Commencement Address 2023 - Kingswood Oxford

Commencement Addresses

June 27, 2023

Commencement Address 2023

To our newly minted alums, before I give the “Charge to the Senior Class,” I’d like us to take a brief moment to thank some important people. While this day is certainly the result of your efforts and the many sacrifices you have made, I think we would be remiss were we not to take a quick moment to recognize the people who helped you get to this point.  


First, to the many people who helped make this ceremony happen today. The physical setting of the KO commencement is surrounded by school buildings that have seen thousands of Wyverns walk their halls and encircled by large oak trees on a bed of grass we call the Senior Green; it truly is a remarkable place and an intimate way to celebrate our senior class and send them off into the world. But some people on this campus work tirelessly to make it look THIS nice – please join me in thanking our B&G crew for spending countless hours ensuring everything is in tip-top shape. Kingswood Oxford West Hartford Commencement


And a special thanks goes to Sherri Malinsoki and Michael Bane and the many others for coordinating today’s ceremony. It is truly a labor of love for the entire community.


We also owe a great debt of gratitude to the Trustees of Kingswood Oxford School. You may not see them on a daily basis,  but their leadership, support, and unwavering commitment to KO have make it possible for us to fulfill our mission to “inspire students to excel and lead lives of integrity.” Please join me in thanking the Board of Trustees.


To our Parents of Seniors, thank you for sharing your amazing children with us. There is no greater task or honor than to partner with you in raising your children. We are a better school because of them. Parents, we will miss seeing you around campus as well. I always tell graduating seniors “not to be strangers” and that “this will always be a home away from home for you” and I extend that welcome to you too.  Seniors, your parents have been your biggest supporters and have made so many sacrifices over the years, in both time and money,  for you to earn this diploma. Please join me in thanking your parents!


Lastly, I’d like the faculty and staff to rise.  Seniors, where would you be without this amazing group of talented and caring adults, who brought you into their lives, shared their passions with you, challenged you to reach further heights than you believed you could, picked you up when you fell down, and believed in you every minute of the way?  Please join me in thanking the amazing faculty and staff of Kingswood Oxford School.


As someone who has been tasked with speaking in front of others quite often, whether in my prior life as a teacher or my current one as a head of school, offering this charge each year to the graduating class is as daunting an assignment as they come. The word “charge” sounds so intimidating…anything short of inspiring graduates to change the world, save the planet, scale the highest mountains, and cross the deepest seas, and I’m shortchanging you. When I hear the word “charge” I imagine a general on horseback waving a sword in the air, trying to compel scared-looking soldiers to charge across a battlefield with the odds not so much in their favor. Of course, the reality is not soldiers, but just this group of smart and eager seniors thinking, “Come on, Dillow, let’s cut to the chase, please.” So I will.


Class of 2023, you are unlike most of the other classes that came before you.  Your years here have been marked by generational events that students will read about in future history books. A global pandemic sent you home to study online during your Form 4 spring and severely altered your athletic and artistic opportunities that next fall.  During your other years at KO, you’ve experienced a national reckoning about ongoing racial injustice, watched a mob invade our nation’s capitol building, and discovered the fragile openings in our democratic institutions. You have witnessed the sad decline of citizenship in the halls of Congress, as leaders elevate party above country. And you’ve watched corrosive culture wars stream out on Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok, while real war plays out on the once fertile fields of Ukraine. That’s a lot to take in just the past few years, and you would have every right to complain, cry foul, curse fate for your bad luck.  But you didn’t.  Instead, you stood tall and showed our leaders what respectful dialogue looks like, how to compromise for the good of the whole, and how to lead with love rather than anger.  During Covid, you amazed us with your strength, resilience, and positivity. You got punched in the face but got right back up as if to say, “Is that all you got world?” These experiences have shaped you, sharpened you, and made you better prepared for the journey ahead. And your talents burst forth on the stage last night like a butterfly breaking out of it’s cocoon after a long, latent slumber. More than a few faculty members, some of whom have been here for more than 30 years, commented that it was the best Class Night they’ve witnessed yet.  It was truly a celebration and a declaration that you are here and that you are not done yet.  If I were a betting man (and I am, sometimes) I would put my money on you. This class is going places.


Kingswood Oxford West Hartford CommencementSo what can my charge be to a class that is already ahead of the game? I will offer one charge that I think you have earned and two others that I believe will help you stay grounded and bring you peace in your life’s journey.


First, given the challenges you’ve faced, I charge you to make up for some lost time. Have fun. Take a day off every once in a while, like my 80s hero Ferris Bueller did. My favorite quote from that iconic movie, other than “Well, with your bad knee Ed, you shouldn’t throw anybody,” is “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you could miss it.”  I charge you to stop and look around every once in a while.  You’ve earned it.


Secondly, for as self-actualized as you already are, you are not a finished product, and there will still be times when you will make mistakes.  When you do, whenever you are at fault, I charge you to own it and to say you are sorry. The only thing keeping you from doing the right thing, from correcting a wrong, is pride. And our ego is the main obstacle to growth. To quote Sophocles, “Everyone makes mistakes, but a good person yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” 

And finally, when YOU have been wronged, I charge you to let go of anger and to forgive others. Allowing a grudge to persist will either lead you down the dangerous path of seeking revenge, where you will only add more negative energy and anger to the world, or to adopt feelings of self-pity where you will define yourself as a victim. Both of these are ultimately forms of self-incarceration. 


Holding a grudge or withholding forgiveness is chaining yourself to your anger, and it can literally weigh you down. Researchers in the Netherlands discovered that people who are more forgiving can, on average, jump higher than people who hold grudges. Subjects in the study who were asked to write about a time they forgave others averaged a standing jump of 11.8 inches, while those who were asked to reflect on a time they withheld forgiveness averaged 8.5 inches per jump. I’m not kidding!  Other studies have indicated that people who forgive perceive hills to be less steep.  Now, I’m not suggesting that you should forgive others simply so that you can jump higher, though it would seem to make some sense if you were training to make the basketball team. Or, I suppose that if a plague of rats scurries through our streets one day, the forgivers will be better off than the others.  Interestingly, there are examples of forgiveness and reconciliation in the animal kingdom – most prominently among mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. They can get into some wicked fights with each other but then end up embracing and kissing as if nothing happened.  Apparently, the only species that so far has failed to show outward signs of reconciliation is the domestic cat. I swear I”m not anti-cat…I read this. 


Letting go of your anger and forgiving someone else is not an easy thing to do.  It’s why Mahatma Gandhi declared that “the weak can never forgive” and that “ forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” It is why the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope said, “To err is human and to forgive is divine”  It requires a great deal of humility, compassion, and overcoming to forgive someone who has wronged us because in doing so, we acknowledge that we too are not perfect, that we are also capable of harm to others.  In his Waking Up app, the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris reminds us that all of us are dealing with something:


“Almost everyone you meet is practically drowning in self-concern. Just look at them, listen to them. They are broadcasting their own self-doubt, and anxiety, and disappointment. They are worried about what others think of them. If you get out of yourself for a moment, if you can just take a step back from feeling implicated in what’s happening around you, you will generally see that you are surrounded by a carnival of human frailty. So, compassion is available.”


We’re all on this planet together, imperfect beings, striving and seeking acceptance.  So let go of your anger and forgive others. In doing so, you will find freedom and inner peace; if you don’t believe me, trust the great American author and poet Maya Angelou:  “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. To forgive. Forgive everybody.”


Class of 2023.  We are going to miss you. Know that our doors are always open for you here at KO. We look forward to hearing all about your many adventures when you return to say hello. I hope you will be good to yourself and take the occasional day off. I trust you will have the courage to apologize when you have wronged someone, and hope you find the grace and experience the freedom that comes through forgiveness.  

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