Baccalaureate Remarks by Head of School Bob Hill

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Good evening and welcome to parents, faculty, guests, and especially the Class of 2015.

As most of you know, the tradition of the Baccalaureate Service dates back to the Middle Ages where it signified a student’s attainment of his religious orders. For the Class of 2015, I have seen the list where you are headed to college next year and as best I can tell none of you has listed a monastery or convent, though there might be parents in the audience who think that’s not such a bad idea.

Given the historical roots of this ceremony, which retains all of the symbolism and meaning of a significant rite of passage, I’ve been searching for the right speech, should it be a homily, a sermon, a lecture. Whatever I decided, I knew that I must find a theme that befits the occasion, words that are fittingly solemn, maybe even filled with wisdom.

So I’ve decided to talk to you, Class of 2015, about household pets. Specifically, I want to talk to you about dogs and cats. In a show of hands how many of you have had one of these wonderful animals living under your roof at home. Some of you may even permit that beloved pet to sleep in your room, on your bed, or perhaps even in your bed with you.

If you have experienced life with a dog or cat as a child, then you probably learned some basic life lessons: dogs and cats need food and water; dogs train people more than people train dogs; litter boxes are like industrial waste sites; canned cat food does not taste like a Panera’s albacore white tuna; if you wear a dog’s electric fence collar and test it out, it really does shock you–I could go on.

The world is divided between cat people and dog people, and pet-agnostics. You cat people know that cats fall into two broad categories, lovers or fighters; and you dog people know that dogs are either unfailingly obedient or stubborn as rented mules. I realize that not everyone likes cats; not everyone likes dogs; and there are those who don’t like either–I’ll get to that group later.

Those of you in the Class of 2015 who have worked with Mrs. Sawyer in the writing center–I think that’s just about everyone—have hear her say “write about what you know about.” So I’ll talk for a few minutes tonight about the Hill’s pet menagerie that includes two cats and two dogs–and just like each of you, our pets have distinct personality traits. For those of you who stuck around a little while after senior dessert, you might have seen that our older dog, a black and white mix of border collie and southern hospitality, named Willy Shakespeare, is mostly neurotic and barks at everything, to include bike and skate board riders, boys with hats and dark glasses, and adults–just about everyone except for little kids. You probably don’t know, however, that he is terrified of the water, afraid of the dark, runs from house flies, and that he eats, well, “like a cat.” Mrs. Hill and I feel sorry for Willy since we think his timidity and reluctance means that he misses out on cool new experiences, like wading into a mountain stream on a hot summer day in Vermont. Our pets defy stereotypes. If there exists a cat to dog spectrum, then our pets are hard to classify. For instance basic Conventional wisdom says that cats will self-regulate the amount of food they eat, while dogs will voraciously devour anything put down in front of them. So when it comes to food, cats apparently delay gratification and dogs act as if their frontal lobes are stuck in middle school. Our dominant feline is a black and white counterpart to Willie, called Jasper, and he behaves much more like a dog: Jasper will come when called, devour ravenously all food in front of him or in front of you, calmly sleep all night at the foot of our bed, and in most ways act like a dog. Jasper is generally unafraid– lawn mowers, leaf blowers, cars, trucks, busses don’t seem to faze him; however, the Choo’s cat, Kiwai, the biggest domestic cat I’ve ever seen, and rumored to be on P.E.D’s has sent Jasper off licking his wounds on more than one occasion. There seems to be a lesson there, too, a little well-placed fear, can save you a lot of pain later on.

Joining Willie and Jasper is our most recent addition, Duncan, an extroverted puppy rescued with his litter mates from the side of a highway in Tennessee. Duncan runs up to all strangers and immediately rolls over to have his tummy rubbed–either a sign of complete submissiveness or a really smart attention grabbing measure that gets him a free massage. Duncan inhales his food and all other things he sniffs out on campus–ones that are edible and some things so disturbingly gross that they will not be named on this occasion. Suffice it to say, if left on his own, Duncan would, like a friend’s lab once did, jump into an oversized green dumpster and try to eat his way out. We hope that as Duncan grows up, he will learn to think before he acts, learn the importance of cat-like patience, and realize that there are times when you need to stand firm rather than roll over. Fourth and most expendable, we have a lightning quick killer of a cat–Ginny–all black, stealth on demand, and totally cat like in every personality trait. Around the Hill house when Ginny is outside, we should hang a sign reading “if you fly, you die,” in order to protect all creatures great and small. Ginny is like the Navy Seals, or maybe an unmanned drone; although she protects us we might wish we had more knowledge of her whereabouts.

You have probably figured out by now that there’s a theme that lies just beneath the surface of this story about cats and dogs. It’s all about you. When you studied the Odyssey you learned about anthropomorphism– you know, the attribution of human characteristics to animals or nonliving things. We pet owners talk about our animals using the same descriptive language that you might even use with your peers. And we also talk about people, some times as if they were animals. We refer to “catty” behavior or we talk about how hard it can be to bring a group together as if we are “herding cats.” I can’t come up with similar expressions for dogs, other than “pack of wolves”, which might add fuel to cat-lovers arguments that they are treated unfairly compared to dog lovers. But cat lovers actually have a very big 21st Century boast that they can forever use to cudgel their dog-centric counterparts. I am talking about the invention of You Tube, which we all know was invented by cat lovers for cat videos, or as one conspiracy theory goes You Tube was maybe even created by cats themselves.

I said earlier that people generally divide along a fault line of cat lover or dog lover, sometimes both and sometimes neither. If you reflect on your own personality for a moment, you might realize that you have characteristics associated with one of these furry friends. You should figure this out if you have not done so already.

When you head off to college–remember, and that’s what tomorrow’s commencement is all about–you need to go there with a level of self-awareness that gives you the confidence to meet new and different people from an even greater diversity of background than Williston admirably assembles. As you heard so eloquently from Ms. Davey the other night, you are about to leave a place that has been a home away from home, for some of you for one third of your life, think about that arithmetic. There is no way that this moment cannot be significant. Ms. Davey urged you to reflect on how you have grown and changed, to take stock of who you are, to acknowledge those things you might have done differently, because you have the power, the volition to choose how to act in the future.

Whether you are heading off to a small liberal arts college where Bean boots are standard issue footwear, or a much larger campus where nobody even notices what shoes you wear, you are about to step into a new world of possibilities—you get to decide who you are going to become. Does your Williston nickname live on in college; do you even adopt a new name, I’m thinking of those of you who have been called by your middle name up to this point in your life. Think about all of those characteristics of cats and dogs that I’ve mentioned this evening or that you might have included if I asked you to come up with a list. The Socratic injunction to “Know Thyself” means that before you move into your college dorm room, you need to answer the cosmic questions of: “How am I like a dog?”, and “How am I like a cat?” You need to do apply all of those critical thinking and reflective skills that I know you have learned at Williston and do a personal inventory. The risk is simple to see: Act too cat like, and you might only come out of your dorm room in the early morning hours–and that’s a little creepy. Act too dog like, and you might disappear in a large pack of others who think like you, look like you, and behave like you. And for those of you for whom my remarks tonight make no sense at all, since you have not had the pleasure of living with cats or dogs, all is not lost, there’s still plenty of time to figure this out, and that’s what the next four years of college are all about.

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