Commencement Address from Head of School Robert W. Hill III

Good morning and welcome, parents, family, friends, trustees, faculty and staff, our honored speaker, and most importantly to the Class of 2017. As we celebrate our 176th Commencement of The Williston Northampton School, you, the Class of 2017 are surrounded by loved ones brimming with pride in all that you have accomplished—in a show of your collective appreciation, please stand and face the audience and join me in extending to them a round of applause.

Williston would be only half complete were it not for the people arrayed behind me. They are your coaches, teachers, dorm parents, advisers, and mentors—so please join me in thanking them! 

Recently, I turned to YouTube to watch Brad Hall’s commencement address to the Class of 2015, looking for a little inspiration.  Those of you who were here that day probably remember his song, but since I do not play guitar or sing really all that well, I had to keep searching.  You can find anything on YouTube and so my search continued for an inspiration to today’s comments: I looked at sports highlights, movie clips, political speeches, great lectures, Last Week Tonight, Trevor Noah—Sea Lion grabs little girl off dock.   That was it—there was a message in the little girl getting snatched off a dock by a sea lion only to be rescued by a hero parent.

Now to be clear, I don’t wish for any of you students, at least any of you in the Class of 2017, to be snatched off a dock by some crazy sea lion looking to become a YouTube sensation—by the way, The Great Sea Lion notched over 22 million views.

For those of you who somehow missed the sea lion on your Instagram feed, the video clip portrays a seemingly innocuous moment with parents cooing in the background as their little girl observes a harmless sea lion circling curiously a few feet below the dock.  After making a semi-breaching splash towards the railing, one can hear comments about getting wet, that sort of thing.  But then, in one of those startling moments reserved for really scary movies, like when Quint gets eaten by Jaws, the sea lion rises out, grabs the girl’s shirt, and hauls her off into the water—all in a flash of blubber and whiskers. The girl was pulled out by her dad, both were unharmed, and I actually googled to verify that this was all not just a hoax. (ok, people in the back of the tent, don’t pull out your smart phones).

Believing, like members of the English department, that great works of literature can yield eternal truths, I applied those same exegetical principles to plumb the depths of the video of the girl being snatched off the dock.

For you 2017–about-to-be high school graduates- the great sea lion has three pieces of wisdom to share:

Lesson Number One:
Don’t judge those parents too harshly since you have not been a parent yourself yet, and we all take our eyes off our kids leading to scary moments. As Alexander Pope wrote: To err is human, to forgive divine.

Lesson Number Two:
Your first year of college will have Sea Lion moments—one’s that seem innocuous but that quickly turn scary.  So be sure to have a person you trust with your life nearby.

Lesson Number Three:
If you study marine biology and find yourself cooing at an 800 pound sea lion, don’t fake-feed it to get its attention and then turn your back—that won’t end well.

Lesson Number Four:
There’s a hidden lesson for you, Class of 2017 in my telling of today’s story. You see, even though I have stood before the school in this same position six times before, this seventh time has been as unnerving for me as a parent watching their daughter get snatched away by a Great Sea Lion.

As I introduce our guest speaker, I will depend upon your analytical reasoning skills combined with your empathic sensibility to consider what I have just alluded to.

John M. McCardell Jr., currently 16th vice-chancellor of The University of the South and president emeritus of Middlebury College, is a distinguished historian and respected national leader in liberal arts education.  He holds his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University and his PhD from Harvard. He possesses a record of achievement as a scholar of the American South and is the author of The Idea of a Southern Nation, which won the Allan Nevins Prize. His specialty is U.S. history in the 19th century with special emphasis on the South. And if these scholarly chops are not enough, he was also a guest on “The Colbert Report.”

When I was a strapping 130 pound freshman at Middlebury College, Dr. McCardell was newly minted from Harvard University and he quickly established himself as a rock-star professor long before YouTube was even a thing. His classes were vibrant, relevant, meticulously prepared, and much more intellectual than I was capable of appreciating at the time.  I took more than one class from him, as did my close circle of friends who comprised his Myrmidons, and we admiringly nicknamed him after the reigning tennis champ of the day “Johnny-Mac.”  By the time of our 25th Middlebury College reunion, however, Professor McCardell was president of the college, and I believe we all adopted a more deferential form of address.  It is truly an honor to welcome the vice Chancellor of The University of the South, Dr. John McCardell, to Williston today and please join me in welcoming him up from Sewanee, Tennessee.

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