Not Your Typical Convocation Speech

“Depression and despair” are not words that you expect to hear repeated by a typical rose-colored glasses wearing speaker at a Convocation address. But last Friday, Professor Shamus Khan of Columbia University greeted the Williston community with just those words as spoke about inequality in America and what that means for the teenagers who were assembled before him. 

A prominent sociologist whose book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite garnered national attention, Khan said that he would not be giving a typical convocation address, and he certainly did not disappoint. Asking students to confront the realities of an economic system in which there are growing disparities between groups of wage earners, Khan urged students to “stay in school” since education level has been shown to predict later economic success. He also encouraged students to maintain a degree of humility towards those who don’t enjoy the same privileges.

Williston graduates have a long tradition of “doing good well,” and it may be that some of our students will be inspired to explore questions similar to those Khan raised in his speech (watch it here). He did say, though, he can’t help them get into college when he self-deprecatingly warned, “Don’t ask me for a letter of recommendation to Columbia, because it won’t help you.” The passion he brings to dry and depressing census data clearly serves a greater purpose to society. Khan’s speech drew laughs, but judging by the number of students who sought him out during the dinner and reception that followed, he also added significantly to his fan base from Williston.

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Remembering the Past, Reflecting on the Future

On Sunday, amid the bustle of registration and opening day activities, our school paused to reflect on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. At 10:28 a.m. the Phillips Stevens Chapel bells tolled, signifying the time when the second tower collapsed and bringing a moment of silence to our beautiful campus.

The spectacular, sunny day was eerily reminiscent of the one ten years ago that changed the world our students inherit. As I paused on the banks of the Williston Pond, one of my favorite places on campus, I noted that the stillness of the water reflected the silence around me (OK, so there were a couple of cars going by). To my right, across street and in front of Whitaker-Bement, the American flag fluttered in a calm wind.

My thoughts turned necessarily to family, friends, and then to our students, whose intellectual and moral development and what they do with their lives will shape the character of our nation for decades to come.

Members of the Class of 2015, who are at Becket-Chimney Corners on an orientation trip as part of our Ninth Grade Program, also paused to recognize the anniversary of an event in history that occurred when they were just beginning kindergarten.

Though this saying has been made trite by campaign rhetoric, our students really are our future. Purpose, Passion, and Integrity, the triad of ideals that forms Williston’s mission statement, serves as our compass as we begin anew together the shaping of our future.


Here, Ninth Grade Program co-coordinator and English teacher Matt Sawyer reads a memorial to ninth grade students during orientation.

What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?

A recent New Yorker cartoon pictures a boy in front of his traditional grade school class, standing beside the imposing teacher’s desk with the conventionally dressed teacher behind it. The caption reads: “Anyone following me on Twitter already knows what I did this past summer.”

On many different levels, this cartoon speaks volumes about the educational world students these days. They really do “tweet” or Facebook-post, or blog about their summer experiences, especially when these experiences happen far afield and they wish to share and remain in touch with family and friends.

The “show and tell” moments that some of us remember from our own elementary school days are now as archaic as a rotary telephone (pull one out if you have one and show it to a teenager to see how they react if you don’t believe me).

Williston students, as I have discovered with delight these days during their return to campus, have been all over the globe and the U.S. during the summer months. They have undertaken service learning projects, family holidays, internships, camps, jobs, you name it.

We live in a time of highly energized, motivated, and idealistic teenagers who embody our newly adopted mission statement:

The Williston Northampton School inspires students to live with purpose, passion, and integrity.

Our students’ purposeful pursuit of an interest or passion during the summer months energizes the Williston community upon their return, and I, for one, cannot wait to get things started in earnest over the course of the coming days.

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Proctors and new students stopped by my house during registration and filled me in on their summer activities.