Head of School Bob Hill’s Commencement 2014 Remarks

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Good morning and welcome parents, families, guests, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, and especially the Class of 2014.

Before you get too settled 2014, I ask that you stand and face the audience and join me in applauding all of those who played such an instrumental part in your arrival at this pivotal moment in your lives.

So 2014, I hope this small gesture that we just conveyed carries forward so that expressions of gratitude are not something that happen once every four years—don’t forget to acknowledge and be grateful for the help you receive along the way, and also don’t forget to lend help to others when they are in need. If you think about it, we never achieve anything alone, and I hope that one of the things you take with you today is an appreciation for your friends and mentors and a sense of loyalty to your alma mater.

As we heard so movingly at last night’s Baccalaureate ceremony Williston is unique in that we have seniors who have been here for six years sitting next to those who have been here for one—you saw visual representations of the changes that occur from 7th grade to 12th in Mr. Grant’s slide show on Friday. Less externally visible but no less profound are the changes of minds and hearts that Williston effects in each of you.

With all of the CAN JAM and Frisbee of the last couple of weeks, you may have missed some of the hot topics that swirl around us in the news—issues that will affect your futures: The elevator fight between Beyonce’s sister and Jay Z; or, the racist rantings of the Los Angeles Clippers owner whose ironic name—Sterling—is no longer worth a dime. At Williston, despite all of the ideas that get kicked around, the good work of The Willistonian staff or the Political Awareness Committee, or the instant buzz of news feeds from our smart phones, we do not always take enough time to reflect on the events of our lives.

Before introducing our distinguished commencement speaker, and since I won’t have another chance to speak to all of you again, I have a brief reflection to share that comes from the world of children’s literature. You may laugh at me now, but it’s all going to tie together neatly at the end—I hope.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ [Alice asked]

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat,

‘I don’t much care, where—‘ said Alice

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat

In one of the most famous children’s books of all time, Alice in Wonderland, you may recall the central theme of Alice falling down and down the rabbit hole to a strange world of nonsense and fantastical characters. Reason and rational thought are turned inside out by her fall into a dream world populated by the Cheshire Cat, the Dodo, and the Mad Hatter, among other stranger than life figures. And yet it is into this world that Alice finds herself on a journey of risk taking, uncertainty, inquiry, and fear. She drinks unknown things that say “drink me” and eats size altering cakes that say “eat me.” It’s just like going to college. If Alice were alive today, she might catalogue her trip with a steady stream of SnapChat’s, maybe an Instagram or if she doesn’t know better, Yik Yak, what the magazine Business Insider calls “The Anonymous Gossip App Wreaking Havoc On High Schools Everywhere.”

Wordplay is prevalent throughout Carroll’s story; he’s genius at punning and his subtext is that the words you choose really do matter (you might not have known he was a brilliant Oxford mathematician, and that for fun he would write letters backwards with both hands simultaneously). Carroll’s characters give Alice lots of advice along the way: the March Hare tells her that “meaning what you say, is not the same thing as ‘saying what you mean,’ or, the Mad Hatter tells her that saying “’I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘ I eat what I see’.” If you think Alice uniquely lives in a nonsense world, then I would urge you to take another look around. Globally and locally, things seem a little upside down to me in this 21st century world of ours. Girls in Nigeria or Afghanistan get kidnapped, or worse, for going to school.

Renowned colleges and universities, whose students are supposed to represent ideals of free thought and open exchange have derailed commencement speakers and closed off debate. Just up the road, at Smith College students protested their planned graduation speaker, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and she withdrew her offer to speak. And at Rutgers University, former secretary of state and Stanford professor Condoleeza Rice withdrew ahead of student protests. But Rutgers recovered their sense of balance and turned things right side up—Snooki came to the rescue and gave a pre-graduation talk. Nothing against you Snooki fans out there, but to pay her over thirty thousand dollars to deliver a speech where her advice included “study hard but party harder,” turns a student’s mission upside down.

Class of 2014—you guys are about to head off to colleges and universities around the country and world—and while you should expect to have some fun along the way, I hope you will always remember which way is up. You are about to enter into another kind of rabbit hole—you will plunge into an unfamiliar place; you will meet strange people who ask you stranger questions. You might find yourself in nonsensical situations, ones that defy the mental frameworks that you have built over your Williston experience. And yet there will be familiar structures and mileposts along the way to keep you from losing your sense of self or your head. So while I invite you to embrace being unsettled and uncomfortable as you make your way through college, I also urge you to stay grounded in those values and mindsets that you learned at Williston.

And now it is my honor to introduce today’s commencement speaker, a man who has not simply been down the rabbit hole and lived to tell about it, but who has literally defined Alice and Wonderland for generations of readers. I first learned of Barry Moser’s work when I was studying children’s literature in a National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship at Princeton many years ago—his illustrated Alice and Wonderland won the National Book Award for Design and Illustration in 1983. Barry’s life as an artist, illustrator, author, painter, printmaker, father, husband, grandfather of nine, dog and cat lover, has earned him accolades and awards as many as they are prestigious. Google his name and you will be amazed by all that this Renaissance man has accomplished, including that he has illustrated or designed over three hundred works.

Twice I have heard Mr. Moser as a guest presenter in Swanee’s history classes and have been spell bound by the stories of his childhood growing up in Chattanooga or the musings of a life spent deeply engaged in our world. Most pertinent to us today, however, is that Mr. Moser joins us from his home in Northampton, returning to the school where he taught for 15 years and where both of his children graduated (’81, ’83). It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Mr. Barry Moser.

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