Commencement Address 2021 - Kingswood Oxford

Commencement Addresses

May 21, 2021

Commencement Address 2021

Now Seniors, all that lies between you and your diplomas is me, so I promise to be relatively brief. Before I give the “Charge to the Senior Class,” I need us to acknowledge some important people.


First, it’s important to recognize that an event like this doesn’t happen spontaneously, particularly in a year of COVID. It takes an army of dedicated people, and I am thankful to everyone who played a part in making this happen today. I’d like to give a particular shout-out to our Buildings and Grounds Crew, who worked tirelessly to set all of this up and make the campus look so beautiful.  As well our “field generals,” Sherri Malinoski and Justin Wolfradt, who spent countless hours behind the scenes, bring all of the pieces of the puzzle together. 


The Board of Trustees of our school are normally up here on stage with us, but this year they are watching virtually to ensure we have enough space for all of you. Though you don’t see them on a daily basis, they work tirelessly to ensure that our school is on a good footing – that we respect our past while moving boldly into the future.  They have full-time jobs but give so much of their time, energy, and resources to our school  Please join me in thanking the Board of Trustees. I also want to give a special thanks this year to Brad Hoffman. This is Brad’s final commencement as the Chair of the Board. He is a proud and committed alum of KO and has been one of the longest-serving chairs in the history of our school. He has done so much for Kingswood Oxford over the years, and we are so grateful for his service. Thank you, Brad Hoffman! 


To our Parents of Seniors, please stand. Parents, thank you for partnering with us and entrusting us with the daunting but noble task of educating your children. Seniors, your parents have been your biggest fans and have made more sacrifices than they can count in time, money, and energy, to ensure that you have become the thoughtful and well-adjusted young adults that you are. Thank you, parents!


Lastly, Faculty, please rise.  Seniors, where would you be without this amazing group of talented and caring teachers, who brought you into their lives, shared their passions with you, challenged you, picked you up when you were down, encouraged you to try something new, and believed in you every minute of the day?  This year, in particular, our teachers had to make so many adjustments, from teaching fully online to figuring out lesson plans for students that were in-person and online simultaneously. And it was an unsettling experience, to say the least, to walk into a classroom filled with students back in September. But they did it because they care and want what’s best for each of you. Please join me in thanking the faculty of Kingswood Oxford School.


Charge to the Class of 2021


The tradition at our school is that the HOS gives a “Charge” to the graduating class. I suppose it’s meant to be a  kind of “go forth and prosper” speech.  But I’ll be honest with you – after the year and a half that you’ve had, it was hard to figure out what exactly to charge you with. Or perhaps there is just too much to say.  Your senior year has been defined by a global pandemic that has cost the lives of almost 600,000 in the United States and 3.5 million people around the world. It’s a year in which many have lost jobs, and mental health crises have proliferated, particularly among young people, a year in which our national conscience has been shaken, awakened to ongoing racial injustices, a year in which our politics have become even more toxic and the cultural fault lines of our nation have widened further. A year in which we witnessed an assault on the Capitol.


That’s enough for a lifetime, much less a senior year.  How do you make sense of all that? It must be awfully confusing. This is the world you are inheriting, and I think there are at least a couple of lessons that you can take from this experience that I hope will help you manage through difficult times in the future.


Don’t Take Things for Granted

If there is any lesson that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we take a lot of things for granted in our lives.  Who knew a year ago that we would soon consider it a privilege to travel out of the state, to sit together with friends and enjoy a meal, to hug grandparents, to go to school?  It was not until we were denied the regular, even mundane elements of our lives, those things we would never have called “special” before, that we realized how important they are to us and how lucky we are to have them.

There’s an old story about a farmer who goes to seek advice from a philosopher that I think serves as a good example of what I’m talking about. The farmer says to the philosopher:


“We’re so poor, our house is tiny, and my family is constantly at each other’s throats,” laments the farmer. The philosopher ponders on this problem for a few minutes. “Bring one of your goats inside your home,” he says. “Come back and see me in a week.”

The farmer and his family spend the next week living with their stinky goat. A week later, the farmer comes back even more distraught. He says, “It’s awful. Our house has gotten more cramped, my daughters are fighting with each other, and I tripped over the goat and hit my head!”


“Good,” says the philosopher, “This week, bring in two more goats and a cow.” And so the farmer does so. This cycle of complaints goes on for several weeks until all of the farmer’s livestock are in the house.


Finally, the philosopher smiles and says, “Now, put all of your animals back outside.” The next day the farmer comes running back. “Ah, I see now! Our house is huge; we don’t know what to do with all the space. My family stopped fighting, and we’re glad to get those darn animals out. Oh, and I haven’t felt this happy in years!”


The farmer had the same family, the same house, and was just as poor but was a lot happier.  


It is often not until our situations change on us or we experience a loss that we recognize what really matters to us. When I was your age, I heard this same message in 1989 from someone on a stage, though I think I had more fun hearing it then than you are now since mine was at a rock concert in Frankfurt, Germany, with my friends listening to the 80s rock band, Cinderella, as they belted out their one-hit-wonder “Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone.” 


This same sentiment was expressed in a poignant scene in the movie Good Will Hunting when the therapist, Sean MacGuire, played by the late great actor Robin Williams reflects on the loss of his wife and explains to the troubled young genius, Will Hunting that “You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.”  


You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.


You can be assured that there will be tough times ahead, and you will, unfortunately, experience loss again. That’s life. But I know you are better equipped than most other classes that came before you to weather these storms. My charge to you is to take stock, to draw from this experience to help get you through.  Every once in a while, think back to this year and remind yourself to appreciate the things we take for granted –  how fortunate you are to have a roof over your head,  a warm bed in which to sleep, and the support and love of friends and family who will always be there for you. You don’t need much more than that in this world to find happiness and to get through hard times.


The other lesson from his year that you showed so beautifully is that when things get tough, don’t swim against the current. There are things we can control in this world, and there are things we cannot. This year was “outta control!” In those moments, you have two choices. You can lament and ask God why he has it out for you. You can yell at the universe. You can be angry and upset. That’s normal. But you will find peace and be able to manage through difficult times once you accept the new reality and adjust your expectations. Acknowledge the impermanence of life – that sometimes “it is what it is” and go with the flow.  It’s like the advice I’ve heard about surviving a riptide when swimming. If you’re ever in a riptide, the one thing you don’t do is try to fight the current and swim back to shore. It’s a hopeless battle and can be fatal. If you’re caught in a riptide, allow yourself to go with the current to take you out a bit further, at which point you can either swim parallel to the shore for a while to escape the current or allow it to bring you back in.  Either way, you’re better off accepting your new reality than fighting against it. Lao-Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, explained the power of living by “it is what it is” in 6 BC: 


“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”


Accept “what is,” adjust to the new reality, and rest in the comfort that because everything changes, “this too shall pass.” 

Class of 2021 did this magnificently this year. You didn’t swim against the current; you didn’t curse fate – as the world spun out of control around you, you went with the flow. You zoomed. You wore masks. You socially distanced. You played shortened sports seasons and sang in virtual choirs.  There were many sacrifices you had to make, but you learned to appreciate things we used to take for granted. You were dealt a bad hand, but you said, “It is what it is,” and made the most of what you had. You showed such grace this year, such resilience, such patience. And we are so very proud of you. Take these lessons with you and use them to help you navigate through future stormy seas and when you are faced with having to make sacrifices again.  


Know that our doors are always open for you here at Kingswood Oxford, and we can’t wait to hear about your adventures when you return to say hello. I leave you with a somewhat overused Gaelic blessing, but overused perhaps for good reason:


May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of his hand.


Now…let’s get down to business!


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