one. I worry that a string of emoticons takes the place of a good one-on-one conversation. I worry that a quick re-tweet takes the place of thoughtful discourse or deeply held convictions. The way to avoid these de-humanizing tendencies, I would caution you, is to hold onto the things you learned here at Williston. Your teachers have taught you to be independent thinkers, patient problem solvers, unselfish team mates, good citizens who strive to live by our universal values of respect for self and others, responsibility and trust, honesty and integrity.

As I look out at you seniors I cannot help thinking that you are crossing a double thresh hold–your graduation from high school coincides with your ability to vote in your first national election. Both of these are what I like to call boundary moments–

Senior Dinner Moment of Silence by Dean of Students Kathy Noble

As we gather together on this beautiful evening to celebrate the seniors for the first time, the great Class of 2016, I’d ask that we take a moment to remember and honor those that have come before us through the Williston gates, as they have passed onto us a wonderful legacy. May we admire their sacrifices and triumphs and appreciate their efforts on our behalves.

And looking forward, may we take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the good will, many friendships, and strong bonds that exists among so many of us in the room this evening, faculty and students alike of the Williston community. With optimistic enthusiasm, it is our hope that each of us will continue to cultivate these ties and develop many new ones during the school year ahead.

As we prepare to share a wonderful meal together, may we take a moment to reflect and express our appreciation for the many opportunities that are available to each of us at Williston and all that is good in our daily lives.

Academic Award Remarks 2015 by Head of School Bob Hill

Editor’s note: The following Award Ceremony Welcome was presented by Robert W. Hill III on May 23, 2014.

Good afternoon and a special welcome to parents, families, guests, and to all of our students gathered to celebrate the essence of our lives at Williston: academic accomplishments. I enjoy the last two weeks of the year—even as I live in mortal terror for seniors as they get closer to Commencement—since the last two weeks bring us together numerous times to honor our students. Hard work, persistence, resilience, determination, integrity—whether in the classroom or in an extra-curricular pursuit—are traits that should always be praised and will take you far in life.

What a year it has been for Williston! Yesterday we celebrated the many athletic achievements at both the individual and team level for the spring term. Sports are always in the public eye and I confess to tweeting out scores or great plays as I see them (I do that, too, when I visit classrooms). I’ve always wondered what it must be like to dunk a basketball, or play on an undefeated hockey team, or be like Gabby and never see the back of another runner for six consecutive years. That was what crossed my mind yesterday.

But today, I think of the academic sphere. We witnessed acclaimed performances in the arts this year—recently our Teller Chorus, Cats, and Widdigers set a new high mark with “Frostiana.” Those of you who saw or performed in As You Like It know very well, the Williston Theatre is second to none. And the senior projects were amazing, whether you saw Gabe’s cool light show last night or Nick and Matt’s staging of “The Clean House,” or the Grubb’s Gallery exhibitions, or the integrated science presentations, the list goes on and on. This year teemed with incredible intellectual and creative accomplishments generated by students all year long—often outside of the public gaze.

But just as students, some of whom we will publicly recognize here this morning, work deep into the night, or spend countless hours perfecting a paper, a math proof, a lab assignment, so too do your teachers. You are supported every step of the way. Williston’s teachers are unique in my experience in the ends to which they go to advise, mentor, listen, and support their students. Last second extra help? No problem. Another draft of a college essay? No problem. Inspiring you with a desire to learn for the life long quest of becoming an informed, thoughtful, and relevant member of society? No problem. Your teachers sacrifice for you all the time, and never make you feel guilty about it the way we parents do. Please join me in thanking the Williston faculty who are arrayed behind me.

As I emcee today’s ceremony, I ask that you pay attention to the citations that are read and attached to names from Williston’s history. It’s good to remember, that what we celebrate today connects us to Williston’s past.

See the full list of academic award winners.

Dean of Students Kathy Noble Announces Election Results

On April 22, Dean of Students Kathy Noble announced the election results for class presidents at the Wednesday assembly.  Class representative elections (and there are four representatives per class) took place on Friday, May 1.

It is my privilege to announce the most newly elected class presidents following yesterday’s elections.

I’d ask that you join me in congratulation the President of the Class of 2018: Ms. Caroline Channell!

And the President of the Class of 2017: Mr. Cody Cavanaugh!

And finally, the President of next year’s senior class, Class of 2016: Mr. Nate Gordon!

I’d like to thank all of the candidates who ran in these elections and remind them (and others) that they are eligible to run for the four representatives’ seats in each class on the Student Council. Those individuals will speak to classmates during class assemblies on Friday, May 1 with an election to follow during lunch.

Please see your Class Deans for additional information.