Baccalaureate Remarks by Glenn Swanson

So what is this event called Baccalaureate, this evening with the members of the senior class, their mentors, and their parents? It is historically a religious celebration dating from the Middle Ages when universities were first established.

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.

The role of the Church has diminished here, but the solemnity of the event and the reflection on the past remain a key part of our own Baccalaureate service.

We have perhaps established a new tradition here, with a senior member of the institution giving this address on the eve of the ceremony of Commencement. You noted that I marched in carrying a mace, the symbol of authority of the leadership of the institution, usually carried by the senior member of the teaching faculty. That honor has devolved to me, now completing my 44th year as a teacher of history and more broadly of students. It implies an accumulation of knowledge, perhaps some wisdom, a recognition—at least to me—of regular shortcomings, and an occasional Revelation, which is what I wanted to title this address: Revelation.

We expect to give you 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. Nevertheless, you should aspire to that attainment. It may come in a revelation, a moment; it may come gradually over many years. But you have had at least a glimpse this year of that idea of revelation.

So tonight I ask that you reflect on those moments where you might have had that revelation and perhaps on those who made this moment possible. You heard some of your peers suggest their individual moments; I ask you to think of yours.

Some important part of the story of your Williston life needs to be bigger than you—not because some other power demands it and not even because that’s how good people live, but because you need to envision yourself as a positive contributor to a story that will not end when you graduate.

I doubt any of you remember my opening thoughts at Convocation, but thanks to SkyDrive and the permanence of writing on the internet, I have access to them and was able to retrieve the specifics of my thoughts to reflect on them as I prepared for this Baccalaureate. I decided I was in an R mode and I wanted to carry last year’s theme of Reflections to this year’s theme of Revelation. I asked us to think as we went through the year what might have been revealed to us…and also what we might have revealed to others. So we are spending a little time this evening reflecting on revelations.

Some are Internal, when you have that Aha! moment [Didi]. Some are external, an event or moment that happens and you respond. External becomes internal for it to have meaning, but the strictly internal one comes as your mind works over some issue or problem and through your pondering, that mental light bulb switch happens to go on.

For example, you might want to reflect on the Diversity Conference. Revelations came from Dan Kwong and Chris Herren and perhaps from others that you heard that day. Maybe you want to remember Logan Brown’s skiing lesson, leaning forward into your life and not falling back. Each of them had revelations which they shared with you.

Perhaps you have seen it happen with one of your friends or classmates. The closer we came to this weekend the more such moments became apparent. Even the title of a Willistonian article 10 days ago reflected this idea: an Editor’s Swan Song. I should not assume everyone knows what that term means, but it does not connect directly to the current speaker.

But the myth or fable of the song sung by a dying, or in this case, retiring swan, which is not a songbird, reflects the awareness of the imminent change. The English term may be only 200 years old, but the story is well over 2000 years old. So this idea of revelation has been with us for millennia, and we repeat this process over and over.

I like to quote John Donne’s poem “No Man is an Island.”

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

We are all connected.

Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of England who died recently, said she believed in the individual and family, not in society. I happen to disagree with that conclusion, but in a free society we are allowed and even encouraged to disagree. I look around and see a Senior class, a school community, an America, and a humanity. We’ll go off tomorrow, in many different directions, but we were all here at a particular place in a particular time, and as Frost said: and that has made all the difference.

Every year we do this. It is an integral part of what we call Traditions. They help give us context for the changes we always have to confront.

And while the focus of the weekend, particularly tonight and especially tomorrow, is on the seniors, a second important group here might be reflecting on these thoughts: the parents. Change happens for you too, and I suspect there have been revelations along this journey for you as well.

Some of us have been here for a few of these and of course we don’t want to hear exactly the same words every year because we might actually remember them and say: again? But you only have this experience once, even if some of you had a similar experience a year ago. So the speaker could give exactly the same speech every year and it would be brand new to most of you. But the folks behind me are actually listening, trying to pick up what is new and what is part of the tradition. If you get old enough you will no doubt hear a repeat of something that was said somewhere else or at some other time. Plagiarism or just a repeat performance? Ah, the art of having the audience be on the edge to hear something new or to nod and say: I’ve heard that before!

I correspond with a variety of people, some intermittently, some regularly, some only once in a great while. The internet makes it much easier for me, but traditionalists probably think our civilization is declining as evidenced by the lack of the written letter. And yet there are more books continuing to be published so people are still writing.

A former student, who graduated the first year I was teaching, reconnected recently, and we have had some lively communication. He commented on a book he assumed I had read, and because I hadn’t remembered reading it I thought I should. The author is highly regarded so I thought the library should own it, and they purchased it. I read it; it turned out I had indeed read it, but I was pretty well into the book before I realized it.

The title itself drew me to it, but like many things, the second time around proved more satisfying than the first. The title was: The Sense of an Ending.

You seniors are facing an ending, and unlike a book, which you can re-read, you won’t go through this exact process again. But you will replay it in your head, perhaps often in your life, perhaps infrequently, perhaps not for a while. This former student thought he would never look back at this experience, but he has begun to investigate some of his memories and make meaning of them. Good books, good stories, good experiences—even bad experiences: they all have an ending that is revelatory.

This year has an ending, this experience has an ending, but the sense of that experience will have many more endings. Be open to those revelations; they will enrich your experience.

You have heard thoughts from several members of the class of 2013. You no doubt recognized Thoreau, Emerson and Aristotle; although the poem of that title is recent, Aristotle lived over 2300 years ago. His name represents a long tradition.

We have had some challenging times this year, some beyond our community like Hurricane Sandy, Newtown, the Boston Marathon or most recently the tornado in Oklahoma; some quite in the midst of us with the passing of respected and even revered colleagues, long-time members of our community who had made an impact on us. Those events caused us to reflect and maybe we each had a revelatory moment.

Sometime earlier this year, when I went to vote, I noted some of the Easthampton HS artwork on the walls expressing good-byes to the HS, which has been replaced by a brand new facility. Students had left messages along the walls, saying good-bye to a place that will soon be demolished, adjacent to their new home just yards away. I thought about some of the things they were thinking, and I wanted to quote one.

“If you’re brave enough to say good-bye, life will reward you with a new hello.”

You will indeed say some good-byes tomorrow, but they should not be permanent, nor will they.

And finally, quoting a bit of Biblical scripture which I came upon somewhere this year, I thought I would end with a line that will frequently bring you a revelation: From 2nd Thessalonians 3:13:

“And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

Thank you for being here; I trust you will leave with some reflections on your own revelations as the Chapel Bell gives us a few moments of pause.

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