Senior Dinner Remarks by Kate McKillop

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

These remarks are inspired by a conversation, well more of an argument, that Mr. Harper and I had about a month ago regarding a scarf. This scarf. These scarves used to be what Widdigers wore during performances. During this argument, I basically demanded that Mr. Harper reinstate the scarves, not because I am particularly into neckware, or because I am especially into how this scarf looks, but because of what these scarves represent, something that I do really love: traditions!

As many of you know, I went to Choate Rosemary Hall and then that same school gave me my first job. Now, this is not a speech about Choate, though many of you know fond I am of my school, but my love for Choate is hopefully parallel to how you will love Williston or already do.

When I first came to Williston two years ago, I began my new job here with confidence. Williston was a boarding school. I had attended and worked at a boarding school for over a third of my life. I knew what to expect. Except, as it turns out, I didn’t, and it quickly became clear how different this place was than what I was used to. I had no idea how anything worked or what any of the customs, rules, or expectations were. In my dorm of Mem East, one student tried to give a compliment once by telling me that I was everyone’s favorite dorm parent, not because I was nice or helpful—but no, it was because I didn’t know any of the rules. (Thank you, Morgan Fogleman.)

After fumbling around here for about two terms, I decided that I should take action. I didn’t have a natural affinity or affection for this school, but I needed to do something to make myself feel like this was my school and not just a place where I worked.

I had also come to the conclusion that Williston didn’t seem to have many traditions. (This observation of mine turned out to be wrong, but at the time, I thought to myself, “Where are all the traditions?”)

So what do I do? I go Mr. Teller, of course, and ask questions. He gives me some books, and I start to read them. And I learn so much about the history of both schools—most of which I don’t have time to talk about now.

What I do want to talk about is Phoenix Night. Phoenix Night comes from the Northampton School for Girls and was begun by the founders, Sarah Whitaker and Dorothy Bement, in the spring of 1928 as a way to cheer up the senior girls who weren’t going to earn school diplomas. Like not graduate. Huge bummer.

But the headmistresses aspired to do something special to help these girls, who most likely felt like absolute failures. So Whitaker and Bement organized a secret society of sorts, composed of all the girls who weren’t going to graduate. The very first Phoenix Night, the night before graduation, these girls gathered by the fireplace in the main building of the school, where they burned their regrets, which they had written on slips of paper. They called themselves Phoenix “since that bird rose to greater things from its ashes.” Over time, this tradition evolved, and when there were no longer students who wouldn’t graduate, Northampton girls continued to celebrate Phoenix Night.

I was so inspired by this tradition and the symbolic meaning behind it. But where had Phoenix Night gone?

Some of you know what happens next. Last year, the night before graduation, while we were supposed to having dorm activities, I decided to resurrect Phoenix Night. Forcing the three juniors from French House to join me (Ray Stein, Jessie Park, and Vivian Tin), we donned all black, put spandex pants on our heads, as an updated version of the black stockings that the Northampton girls had worn, and we noisily invaded each of the other girls’ dorms on campus. We brought with us slips of paper upon which we invited all the girls we met to write down their mistakes and regrets of the year. When we got to Mem, we burned all the papers in the grill the girls were using to cook s’mores.

Our Phoenix Night might seem ridiculous. I have to tell you, we looked crazy. We had spandex on our heads, and we were walking around banging on pots with spoons from my kitchen. I was clearly the most excited person out there, but it was a magical experience. I have never felt more a part of Williston than I did that night, outside with most of the underclass girls in this school, burning our regrets in the hopes that this year would be brighter and better.

This is what traditions do. They give us something to look forward to year after year. They mark significant occasions and transitions. But more importantly, traditions provide a direct link between us in the present, to the many people who have been a part of this school in the 175 years before us.

Think about how you feel when you are singing your loudest, most out of tune version of “Sammy,” or when you run up to ring the bell after you win a game (if you are on the boys’ water polo team you are in your speedo while doing this) or when during the last assembly of the year, you finally get to move up a section in the chapel. Remember how awesome it was to leave the balcony after freshman year, unless you were one of those few unfortunate sophomores? Or just consider how impactful this tradition is: When Mr. Crockett passed away a year and half ago, some of us faculty, lost in our grief and not knowing how it express it, did what many of you have done over the course of your time here. We painted the lion.

Traditions unite us, connect us, and bring all of us on this campus, who are so different, together in a way that not much else can. Traditions evoke something deep within us and are the reason why most of the people I know who have gone to boarding schools feel more passionate and proud of their high schools than they do their colleges. Traditions are why, I believe, that Pitt Johnson wrote in his song “Sammy” that his heart yearned for Williston. Not his head or his mind, but his heart.

As seniors, you have profound influence over what this year will be like. So I encourage you to do anything and everything you can to uphold and embrace the Williston traditions that are here and, like a phoenix, to bring back the ones that have been lost. Thank you.

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