Take Small, Sure-Footed Steps: Convocation Speech by Bob Hill

I want to extend a warm welcome to The Williston Northampton School classes of 2017-2013, to faculty and staff, parents, trustees, and to honored guests.

This afternoon’s Convocation marks the official start of our 172nd year. This summer, as I was re-reading the school history of the founders, Samuel and Emily Williston, I realized again that theirs was an improbable journey. Having had all four of their children die from the various viruses that proved so deadly to children before penicillin, Samuel and Emily Williston’s surrogate child was the institution that was your alma mater.

As Mr. Ketcham explained to us last Sunday—and all of your propelled us along with a Willy-rendition of the rock anthem, “Don’t Stop Belivin'”—we are all on personal journeys. So, in the spirit of the ninth grade’s reading of the Odyssey and Mr. Ketcham’s song selection, I wanted to expand on this notion for a few moments.

This past summer, the Hill family had a fantastic journey to England and then down to Cape Town, South Africa. Even though we were on a flight that lasted so long I got to watch Ghost Protocol six times (Jeremy Renner upstages Tom Cruise); and even though I had to relearn how to drive like a mad Englishman, on the opposite lane, dodging the occasional sheep, and choosing between the hedges on one side and lorries on the other; and even though the silky nightclub voice on the train that sounds like the Garmin Lady began to get on my nerves with her incessant warning: “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform edge”—our trip was a great success.

Family first is one of my personal values, and so a major purpose of our journey to England was visiting Mrs. Hill’s grandmother and extended family who live in the Manchester area—don’t worry, they aren’t United fans. We were in England before the Olympics, but the ping pong match our 11-year-old son Robby had against his 94-year-old great-grandmother would have at least won bronze two weeks later.

Another highlight was seeing my older sister for the first time in five years—she took a journey to Botswana after college through the Peace Corps and has lived in Africa ever since. That’s the thing about journeys…sometimes you have a destination in mind, sometimes you plan for a roundtrip, and sometimes you stay where you landed.

Fortunately for us, though, ours was a return trip from the point on the globe that is 20 hours of flight time to New York and a world apart from the life we lead here at Williston. No doubt journeys are also about changing one’s perspective, and that can happen unconsciously to even the most attuned of travelers. So I know my perspective has been altered in ways that I may not yet fully comprehend.

I have no been to Cape Town twice, the first time during the reign of apartheid, and this summer in the aura of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid world. While much as changed, I was still struck by the vast inequality of income that is plain to see, where townships spring up in a matter of weeks—a subsistence level of dwelling that is unknown to us in the US and hard to even imagine. As Shamus Khan told those of us assembled here a year ago, and as I observed firsthand, globe income inequality will be your generation’s greatest challenge to resolve.

Thanks to folks at Google in their quest to make all that has ever been written or said downloadable, I learn of a quote attributed to Confucious: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Each of you sitting before me is either just embarking on your Williston journey or you are picking up where you left off last year.

I wonder, which of you will leave Williston to become a nationally acclaimed scientist like John Seely Brown ’58; which of you will become a country western singer like Ashley Gearing ’09; which of you will lead a life in public office like Congressional hopeful Sal Pace ’95 of Colorado; or go on to write for Saturday Night Live like Brad Hall ’75? The choices you make at Williston might, just as the wings of a butterfly in Africa create the ripples of a hurricane miles away, result in grand outcomes years from now.

You know that one of our greatest American heroes, Neil Armstrong, recently passed away. At our opening faculty dinner two weeks ago, I was stopped by the sight of the full moon rising above Ford Hall—you know the image when the moon looks unnaturally large and impossibly suspended—and the next morning, Friday, August 31, I saw that our flags were flying at half mast to honor Neil Armstrong’s life. In one of those fortuitous celestial alignments, the first man to walk on the moon was buried under the gaze of a blue moon.

Neil Armstrong’s famous journey captured the world’s attention and immortalized the man whose words spoke on behalf of us all: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I want to close by addressing the newest members of our community, those students who are just beginning their Williston journeys. At some point in your life, somebody has probably told you to reach for the stars, or shoot for the moon, or dream big. Well, I am going to close with my own “uncle you only see at Thanksgiving” advice: Think small. I mean it, not really, really, small, but small enough.

Take small, sure-footed steps at first and giant leaps are sure to follow.

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