Swanee’s Remarks at Baccalaureate 2014

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 established a new tradition here, with a senior member of the institution giving this address on the eve of the ceremony of Commencement and the Senior Class officers giving individual readings.  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 45th 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 awareness of what is going on. So I have titled this address: Transition.

We expect to give you seniors—each of you—a diploma tomorrow—a piece of paper rather than a wreath of laurel,—but we also know that most of 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, and now you are about to transition from one important place to some other.

And for you parents, I came across this quote from the iconic baby doctor, Benjamin Spock: All the time a person is a child he is both a child and learning to be a parent. After he becomes a parent he becomes predominantly a parent reliving childhood.

Obviously the generic “he” becomes he or she in the present, and both seniors and parents should, when you have one of those reflective moments, put yourself in the other’s shoes. It will help in your transition period.

In the middle of winter, during my recuperative period, I received this brief email from a Facebook friend.

“Thank you for making my adolescence less miserable.”

I had to chuckle, but still this woman graduated 40 years ago and still had feelings about this period of life you are about to leave behind, at least in the formal sense. You get this serious speech about your obligations as students beyond the formal part of your schooling, you get pronouncements about where you have been and where you are heading, and tomorrow you get a piece of paper that you should deservedly frame and keep in a place where you can access it when you want to reflect back on this brief moment of time of transition. You can’t go back, although you can come back; you go forward because that is where the path leads. As I saw several times this year: yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift, which is why it is called a present.

Adolescence can be miserable, it can be exciting, it can be formative. Think of it now as history.

Last year I stood here with a screw in my neck, inserted after the 2012 graduation, connecting a couple of pieces of a broken vertebrae; this year I stand here with a couple of fused vertebrae in my lower back and a zipper-like scar; I have saved the 31 staples, although not sure yet what for. Next year is still a mystery, although the screw is still there.

If your mind is wandering, (I’m checking my fingertips) think of me doing flips down the aisle, twirling the mace like a baton, and doing a hip-hop song on what will likely be a new stage in this building.

An alum asked on the Williston Facebook page if she could expect me to rap during Reunion Weekend.

OK, now back to reality.

Tonight is designed for reflection, for a serious look at what you have accomplished in one year or six or anything in between. You’ll remember a few things, forget most, have a spin on some of them that may not match the perception of your peers (or your parents or your teachers!). But that’s what transitions are like.

You probably remember a bit of what the speaker said at Senior Dinner—and even who it was. You might remember that it really was a glorious fall during that first trimester, but that the first day of the 2014 calendar year was not so pleasant. You might remember Boston Strong tee shirts, and smile—or frown—as the World Series played out. Do you remember the MLK speech about a date tree taking 55 years to mature? You have quite the treasure trove of memories; those won’t be google-able so you might think of some other ways to archive them.

As you know it’s a transition for me too, but this is about your transition and not mine.

I won’t be here for your 50th year reunion transition, which is what will be happening to me in two weekends; yours is just another mystery you can anticipate. Don’t be afraid to put your hopes and memories in a time capsule and open it at a party in the future; the gift of 2014—the present of today—will make for interesting history.

Towards the end of March break, as I was trolling through Facebook, I saw this from a friend, a former Williston student, who I visited in Germany last summer. “Transition is movement—from one part of life to a whole new one—and it can feel like one long, scary dark tunnel—but you have to come out the other side—because what’s been waiting there—might be glorious….”

Tomorrow you might think of those other five classes sitting out there under the tent who will be celebrating this graduation; your transition is not the only one that will be happening. And of course your parents are well aware of this pivot point.

I’d like to close with one of my formerly traditional messages that I often gave at the beginning of the school year. Parents—and grandparents will appreciate this even more: you have two fundamental tasks. One is to give your children roots, to ground them, to provide sustenance from the soil of life’s experience. They grow, they thrive. Williston can’t give these seniors roots; it can and did nourish them, expand them, but the roots were planted long ago.

Your second task is to give them wings. Your students have to learn to fly. They have practiced here, but they are never far away from that tree with its roots. Now they necessarily have to fly farther away, to take that risk for something new; later they will build their nests and plant their own trees and start the cycle again. We sometimes–reluctantly—give them wings, and Williston has had some significant influence in that regard; seniors, you’ll never have to check in again for study hall, for the dorm, for clipboarding. That freedom may in fact worry some parents. Williston has forced you to use your wings. There is a Class of 2015 ready to replace this group, and we as a school cannot disappoint them.

Some of you AP Bio kids are probably trying to figure out how the tree made the transition to become a bird in such a short time, but there is a measure of Dumbledore in this school. Take some of that magic with you, but give some magic back—both to your parents and to your school. You owe yourself, and you have well-earned that debt.

As the Chapel bell rings to give us a moment to process this evening, give thanks: to both yourself and all who helped you on this journey.

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