Baccalaureate 2012

Baccalaureate Speech on June 1, 2012 by Glenn Swanson

We gather here this evening to participate in a traditional ceremony that dates to the Middle Ages when institutions were formed to pursue academic learning under the guidance of the Christian church in Europe. It was called a Baccalaureate Service. Tomorrow we have what we have traditionally called a Commencement. Many of us who work in schools are fascinated, to varying degrees, with words. Commencement, meaning a beginning, is actually our closing ceremony, but seniors– you understand even now that while it will be an ending of this segment of your life it is merely a transition to a new segment. It is more of a joyous occasion, a celebration with speeches, diplomas, hugs and tears that all signify a good-bye.

But tonight is really a solemn occasion, a reflection on the past, befitting the end of one era and the realization that tomorrow is really appropriately a commencement of a new era.  These two events are bookends of a very brief period of time, perhaps 16 hours, but there is certainly at least one more bookend on the beginning of this shelf of experiences, whether you started as a 7th grader or a 12th grader. A few of you seniors, but also including most others in the audience, and my colleagues in attendance, have already had a commencement at the end of your high school career, but I think you will find, if not now then later, that this one will have at least as much meaning as the previous one.

Now while this is more of a solemn occasion and tomorrow is more of a joyous occasion, it does not preclude a little of the other in the presence of the one. You will find a dignity in both tonight and tomorrow, but in all things we seek balance. You students, as do I at some moments, may find a bit of irony in seeing me pronounce solemnity and dignity, when it is not particularly in my nature as a classroom teacher or man about campus. Students in my class have been known to laugh, to find amusement in my mistakes, to have smiled at my quirks. You may also recall the other end of that spectrum as I from time to time have demanded excellence or better work or more attention to what we are doing.

So while this evening comes down on the serious side, I will be disappointed if I don’t at some point get at least a smile from everyone in attendance, even those who have no idea who I might be.

Nevertheless, you will have noticed your surroundings and seen further evidence of the solemnity of the occasion.  Not only am I still wearing a tie under this garment, but I am wearing this black robe with a hood which signifies the academic nature of my position. So too are all my colleagues. You seniors have all dressed up, even beyond those occasions when you are going off to play some athletic event on game day. I marched in carrying a symbol, known as the Mace, a pike-like creation to announce the presence of a leader, in the old days a king, but we did away with that in 1776. The Head of School wears a symbolic representation of his office, informally known as the Holy Hubcap. These symbols are actually relatively new to the school; that is to say they are newer than when I graduated in 1964. We sometimes work hard to remake connections to a past long since faded away.

The first Baccalaureate service was likely held at Oxford University in Oxford, England in 1432, and in some cases graduating students receiving their Bachelor’s Degree—the bacca part—had to give a speech in Latin before they received their laurels—the laureate piece. Because the universities were connected to the Christian Church and because the Renaissance was the rebirth of classical learning, the Baccalaureate appropriately combined the power of the church with the traditional search for wisdom through learning.

Although the role of the Church has diminished in many institutions, the solemnity of the event and the reflection on the past remain a key part of our own Baccalaureate service.

We expect to give you, the seniors, a diploma each tomorrow—a piece of paper rather than a wreath of laurel—but we also know that you have a long way to go before you attain wisdom.

So tonight I ask that you reflect on those who have made this moment possible.  You may deserve most of the credit yourself, but I suspect that would rarely be true, even in the computer-like game that resides inside your head.

First are your parents, many of whom are here tonight to acknowledge the solemnity of this event.  Some of them are even smarter than you, though it may still take a few years before you realize that. Invariably they are wiser, because they have had more experiences.

Second are your teachers, sometimes mere guides for you along the journey, sometimes true motivators, sometimes scholars who have helped you attain what you never imagined.

Third are your peers, those who have provided reference points, friendship, support, maybe even –OMG—BFFs.

Many of you may have a 4th or a 5th or a 6th to add to this list. So as to not embarrass anyone, figuratively look around, see in that mind’s eye that thinks you might see all and know all. Reflect for a moment and I’ll recite a couple of lines from a meditation that I have long and often referenced:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Who were your friends in September? In December? In April? Now?

I’ll bet my traditional nickel that many of these friends that you have made this year or over your longer career will still be your friends in 25 years. I know, you’re thinking about tomorrow and not 25 years from now; that long-term thinking is part of my job. I’ll put a nickel in a safe place so that if I am not here in 25 years you can still collect, or, as I believe, pay; you can make out an appropriate check in 2037.

So reflect on your personal journey—here, in this place, on this night.

Earlier the same poet says:

“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?”

The world you will pass out of tomorrow is the Williston world. The bells will ring tonight and tomorrow, and although you can –and we hope will –come back from time to time—perhaps even for a longer stay—this place will always be different from the one you will be leaving with the diploma in your possession. Even I only have one Williston diploma!

Tonight you will hear the Chapel Bell, as you have heard on occasion; tomorrow you will hear the Angelus, a bell from the Northampton School for Girls. That moment will be one of the solemn moments in tomorrow’s more festive event.

Between now and then you will no doubt listen to your mind wander through the past. There were pre-season practices, new people to know, an Orientation program.  There was a freak October snowstorm and a sudden 4 day unexpected mini-break that shortened the first trimester. There were victories and defeats, highs and lows. There was a daily blog.  There was a volley ball tournament, Muji, and the Dodge Ball tourney. There was an early summer, with the Adirondack chairs around the campus getting great use, a mini-pool in front of Mem. There was Senior Dinner, the Prom, Willy Gras.  And so much more.

I chose the readings your class officers read, words that were not particularly obscure or unknown. Because they had to read them, they necessarily had to think about them; they had to decide what to emphasize, where to pause, where to look up at the audience. They are probably wondering if you all were listening and remember anything they said. I’ll bet another nickel a couple of them were thinking about whether they had the fingerspitzengefuhl.

That can be a starter conversation for you parents.

I joked with many of you that I will—sadly—forget your names even if you come back early in September.  You were appalled that I could forget your uniqueness; you were so special.

But when you think about this senior year in the near or distant future, you will have some important memories that will be in the forefront of your mind from time to time. Next week is Reunion Weekend, and I know when graduates—and some who did not graduate—return to remember and perhaps celebrate, there will be many instantaneous flashbacks to that senior year, to special friends or key events. The 50th reunion class members were seniors when I was a sophomore; I will observe their reminiscences, but I won’t be a focal part of them; they have a special bond with special memories among themselves. So do you.

Tomorrow we will close with a particular reflection about wisdom and love. Tonight let us close with a reflection of appreciation for all that has happened this past year.

Thank you for being here; I trust you will leave with some reflections.

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