Category Archives: Alumni Speaker

Commencement Address by Nonie Creme ’90

Nonie Creme ’90/Photo by Joanna Chattman

When I was 15, I ran away from home. Now, as you’ll get to know, when I decide to do something, I do not mess around, which is why our story begins in a Santa Fe jail cell. Turns out it’s illegal to be a minor on the run 900 miles from home.

It was around this time my folks said to me, “You seem like a decent kid, but this whole ‘living at home’ thing just isn’t working out,” and so “I” (and by that, I mean “they”) started looking at boarding schools. I mean, between boarding school and jail, it was kind of a no-brainer…

Frankly, I was a really messed up teenager. I had a total inability to control my emotions, and ZERO ability to censor, which got me into plenty of trouble. I just felt really, really angry almost all of the time. I hated my body, I hated my family, I hated my own insecurity, and the mere whiff of any form of authority sent me into a core meltdown. Off the record, I will admit that authority is something I still really struggle with….  Which is why I start companies and work for myself.

Anyway, the main criteria for my boarding school choices, was that they had to be FAR, FAR AWAY. That was about it. For me, looking at schools was scary and upsetting. I wasn’t going by choice, I felt alone, and as though I was drifting, aimless, and unwanted. I was 16.

When I came for my Williston interview, I was SO intimidated. Everyone on campus looked so grown up and sophisticated. I felt like a Southern yokel in mom jeans and a sweater from The Limited — which you are too young to know about, but trust me — it’s bad. I had never really left home before, (apart from all the running away of course…), but I was beginning to realize that there was a BIG difference between Texas and Massachusetts, and I wanted in. The deal was sealed when a really hot junior guy gave me my tour, and I was like “Mom, I’m going HERE”.

Thankfully, Williston felt the same. I’ll be honest here — my grades were NOT impressive, and it was probably a pretty close call, but what sticks with me, is that Williston recognized a kid with potential. It was no secret that I came with baggage, but Williston was ready to give me a nurturing, attentive home when my own home wasn’t viable, and that is where this story truly begins.

Like I said, I had never left home before, and let me tell you —I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a spoiled brat, which became pretty clear when I was informed that there was, in fact, not a maid service, and I would be washing my own clothes. I had never even touched a washing machine before. I felt like an idiot. Too proud to ask for help, I decided that the best course of action was to hide my dirty clothes in my bed, under the fitted sheet. (and yes, this is a totally true story) Slowly, I ran out of clothes. Underwear became a distant memory. I was panic stricken, when, at last, my roommate noted that my bed was a full foot taller than hers and STUNK.

And so, eating a big slice of humble pie, I finally asked my dorm dad, Mr. Tulejah, to show me how those mysterious machines in the basement worked. It sounds silly, but that small step toward independence set me on a course that undeniably helped begin my healing and growing process.

I’ll take a brief break from memory lane here, and tell you who I am now, so that you don’t call security and have me removed.

I have since helped start two beauty companies, one called Butter London, and the other, Colour Prevails, and I consult globally for every company you’ve ever bought a nail polish, lipstick, or mascara from. So, did I leave Williston and go to Columbia? Attend Harvard Business School? Nope. I just learnt some crucial lessons here that helped me not only get IN to college, but also helped me understand that a meaningful educational journey is based on more than just good grades.

I started my first ever beauty business as a penniless illegal alien in London. Why was I in London? Well, because I followed a British boy home and he was going to be a rock star, so clearly, I was never going to have to do anything as pedestrian as get a job. When rock-stardom eluded us, I would stand outside the subway station in the Financial District every morning with a basket full of nail supplies and hand out little scraps of paper with my number on them. By lunchtime, I’d be fully booked going from office to office doing desk-side manicures for the fancy businesswomen. Now, I couldn’t have known that filing nails for ten pounds would eventually lead to a 20 million dollar nail polish company, but the important take away is this:

FIGURE SHIT OUT. Don’t just stand there wringing your hands when life doesn’t throw a 4.0 at you. Plot a course, be brave, and put one foot in front of the other. That’s it. You don’t have to be the smartest, you don’t have to be the prettiest, you don’t need over 10k followers. You don’t have to know what you’ll be doing in five years, just know what you are doing today. Oh yeah, for those of you ignoring this speech and playing on your Iphone my Insta handle is @noniecreme

Eventually, I got so good at doing nails that a top London agent picked me up, and started sending me out to do nails for Vogue cover stories, London and New York Fashion Week, and people like Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moss. It’s worth noting that a manicure at Kate Moss’s house can take three days of your life, and you won’t remember anything when you get home. Which is probably for the best. Anyway, I used to hand-mix all of my polishes, and they became a sort of cult thing that everyone in London wanted.

I knew I needed a nail polish company to sell this stuff, but like I said, I have no business degree, and had NO IDEA how to raise money or start a company. And then I met a girl about my age, who DID have a business degree, and DID know how to do those things. The only problem was that she lived in Seattle, and I lived in London. We agreed to share the company, and shoot for the stars. Our first office was her kitchen, and I created the Butter London polish range with $5,000 and a whole lot of hand mixing. I left everything to do this. I left my amazing job — that I had created all by myself, I left my beautiful London apartment, and most importantly, I left my British husband IN the apartment when I left, and we were long distance for TWO YEARS after.

(Oh yeah, I married the rock star skater kid. Partially because I loved him, and partially because I was still really pissed at my parents)

If you want to do great things with your life, you better be prepared to take some very real risks. Even today, any of my projects or companies could go down at any moment, and I’ve crashed and burned as many times as I’ve succeeded. Trying things is scary. You may go broke a couple of times. Check. You may fail publicly. Check. You may have your doctor tell you that your endocrine system is collapsing from chronic stress and fatigue. Double check. But then you have a hit. You create a company or product that takes off, and the money pours in, and you get to be a rock star after all. Man, that’s a feeling that’s just indescribable for a kid that grew up thinking she was a loser and a no-hoper.

When I gave the commencement speech at my college, Scripps College, last year, and I opened by stating that I was probably the first straight C student to ever give the Commencement Address, so let me go all in here at Williston, and tell you that I was lucky if I ever made a C here.

But don’t think for one SECOND that I wasn’t learning. Grades are based on a series of tests that are meant to gauge academic progress. What they don’t gauge is personal growth. Only you know how smart you really are, and only you can choose to use that intellect to succeed. Make good grades or don’t, but PLEASE, I beg you, graduate!!!!

PS: It turns out that I’m super-duper smart, and I’m able to operate in the business realm with NO business degree, and NO prior experience. Just a big mouth and a great education that taught me SO MUCH despite my many efforts to fail. So, if you didn’t get into the college you wanted, or you’re scared you won’t, please know that you can still be the next Steve Jobs (Don’t drop out!), or Estée Lauder, or Donald Trump — OK, I’m totally kidding. I strictly forbid you from becoming the next Donald Trump.

Boarding school is a unique experience. People who don’t go to boarding school can never really understand what it’s like. You are forced to be an adult from a really young age. You have to manage situations where there would normally be an adult mediator, and you have to figure them out, in order to keep the peace. When I was living in Willy, I was a chubby Goth kid. I listened to Dag Nasty and Suicidal Tendencies — thank you Pat Burns — and pierced my own ears weekly until there was no lobe left to pierce.

Friendships saved my life. I came to Williston from a classic Southern day school where jocks and cheerleaders ruled, and anyone different got shut out.

One of my best friends at Williston was a dude, a soccer jock named Ashley, who wore head to toe LL Bean and although we had ZERO in common from a style standpoint, we loved and accepted each other completely. Everyone here did. Dee Griffin is still one of my best friends, and all I can say is that even as adult, she overlooks my Mohawk and the many bikers I bring to her NYC home and THANK GOD her fiancé is a detective on NYPD’s finest, because, damn it all, bikers just love to get arrested.

But don’t take my word for it — my Willy tribe are all right here, right now, today, because first of all, YOU are my tribe, and whether you like it or not, you are stuck with me now. And also because several of my 40-something year old gang got on planes, trains, and automobiles to come and be with me here today as I give this speech — 25 years after our commencement.

Now THAT is what I call showing up Williston style!!!!

It’s important in high school and college to try stuff. That’s why you are here. It’s absolutely acceptable to be a punk one semester and a Prep the next. To try lacrosse one season, and then switch to advanced cigarette smoking (I was the captain of that team) Exploring different parts of your personality will be an asset when you are out in the real world. Do you know what WON’T be an asset when you are out in the real world? A neck tattoo. Now there’s a really bad idea.

As a silver haired Rick-Owens-wearing 44-year-old mom, who lives with a Grateful Dead tattoo on her ass, and a piece of 1990s tribal work across her skull, I can tell you I’m right on this one. In fact, I will give you a million bucks if you can call me up at 40 and tell me you love the tattoo you got at Off The Map. Pierce whatever you want — holes heal. And no, you can’t just get tattoos removed. My Dead Head tramp stamp now looks like someone wiped it with Windex. “Removal” made that thing BIGGER, not smaller — how is that even possible?

Williston would not give up on me, even when I did. They knew I had smarts and knew I could make it, if I could just stay out of my own way long enough. They had to invent an entirely new level of triple-secret-last-chance-for-real-this-time probation for me when I went here, and there weren’t enough clipboards in the world to dissuade me from floating kegs down the Manhan — which may be why they filled it in. Sorry.

Every time I messed up, or self destructed, the Williston Administration would firmly, but kindly, step in, and remind me that I would not be happy if I got sent home. My home was here, and here is where I was kept safe and allowed to make mistakes in a controlled environment, so that I could learn from them and mature.

We were a sort of self-governing group of teens. We had eachothers’ backs, but when someone was acting like a jerk, they got schooled. Our dorm parents and the Admin were there to oversee, but most of my social skills and a lot of my business acumen were born after hours at Willy, or, let’s be honest, Ford, since that’s where I actually slept most of the time — where nightly forums on ALL subjects guided us toward adulthood.

Those are skills that I have to use every day in my business now. Don’t believe me? Then YOU try to tell Anna Wintour that yes, this is your natural hair colour, and oh by the way, you forgot the custom mixed nail polish you made for her. Then run.

I retain more friendships from Williston than from any other period in my life and I’ve lived, people. That’s proof of how critical this place is, and how critical these relationships are to you at this stage of your life. There are limited “grown ups” here, and although the ones that are here are awesome, it’s YOU who are raising each other, and YOU are doing a really fucking good job.

Go to college. Study all sorts of stuff, not just the stuff you think will land you the best employment. Remember that being an artist and being a business leader are NOT mutually exclusive. And above all, remember to trust yourself, because you are the most important person you know.

It’s not lost on me that there are many people out there who might say a woman who won’t dye her hair and wears a skinhead and a septum ring doesn’t belong in the beauty industry, and certainly couldn’t be the meaningful Founder of a multi-million dollar business.

Well, because of the love and support I received right here, at Williston, I have the confidence to say “Screw you, I can do anything I want.” And so can you, and so WILL you.

Congratulations Class of 2016! Go kick some ass.

For purposes of clarification, Butter London was founded in 2005 in Seattle WA. Nonie Creme came to the company several months later as Founding Creative Director, creating the now-famous nail lacquer line, and helping grow Butter London into a global entity.

Cum Laude Speech by Kate Nocera ’01

Editor’s note: Kate Nocera ’01 presented the following keynote address during the Williston Northampton School Cum Laude Induction Ceremony on January 15, 2016.

Thank you all for having me here today and thank you for that introduction, Mr. Hill although I do have to make a slight clarification…

My actual favorite memory from Williston was being at graduation and hearing them calling the names of the cum laude inductees, and hearing my name among them.

It’s my favorite memory because it almost never happened.

And I have Mr. Pilgrim’s permission to tell you this story but after I graduated he looked at the ribbon around my neck and said “I really can’t believe that you got that, actually I just can’t believe you graduated.”

So, thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr. Pilgrim.

Honestly though, I couldn’t believe it either. I spent a lot of my life here: from seventh to 12th grade. And in ninth and 10th grade I ran into a lot of what my teachers and parents preferred to just call “issues.”

I spent a lot of time in the Dean of Student’s office because I wasn’t that smart about being bad. I would skip class or practice to hang out in downtown Northampton… directly downstairs from my dad’s office.

I’d come home and he’d ask how swimming practice was and I’d say it was great and he would give me that look—yeah, you know the one— and he’d say, “Kate, I just saw you downtown. You were right there. Where I work.”

It’s probably not surprising that at that point my grades were… not great. But there were a lot of people here at Williston who had more faith in me than I had in myself and they pushed me to do better.

They helped me realize I had loftier ambitions than being a kid who skipped school to hang out downtown.

So I got my act together and I pushed to get into honors classes and I slowly worked my way towards Cum Laude.

I still remember how proud I felt on graduation day. What I don’t remember what the Commencement speaker said. Or what any speaker at any assembly ever said (except for Mr. Teller’s annual Button talk).

That’s because no speaker is going to give you the one piece of advice that will change your life. That advice doesn’t exist. But I’ll try and give you some tips I’ve learned along the way in the 15 years since I graduated.

Gross, that just made me feel so very old.

What I learned then— and what I am still learning now—is that you build your life one day at a time. You make a lot of choices and you learn from them. Other people in your life help you in expected—and unexpected—ways.

And every day you get to decide what you want to be when you grow up. I’m still figuring it out.

And there will be times, many times, along the way when you feel like a lost soul. When you look up all your high school friends on Instagram and see their lives through a Valencia filter, you’ll think they have their lives so together, that they are on a straight path to success. They’re not. No one is. It doesn’t exist.

Everyone has their ups and downs. But you may see some really good selfies in between.

After Williston, I went to Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York. But after two years I decided that wasn’t the right place for me, so I left and went home to figure out what I really wanted to do. It wasn’t fun to be off the four years of go-to-college-graduate-move-to-the-city-get-a-job path. It felt terrible, actually. But I came back to Northampton, took some time off to think about how I wanted to spend the rest of my college career, and decided I’d be more focused up the road at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

I commuted from my apartment downtown and took the classes I was truly interested in. I was focused. UMass was the first place I ever took a journalism class and where, for the first time, I thought maybe journalism was what I was meant to do. When I graduated, I moved to New York to try and make something happen in the journalism world.

And I made a lot of things happen. Just not journalism. Turns out it’s is a hard business to break into with no experience. So I worked as an assistant to a realtor—who was not a very good broker despite fancying herself one. And I’m fairly certain she was developing a building with a group of folks who may or may not have been affiliated with the mob.

Then I worked at a boutique divorce law firm where I was the front desk receptionist and watched a lot of really rich people fight over a lot of money. I worked at Trader Joes. I’ve been a barista many times over. And a coffee shop manager, thank you very much. And even though I am one of the messiest people I know, I thought I could be a housecleaner. But I was so horrible at it I only lasted for two cleanings.

My resumé was starting to look like BuzzFeed list of “27 Jobs You’d Never Expect A Williston Graduate to Have.” And reporter at BuzzFeed—or anywhere else—was not on that list yet. I realized that I was going to need some more experience and more education if I wanted to break into reporting.

In classic Kate Nocera fashion, I found out that the deadline to apply journalism graduate school was two weeks away. So I signed up for the GRE that day, sent in my application and, by some miracle, I got in. I got a lot out of journalism school, though, including some of my best friends in the universe. I met people in their 30s and 40s, starting second careers. People who, like me, were still in the process of figuring it all out.

Being a journalist put me in all sorts of situations with all sorts of people that I never would’ve been in otherwise. I loved asking questions and getting answers. You get to ask all the questions you want. And you get to ask them to people like Nancy Pelosi, Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. You also have to ask questions of people less famous who are struggling, hurt, and need their stories told.

When I graduated from J-School—that’s what you get to call journalism school after you graduate—I worked for the New York Daily News as a general assignment reporter. A typical day in the life of a general assignment reporter is: ‘Hey a bad thing happened, go to the neighborhood where the bad thing happened and write about it.’ And while I saw a lot of violence and tragedy, I saw a lot of good in people, too.

One of the first stories I was sent to cover was a young man who was shot and killed in the Bronx. It seemed random and senseless. And it was my job to go interview his mom. I had to knock on her door that morning and say “Hello, I’m with the newspaper would you like to tell me about your son?” She not only let me in, she made me coffee and told me his life story. I was inserting myself into the worst moment of this woman’s life, and she was letting me in. She cried on my shoulder. She told me about her son. His recent graduation. His new job. She was letting me tell her child’s story and it was an incredible privilege. It was one of those moments were I realized just how lucky I was to be doing what I was doing.

I have also had people slam the door in my face—and worse—when they didn’t feel like chatting. But everyday was a new adventure, with new questions to ask. I was starting to get some of that experience I needed to really break into the field, so I moved from New York to DC and started working at Politico covering healthcare policy.

And in 2013 I moved to BuzzFeed News, which at that point was still pretty new to the political reporting realm. But it was scrappy and fun, and one of the best things I’ve ever done. When I was reporting for BuzzFeed I spent my days, and sometimes my nights, in the halls of our nation’s capitol asking the tough questions of the people who write our laws. (also trying to explain what “BuzzFeed” was to octogenarian members of congress was a daily part of the job). It’s hard to describe how cool it was to talk to them and just walk into that building every day.

I interviewed Bernie Sanders, and let me tell you, no one has ever hated being interviewed as much as that man. Someone in his office clearly told him that doing an interview with BuzzFeed would be cool and hip. He wasn’t into it.

I was part of the team that did a huge amount of work covering Congress’s inability to pass a new war authorization … (we’re still fighting in Iraq and Syria under the one passed over a decade ago in the wake of September 11). We won the National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for Distinguished Coverage of Congress—one of the nation’s top reporting prizes—making BuzzFeed the first ever online-only publication to win. So that was cool.

I traveled the country covering Marco Rubio in 2014 when he was supposedly campaigning for other candidates and clearly practicing running for president.

And I got to smoke a cigarette with John Boehner when he was Speaker of the House.

P.S. HERE’S MY FIRST PIECE OF ADVICE: DON’T SMOKE. I recently quit smoking. Do not smoke. It is so bad. It made John Boehner’s teeth horrible. It made his office so disgusting he wasn’t allowed to have paintings from the Smithsonian in there. Just don’t.

I was away a lot, living the reporter life of being on the road, staying out too late and eating Subway sandwiches five times a week because that’s the only option when you’re reporting from middle-of-nowhere Iowa. And then I got really tired. It stopped being as fun as it once was. I really loved what I did in journalism. I knew I’d done incredible, important things, but I had gotten to a point in my life where I was ready to make a change. I had found a career I was good at, but that didn’t mean it was good for me.

It was time to ask that question again: what else do I want to be when I grow up? And I feel good about my choice to do something else. Sometimes I am a little sad I’m not out there with my former colleagues, covering the election. But then I realize spending every day explaining why Donald Trump is still in the lead probably isn’t the life I want to have.

I know it’s okay that I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life because that doesn’t exist anymore. Most people I know spend two or three years at a job. A lot of the people I most look up to in the world have had several careers. I’ve had a million jobs, and one whole career already. So I feel like I’m on the right track.
So, a here’s another little piece of advice that I hope you’ll find useful now, even if you forget it was me who said it in like 10 years: In every job you have, find someone you respect and look up to and ask them a lot of questions. Ask them for advice. They will give it to you. The good thing about having so many different jobs is that I now have an excellent collection of mentors.

But seriously, if there’s anything that’s going to help you get through life and make better decisions it’s asking as many questions as possible. So do it. Because some day the Vice President might look at you in the halls of the Senate and say “Do you have a question?” And you should have one ready for him. (I didn’t. It was horrible.)

I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten—this one I happen to remember very well. When I was about to go on my first assignment at the Daily News in New York, I asked my supervisor, “You have any advice?” And he said, “don’t eff it up.” I went out, I did my best, I got a story published. It wasn’t great, but I learned from it. It was a start.

So the good news is you won’t eff it up. Even things that feel like mistakes at the time will teach you something. And they will help you make a better decision the next time.

I left journalism to be a PR consultant. The most important lesson I learned there is that PR consulting is not for me. It wasn’t a mistake: I did great, I just didn’t love it.

Now I work on the business side of another online media company. I took the job because I love journalism so much that I want to make sure it continues to exist. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s a different way to challenge myself. I get to figure out how to make the revenue work in an industry that desperately needs it, in a way that respects the integrity of reporting.

If you don’t get what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to trust me, it’s super cool. So take risks. Make big choices. You won’t eff it up. Life is going to surprise you.

Sometimes a very bad habit leads to a conversation with the Speaker of the House.

Sometimes the upstart company wins the national award.

And sometimes the kid who no one thought would even graduate makes Cum Laude.

Thank you, and congratulations to all of this year’s Cum Laude inductees.

Convocation Keynote by John P. Booth Jr. ’83

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Headmaster Hill, parents, faculty, staff, students and friends of the Williston community, thank you for your warm welcome. It is an absolute pleasure to be back on campus to help kick off the start off the school year—Williston’s 175th.

Students of Williston, 33 years ago, I sat where you sit today as a new junior to the school, having no way of knowing I was going to be completely transformed by my two years at Williston. But before I tell you how Williston changed my life for the better, I’ve got to address the issue of my name. Think about it…a guy who has the same name as the man who assassinated one of our most revered Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, is speaking to you today. Imagine going through your life with the name John Booth.

“That’s not really your full name, is it?” “Did you shoot Lincoln?” “Is your middle name Wilkes?” And those are just the questions I get from the person I am ordering shirts from at Land’s End! As well, with a name like John Booth it is easy to acquire unsavory nicknames like: “Shooter,” “Assassin” or the ever popular “Wilkes.”

And yet, I am proud of my name…for it forced me to be resilient from a very young age.

Names are important. They often link us to our family’s past or tell something about our ethnic heritage. The surname Booth, as you might have guessed, is an English name and yet it reveals only part of my background. I am also one half Slovak—something my name does not reveal yet is so critical to who I am as a person.

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Commencement Address by Brad Hall ’75

Photo by Matthew CavanaughHeadmaster Hill, members of the board, alumni, teachers, staff, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, friends of the school, that guy who just wandered in thinking this was a wedding with an open bar, and of course graduating students of the class of 2015; it’s an honor to speak to you all on this auspicious day, a day that I have been dreading since Headmaster Hill invited me to speak.

Being asked by the Headmaster of your high school to do what’s basically an oral report is a nightmare for me—and I mean that literally. For DECADES I’ve had a recurring nightmare about returning to Williston to give a report and nobody tells me what it’s supposed to be about. So, thanks for making my most horrible dream come true. At least I am wearing clothes, because in the nightmare I am often naked — though sometimes I am dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader. Oh, God—I AM dressed like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, so perhaps the nightmare is coming true; which is good news for you, because that means you’ll all get to meet Sofia Vergara in a minute, and believe me, SHE won’t be dressed like Ruth Bader Ginsberg…

So, you did it, class of 2015! You are graduating! You have been looking forward to this day, your High School graduation day, for at least 13 years. That’s how long you’ve been going to school. Can you believe that? Thirteen years, for nine months a year, five days a week—or in some cruel, barbaric institutions six days a week.

Well, now it’s over. You are through with school forever. Congratulations. You will never again have to attend another class, read another book, or write another paper ot get up before noon.

Oh—wait a second. That’s right. You’re just graduating from high school. Now you’ve got to go to college. And then graduate school. And then post-graduate school. And then prison, which is seven days a week unless you get one of these cool ankle bracelets…

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Coming Full Circle by Sarah Williams Carlan ’92

The feelings of love and belonging are essential to the human experience. We need them as much as we need food, water, and shelter. For the past 20 years I have studied this human need, in text books, through research, and finally, with my clients and their families. The first time I felt love and belonging, outside of my family and close friends, was at Williston.

I came to the Williston Middle School after two years of feeling like a player without a playbook. For those two years I came to school feeling like everyone else knew the rules to the game and I was in the dark. I had difficulty making friends and could not seem to cram the spelling words and math facts into my head as fast as the teachers wanted me to. My sense of isolation grew like tumor in my chest, leaving me feeling empty and alone.

When my parents generously gave me the opportunity to apply to Williston, I was elated. I felt like I had been pardoned by the governor. I could finally get out of this place! I had no idea what I was stepping into.

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