Three Questions for the Class of 2018: A Commencement Reflection

Members of the St. George’s Independent School Class of 2018

[Posted here is my reflection from the Commencement Exercises at St. George’s Independent School held on Saturday, May 19th. On Wednesday, I will post the two student speeches in one blog post from the school’s Baccalaureate Service held on the 18th, and on Thursday, I will do the same thing with the Valedictorian and Salutatorian speeches from Commencement on Saturday. On Friday, I will post the excellent Baccalaureate reflection from Tom Morris, the Head of Upper School who, after a remarkable tenure at SGIS is leaving for a new role at Wyoming Seminary over the summer.]

Good morning! And welcome to family and friends, to faculty and staff, and in particular to the Class or 2018.

I am grateful to the Class of 2018 for bringing us together today. Seniors, think for a few seconds about all of the people who have gathered together today, include those who couldn’t make it but are waiting for a report about how it went. You are the reason for this gathering. Who you have become, or better, who you are becoming has brought us together on this Saturday morning, and we are grateful.

Now the people under this tent are guilty of asking you relentlessly over the last month where you are going. We have been asking you, “what are you going to do?” and “where you are going to go?” for so long now that there is a risk that your eyes will be caught permanently at the height of an eye roll. Of all the questions we ask, it strikes me as a bit strange that our most important questions remain too often unasked. So, at this final moment before you cross the stage and receive your diploma from Mr. McGuffee, I am going to ask you three of these questions. Pens and paper are being passed forward from the back. Here we go: First, who do you want to be? Note the difference between this question and the more common, “What do you want to do?”—the former has to do with one’s character, the latter in this case has to do with your college choice or work-place. The second question: How would like to leave the places you will live, work, and contribute better for your presence? And finally, the third question: To what beliefs will you hold tightly when the losses that inevitably visit our lives come calling?

There are moments in our lives that seem simultaneously to go by too fast and to freeze time—impossible, I know, but the days surrounding a Commencement Ceremony are just such a time when it is possible to see further backward and to see a bit further ahead than our daily lives generally permit. For our Seniors, this Class of 2018 in particular, I don’t believe we should waste such moments. Linger in them just a bit longer, not simply to enjoy the company of a class that has been so deeply connected for years and years, but also to provide space for reflection not only on what has brought you to this time and this place but also to reflect on what is to come in your lives. The word graduation indicates a departure—it focuses on leaving a place, and in truth most of the time I have used the word “graduation” more than I have the word “commencement,” the word on the cover of the program today.  The difference between the two words is important. While a Graduation celebrates more what has come before, a commencement looks ahead—it is a beginning. If the road for Seniors over the last weeks has been a season of lasts, let’s think of today as the start of a season of beginnings, of commencements—a chance to look ahead.

Now I know you all have been thinking about the future because I read your yearbook pages where you each completed sentences beginning with, “In the future I will…” I didn’t spend as much time on your senior quotations though the wit was often sparkling… Hats off to Trey Royalty in particular for a bit of profound insight from Steve Martin who said, “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” Well-done, Trey.

I spent far more time reading your statements beginning with, “In the future I will… .” While they were each strangely impressive, some even intriguingly cryptic, they certainly didn’t provide much of a crystal ball for your actual futures. For those of you who may not have studied the yearbook yet, here is a sampling:

  • Unsurprisingly following her heart straight to Chilis, Kate Seabrook said, “In the future I will marry my own Derek Shepherd and live out my days working at Chili’s and building an underground Crocs empire with Emma.”
  • Robert Weaver kept things simple… and frightening, saying: “In the future I will dominate the world.”
  • Carson Moriarity set the bar high, asserting: “In the future I will try to be on time to class for a week straight.

Griffin Hancock pointed out what is true I am certain for many of his classmates when he wrote: “In the future I don’t know what I’ll do.” While I know that Griffin may have simply gone quickly through a Senior survey when he answered that question, his statement about the future doesn’t worry me. Very few of us have a vision of the future that works out the way we envisioned anyway. I worry more if someone doesn’t have any sense of what type of person he or she wishes to become, or a sense of the general areas where he or she would like to make the community better, or a sense of where he or she will draw strength when he or she suffers loss.

When I was a senior in High School, I thought that adulthood was a kind of destination—a place one arrives, a train station at the end of a line where I would exit with luggage full of knowledge and understanding that then would remain somewhat the same for the rest of my life. I was deeply incorrect.  The best learning you have done here revealed to you that learning is lifelong and that learning more is a responsibility, a responsibility to yourself, to those who have invested so fully in you, and to the communities where you will live and work.

“The best learning you have done here revealed to you that learning is lifelong and that learning more is a responsibility, a responsibility to yourself, to those who have invested so fully in you, and to the communities where you will live and work.”

In the future you will go to amazing places, you will make great things happen, you will suffer disappointments (and you will rise above them). You will meet people who positively impact you and change the trajectory of your life. You will study things that challenge you to reimagine some of what you thought you knew. You will love and sacrifice for people you have not yet met. At each juncture you will learn more, you will understand more fully, and, I hope, you will appreciate more deeply the gifts you have been given in your education.

So much that you have learned at St. George’s will help you answer the questions: Who do you want to be? How would you like to leave the places you will live and work better for your presence? And finally: To what beliefs will you hold tightly when the losses that inevitably visit our lives come calling? Even as you go far away, know that you can’t leave St. George’s—it is now part of who you are and who you will be, and you are a permanent part of the fabric of this rare school as well.

Thank you, Class of 2018—we will miss you and hope you return often.

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