Commencement Address 2020 - Kingswood Oxford

Commencement Addresses

May 21, 2020

Commencement Address 2020

Please give another round of applause and honks for Mr. Hild’s wonderful speech.


Before I give my charge to the class, there are some people that we all need to thank.


First, this has been the most unique and challenging commencement ceremony to plan for in the history of all commencements (I have not actually researched this, but I feel fairly confident in making that statement). It is not every day that we prepare for a graduation in the midst of a global pandemic. Our Buildings & Grounds crew led by Justin W. – Dean, Roy, Greg, and Kyle, who have been working non-stop to mow the lawns, hang banners, and set up the stage, among many other things.  Elizabeth Bellingrath was of enormous help throughout the planning, as were David Hild, Dan Gleason, Will Gilyard, and Carolyn McKee. And finally, our field general who helped to bring it all together – Sherri Malinoski.


There is another group of people who need to be thanked, and while they were not involved in the setup, they were very much involved in making sure you are here today, about to graduate from this 111-year-old school.  Students, please rise and face your parents for a minute.  They have been your biggest supporters and have made more sacrifices than they can count in time, money, and energy to ensure that you become the thoughtful and well-adjusted young adults that you are. Please blow them a kiss, a social-distanced high five, or whatever way you can to let them know you love them and are thankful for all they have done for you.

Another group of people needs to be thanked who were more immediately responsible for you being here  – your teachers – though they cannot be with us in person, they are here in spirit and are watching on the live stream -and they will be in the Faculty Parking Lot to send you off with a 2020 version of the faculty receiving line.   Please join me in thanking this incredibly talented and committed faculty. 


Charge to the Class of 2020:


To the Class of 2020, I recognize that I stand between you and your well-earned diplomas, so I promise you I will not be long. As we gather for this 108th commencement of our school on our beautiful campus in West Hartford, we do so within the context of a world that has been transformed almost overnight by a global pandemic and a country whose streets are spilling forth from the frustration of 250 years of injustice. Whether we like it or not, this is the world that confronts us, and it is the world that you enter into more fully upon leaving Kingswood Oxford School. 


Embrace the Uncertainty.


Yesterday morning I was hoping sooo badly that it would rain between 2-4 pm (but not so much that it would drench this field). I wished for ominous clouds, thunderous claps, and brilliant flashes of lightning. Anything to validate what was a very difficult decision to move our commencement to today. The day before that, I was wrestling with uncertainty and wishing I could predict the weather.  Of course, the weather is unpredictable, but I wanted as much certainty as I could get. And I’m not alone – have you ever stopped to consider why we spend so much time obsessing about the weather? It is now a $7 billion television industry and consumes a good portion of every local ½ hour news report. There is a dedicated national TV network to just the weather- the Weather Channel is ranked #7 overall, just below Netflix but above such stalwarts as ABC, NBC, CBS, and HBO. Why?   


We work very hard to make our lives as “certain” as possible, as predictable as we can. It’s not just a preference; our brains are wired to seek certainty – scanning our external environment to avoid threats. In caveman times, this meant looking out for wild animals that might gobble us up. Today it means watching the weather channel for reassurance and predictability. Parents, too, are biologically programmed to protect and provide for their young – so we go to great lengths trying to remove obstacles in your path and create as much certainty about your future as we can – we buy cars that have the highest safety ratings and put safety nets on the trampolines.  At school, you run through a pretty regimented schedule, taking English in A block and Math in B, with Mock Trial on Wednesdays, SAT tutoring on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and soccer practice three nights a week. Whatever variation of a schedule like that you might have, it is nonetheless a schedule, and your adherence to it provides a degree of certainty and expectation about the future. 


So now you enter a world with more uncertainty than ever before, and you will need to be comfortable with things being different than you had originally anticipated. The plan has changed. The schedule has changed.  Your success in dealing with that very much hinges on your acceptance of the fact that nothing is really certain in life (except for death and taxes).  We can’t predict the future.  So while planning is important and schedules are useful, do not forget to pause and enjoy today. Others may worry about what has been lost or if classes will start in person or online in the fall. I encourage you to focus on the many blessings you have today and “not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will worry about it itself.”  Rely on your adventurous spirit, go for a destination-less jog like Mr. Hild suggested at Class Night, and live a little more in the moment. Watch “Dead Poet’s Society” and make “Carpe Diem” (“Seize the Day”) your new motto.  After that, watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and heed his advice that “life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you could miss it.”  (though I completely disagree with his decision to skip school that day).


In uncertain times, you can also lean on your friends or loved ones. Remember, you are not alone, and there is a certain comfort in knowing that everyone is in this together. As Samantha Young writes in her book On Dublin Street, which I have not read but discovered as I searched for a good quote about uncertainty to share with you, only then to discover that the book is of the “Adult Romance” genre and is apparently pretty steamy. Still, it works, so I”m using it…


“Sometimes the clouds weren’t weightless. Sometimes their bellies got dark and full. It was life. It happened. It didn’t mean it wasn’t scary or that I wasn’t still afraid, but now I knew that as long as I was standing under it with Braden beside me when those clouds broke, I’d be alright. We’d get rained on together. Knowing Braden, he’d have a big-ass umbrella to shelter us from the worst of it. That there was an uncertain future, I could handle.” – 


Sometimes it just helps to go into the unknown with someone beside you, like Braden. So don’t forget that you are not alone and that you have each other. Class of 2020, I know you will handle anything the world throws at you with the same kind of courage and resilience that you have already shown this spring.


2.  Secondly, I encourage you not to let this powerful movement for justice, now in its 12th day, to go by without understanding what it is about and without it impacting your conscience. You may not realize this yet, but this is pretty unique – we may be witnessing what future historians could call the 2nd Civil Rights Movement, or perhaps it will earn its own nomenclature. While the first one responded to overt kinds of racism, like segregation and voting, today’s movement digs deeper at underlying and implicit forms of bias that continue to perpetuate inequality in our society. You should care about this.


I know you have witnessed it yourself, whether at school or online, and I urge you not to be indifferent to it – read and study, gain a fuller understanding of why these inequities exist, and consider what you could do to make a difference. It may be that you decide you will no longer stay silent when you witness hateful language. It may be that you feel that fire in your belly and want to march with others (with a mask on, please) to demand change. Most of the great movements for change in modern history have been led not by old fogies like me but by students who were your age.  It was young people that were at the heart of the anti-Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Teenagers helped end Apartheid in South Africa and bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989.   And it is heartening to see the thousands of young people leading peaceful protests in streets across America, like the one later today across the street from our school, using their voices and their constitutional rights to pressure those in power to bring about meaningful change. 


I am not saying you all need to be activists and show up at every protest. But I am suggesting that we should also not be silent bystanders to history or stand idle in the march towards becoming a more just and equitable society. This was the incomplete work of our founding fathers, and while we took a step forward during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, there is still work to be done in building MLK”s “Beloved Community” – a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love.  Figure out how you can play your part, but start by caring.


Class of 2020 – you are a special class and will always be remembered  – sure, partly because you graduate at an extraordinary time – at the confluence of a global pandemic and a national uproar over continuing injustice.  In 20 years, you may be telling a friend:  “Yeah, I graduated during the Pandemic of 2020,” or perhaps, “My commencement time was changed because it coincided with one of the Civil Rights Protests of 2020.”  However, your class is not defined by events happening outside. You are special to us because of the positive impact you have made on the Kingswood Oxford community – your kindness, your resilience, and the positive model you have set for those that come after you. You have challenged us at times, wowed us with your many talents, and kept us laughing. You are why we enjoy teaching and working at schools. We will miss you dearly but are excited for you as you head off toward your next big adventure.


So with all that said, let’s get down to business!

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