Three Refrains for the Class of 2017: A Commencement Address

Good afternoon! Welcome to all gathered here in support of the St. George’s Independent School’s Class of 2017. This class has on a regular basis made me proud to be a part of this community.

These seniors have earned this day in this place surrounded by this group—surrounded by families, by faculty, by staff, and by friends. They are an accomplished group—it is beyond my ability to delineate every contribution here though suffice to say, the members of this class have impacted our school in positive and lasting ways. They have been scholars, artists, athletes, actors, friends, mistake-makers, victory-winners, supporters, leaders, Saturday-schoolers; they have been members of teams, makers of grades, givers of service, and they have sometimes stayed up most of the night and slept most of the day. They have been part of us, vital parts of the body of this school, their school. Perhaps representative of this, next week many of them will continue to represent St. George’s in state athletic competition in Track, Tennis, Baseball and Soccer. LET ME ASK ANY SENIOR COMPETING NEXT WEEK TO STAND AND BE RECOGNIZED. Clearly, we aren’t quite ready to let go of you yet!

 I too often live in my head—there are always things churning around up here between my ears. And indeed, such was the case as I started to work through what I might tell this class, this memorable class of 2017, before they cross this stage and move ahead to what comes next. I started and restarted and stopped and pondered. I was taking too long, and I was risking falling short of my duty, my last duty, to this group before they join the impressive alumni group of this school.

And then I had a three-campus experience Friday morning that resolved my dilemma. In the first three hours of the day, I shook hands with Memphis campus students and families heading into their awards ceremony, and later I witnessed as teachers on the Germantown campus recognized students for citizenship, and finally, I hurried over to Agape Chapel where I met up with you and read you a story and rehearsed this very ceremony. After all that, I realized that I don’t have something new to say, but I do have a couple of refrains to share—I need a last determined calling out to you, imploring you to stay focused on what is most important. Here is my list: number one, honor others; number two, celebrate other’s accomplishments; number three, remember the simple good.

The Memphis campus students are becoming excellent at shaking hands and making eye contact with me. I think I may have scared some of them earlier in the year when I mentioned in my teacher voice that I would like them to work on this skill, so on Friday as I was greeting them, a number held their eyes particularly wide open to make sure I would note their quality eye-contact, as they stopped long enough to say: “Good morning, Mr. Peters” or as a few say, “Good morning, Mr. Ross Peters.” They are learning that that it is important to greet others well in order to recognize and value, even in that fleeting moment of a hand-shake, the lives of others. This ritual of shaking hands is a way that we honor each other, a way that we name each other, and a way that we humanize each other. A warm greeting, long enough to make eye contact, short enough not to hold up the line, stands for all the ways we honor others.

I missed a good bit of the Germantown Award ceremony in route from the Memphis campus. Hurrying from my car I made it to the Chapel just in time to see the Citizenship Awards. I edged along the outside aisle to find a seat behind Ms. Colgate, who along with Carolyn Wilder Morton, Jane Finney and Pat McGraw is retiring at the end of this school year. LET ME ASK THAT EACH OF THEM STAND TO BE RECOGNIZED. So after taking my seat, I had a perfect view of each teacher greeting and celebrating with the students being recognized. There was a lovely intimacy in this exchange—the teacher handing a certificate to an excited child, the two of them turning together toward the camera to get their picture taken. Beyond the stage there was a joyously full chapel with kids and families, teachers, and staff not simply clapping for those recognized but living within a connection to each other—a kind of communion. It is a beautiful convergence for me that just moments ago we celebrated the accomplishments of four members of our community whose lives within St. George’s were defined by supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of others. So, to the Class of 2017 in whatever life you build, do that, please, do what they and many others have done for you…celebrate and support others.

After ghosting away immediately after the Germantown campus Awards Ceremony, I drove to the Agape Chapel and met you there. I did on the last weekday of your Senior year what I did on one of the very first days of Pre-K for another group when I arrived in 2015—I read you a children’s story. There is so much that is intricate and complex in our world—it is not going to get simpler. That said, it is often the simple things, the things we first heard from the lips of our parents or learned from gentle nudges from our first teachers or even heard in a story read to us as we drifted to sleep at bedtime that offer us the guidance to navigate the world. Those stories tell us to: listen, cooperate, share, forgive, be kind, and love.

We live within a culture defined to a large degree by the priority of “getting what’s mine”, as in “I am determined to get what’s mine.” The class of 2017 does not need to learn but rather they need to remember Dr. King’s counter-point to that potentially corrosive cultural characteristic. I discussed this topic in our MLK Chapel early this year. He said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” I said in January and echo today that, “this question should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.” Seniors, you felt this push shaking hands, you felt it as you developed your sense of community. It is in the end a push toward something really simple, but not at all easy. It is the challenge of our lives.

Godspeed Class of 2017! Thank you.

Above: the 2016-2017 St. George’s Independent School Prefects

Above: new graduates celebrating in front of the SGIS Agape Chapel

Prioritizing Student Engagement in the Liminal Space

Every Junior made a square for the Class of 2017 quilt
A details from the Class of 2017 Quilt…every junior made a square

In a blog entry several years ago I wrote this about rites of passage:

I have always been fascinated with rites of passage as they make ritual from the incomprehensible space between one stage of life and the next.  Rites of passage represent moments where we are between and therefore we are nowhere—not where we were and not quite where we will be. In response to such moments, we create ceremonies, we say a prayer or two, we have parties, and perhaps we wear silly hats.  We used to give each other watches.

Last week I spoke for a few minutes to our current juniors, the St. George’s Independent School class of 2017, about the school year to come–a year in which they will be counted on as leaders while simultaneously bracing themselves for the following year when virtually every routine, every group that has been familiar will be replaced by routines and groups they cannot yet see or fathom. They are entering a liminal space where all messages can seem conflicting–all is possibility but everything is out of their hands; it is the “time of their lives” but also the most difficult moment many of them have faced.

I spoke to our juniors at the end of their class trip to Victory Ranch. Over the course of a couple of days, they had not only connected over various group physical challenges, but they had also worked together to imagine a better school and finally suggest some changes to their Head of School–hence my cue to speak.

Since my last blog post, “Student Engagement: It Has To Come First”, I have been thinking about the components of student engagement, and while reflecting on my time with the juniors, I realize that my initial list was incomplete.

Here is the list from the last blog entry, somewhat abbreviated, from my original post:

  • engagement begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students.
  • students will not be engaged in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • deep engagement is not comfortable.
  • engagement is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking.
  • without engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic.

What I neglected to emphasize was the importance of listening to students to create engagement. This strikes me as particularly true when they are in these moments between. The moment between I am referring to might be something as large as graduation from high school, but it could also be any moment between when a student first hears a concept in class and when he or she grasps it and makes meaning from it. On different scales each example represents a liminal moment for students. In education we have emphasized the importance of students listening to teachers, but we have often missed a key correlation between teachers listening to students and the students’ engagement in and ownership of their learning. Additionally, we have often minimized the correlation between students listening to other students in creating a culture of engagement in our classrooms. As teachers we can get so caught up in what we need to say that we miss opportunities to hear our students and create ample moments for them to hear each other and collaborate.

The time the Class of ’17 spent on their class retreat provided a rich chance for students to work with, to hear, to make plans with, and to challenge each other. In turn, they challenged all the teachers who joined them…and they challenged me. I believe they will be better prepared for their senior year and our school will be stronger as a result. Most relevant here, however, there was no hiding their engagement, sustained, deep, and loud, in the work they shared together.