Welcome esteemed members of the Board, honorable past trustees, beloved colleagues, proud parents, grandparents and family members, my own loving family, and most of all, welcome soon-to-be graduates of the Germantown Academy Class of 2017. CONGRATULATIONS! You have only four more years left to use Memes as historical sources or as the basis for important life decisions.
Thank you Rich for your kind words. It means a lot to me that you asked me to speak today. I would like to start by congratulating you on completing your first year as Head of School. It was not an easy year for you physically, and I speak for everyone here when I say that we are thankful for your leadership. You are surrounded by our strength and our support, and we cannot wait for next year when the Schellhas meter will once again go to 11!
When you lose someone you love, it is natural to mark their loss in the celebrations they don’t get to celebrate, and you, the Germantown Academy Class of 2017, have seen more than your fair share of loss. In each of your years in high school, our community lost someone dear to a lot of people here: when you were freshmen in October 2013 we lost Chris Nunes (class of 2014); when you were sophomores in March 2015 we lost Roger Eastlake (class of 1959 and longtime college counselor); when you were juniors in November 2015, we lost Bobby Taggart (class of 2016), and most recently, we lost Peter McVeigh (class of 1760) this February of your senior year. On this most happy day, it is important that we first honor those individuals, as well as those personally close to each of you, by saying their names and invoking their spirit so that they live on in our personal and collective memories. It is what makes our community so unique and so strong. I miss you Peter, and we all wish you were here. You would be so proud of these amazing young men and women.
I have a confession to make. When I graduated from nearby Upper Moreland High School on June 15th, 1988, I had no interest in listening to the Commencement speeches at all. The ceremony took place outside in the football stadium. The thermometer read 93 degrees, and it was six-thirty in the evening. The sweat had soaked through the black graduation robe I was forced to rent. There was one thought going through my head, and it was, “I cannot wait to get the hell out of Hatboro.”
I was not only hot, I was mad. You see, my speech was not one of the student submissions picked by the faculty graduation committee. And let me tell you, it was good. It was titled “Leaving Upper Mediocrity.” Get it? UM? Upper Moreland? See what I mean? I sure was clever. Fortunately for you, Julia and Decker were your student speakers, and not 18 year-old Bobby Moyer. By the way, beautifully done, both of you. Instead, you get 47 year-old BoMo. Older, wiser, and hopefully with something worthwhile to say in under 15 minutes. I have to admit to some feelings of petty satisfaction when Mr. Schellhas asked me to be your commencement speaker. Ok, it was a substantial amount of petty satisfaction, but after 29 long years, I had finally been picked to speak at a graduation. And I already have the speech!
It is good timing that I am speaking to you this year. I just went to my 25-year college reunion over Memorial Day weekend, and so I have been thinking a lot about my college experience. Alright, let’s get this out in the open right now. I went to Yale. That’s right, I said it. And, yes, I know what you are thinking. I do think I am better than you. Of course I don’t
think that, but that first impression is so ironic. You see, I was the first one in my working class family to go to college. The son of a carpenter, I was living proof that the American dream existed, and going to Yale represented the hopes of my whole family. They loved and supported me, but as a smart, sensitive lad who enjoyed reading, I did not really fit in. I was ambitious, and I wanted more opportunities and more challenges. That’s why, on that hot day in June 1988, I could not wait to get out. I soon found out that I did not really fit in at Yale either. Everyone else seemed better prepared, smarter, wealthier, more articulate, and more sure of themselves. Fortunately, professors and writing tutors gave up their time and probably some part of their soul to teach me how to think and write, and a small but caring group of close friends from both Hatboro and New Haven provided the support team I needed to grow intellectually and succeed academically.
When I think about my level of preparation coming out of high school, I am not concerned about the academic future of any of you. I am confident you leave here with the critical thinking skills that will allow you to determine the truth and validity of an argument, its purpose, and its evidence. Not only that, you also possess the creative problem solving skills that will allow you to construct your own arguments and communicate them persuasively in a variety of ways. You may find it interesting to hear that the most consistent criticisms among my Yale classmates who hire, manage, or teach this iGeneration is that the young’uns these days don’t write well, and they wait around to be told what to do. I seem to recall Baby Boomers saying the same thing about us Gen-Xers! For what it’s worth, highfalutin Yale grads in various fields seek to work with other people who recognize problems on their own, propose solutions, and fix them. Your time at GA, whether it was around the Harkness table, on the stage, in the art studio, as part of the New Community Project, or as part of any athletic team, has taught you how to think in a way that will serve you well in the marketplace. That’s good news, Mom and Dad!
The bad news, of course, is that your skills and your smarts will be needed to address some seriously complicated problems facing our world today, like climate change, the threat of nuclear war, terrorism, artificial intelligence gone bad, synthetic products gone bad, global inequality, and balancing freedom and security for all members of any community. Fortunately, you are all headed off to amazing learning experiences, and you know what needs to be addressed for the sake of the quality of your lives and that of your children. We humans are a funny species, and I don’t mean funny ha-ha. There is a battle waging out there, and it is between education and ignorance. Like it or not, you are on Team Education, and this world needs you.
The problem I challenge you, the GA Class of 2017, to work on solving is the breakdown in communication that seems to be occurring at all levels of society and in all of our institutions. May I suggest by starting small? Next year, I urge each one of you to make the most of every opportunity to engage in sustained conversation—serious and lighthearted, intellectual and personal—with people unlike you, whatever your identity. From the moment you arrive on your college campus or your GAP year program or your military base, make it a priority to talk to and really get to know people from different walks of life, including your professors, your program directors, or your Commanding Officers.
This is especially important right now on campuses across the nation, when debates and physical confrontations over free speech have spread like wildfire. This may sound hokey and simplistic, but I honestly think that students and professors from different backgrounds and viewpoints would be able to debate difficult issues in a more civil and productive manner if they were already talking and listening to each other. Over the course of your time here at GA, you were strongly encouraged to talk to your teachers and peers during and after class. Even if you are naturally quiet, you all developed your own voice around the table. Next year, the responsibility to speak up will lie with you and you alone.
So, ask a professor to lunch! Your CO? Maybe not, but you never know. I think you will be amazed at how flattered your professors are to join you. And if they are not, that’s not someone you want to share a meal with anyway. Actively make friends with people from different backgrounds. Hold history parties and invite interesting people. I was so quiet when I first got to Yale, and I had to work hard at participating in class discussion and seeking out my professors for help. Now, like most people, I consider my relationships with college friends and mentors to be as important to my growth and learning as any class I took or book I read.
While you are out meeting new people with different perspectives, do not forget the people who raised you and love you and are supporting you emotionally and financially! Make it a priority to see and talk with your parents every week. Yes, Facetime or Skype with the people from home as a part of your weekly routine. Don’t just contact your parents when you need something, like say, money. Don’t force them to follow you on Twitter just so they know you are alive. Talk to them about the classes you are taking, the fascinating people you are meeting, your successes, your failures, your dreams, and your frustrations. Remember, they love and miss you, and your repayment for all that they have done and do for you comes through sharing your lives with them. It is now your turn to pass on your learning and your experiences to your parents!
I hope you graduates have the perspective within and beyond the moment to take action when it matters. I truly believe GA has taught you this unique and most valuable skill, but knowing is only half the battle. When the time comes, I know you will be that brave person who refuses to engage in risky behavior you don’t want to, and you will be that person strong enough who stands up and takes care of others who for whatever reason cannot take care of themselves. Choose your friends wisely, and then be fiercely loyal when it matters. When the time comes, I know you will be the student who defends the right of professors and other students to say something unpopular and even antithetical to your views. At the same time, I know you will be the student who challenges anyone spouting hate on your campus through effective organization, nonviolent opposition, and well-timed humor. When the time comes, I know you will be that student who creates more speech, not less. The views you take with you from GA are based on sound, just, and principled reasoning, so remember to trust yourself when you are challenged.
Do not go to college thinking that these situations will never happen to you. They will, and you must be ready to act in the moment. None of these issues is easy, but you are strong and this is what you have been taught here at the Academy. I know; I have seen you look after the younger students on Design Days and in spontaneous interactions on this quad. I have witnessed you argue with each other to the point of tears, and then return to the table and continue to seek understanding together. I have watched you care for your classmates, and for me, in times of deepest heartache. In that spirit, do not ever hesitate to reach out to one of your GA classmates, no matter how much time passes between contact. I speak from experience that you can never underestimate how good it feels to hear a former classmate, even one you may not have been close friends with, say, “I was thinking about you.”
A day like today occupies what some people call the “liminal space.” That is the threshold between what is known and what is unknown, between what is comfortable and what is unsettling. Today marks that boundary crossing, that short period of time that exists between your past and your future and occupies neither. Few genuine moments like this will take place in your life, and these times provide you with a unique moment of perspective, clarity, and beauty. As Mr. Nelson exhorted on Prize Day, stop and hold fast to this moment. I would go further and urge you to write down your thoughts and feelings before you go to sleep tonight, so that you can truly hold on to today, because the fact is you will not be the same person tomorrow.
And you will find your insights from today useful for the many boundary crossings that will take place in the next four years. I urge you to intentionally and thoughtfully cross lines of gender, race, class, religion, and language in your studies and in your experiences. Get used to ambivalence and ambiguity. This isn’t about appropriating another identity or heritage tourism, this is about truly accepting yourself, connecting with others, and understanding the forces of history that bind all of us humans together in education, faith, ritual, art, athletics, and humor. I did not realize it at the time, but I know now that my time at Yale occupied that liminal space for me, and that experience allowed me to return home knowing more fully who I was, what I believed, and what I could do in the service of others.
One final confession. When I graduated from Yale College on May 25th, 1992, I listened intently to the Commencement speeches. The ceremony took place on the Old Campus, not far from the dorms where I had lived for the past four years. The thermometer read 57 degrees, and it was one o’clock in the afternoon. A light chill ran through my body under the second black graduation robe I was forced to rent. There was one thought going through my head, and it was, “I cannot wait to get the hell home.”
Thank you for listening, GA Class of 2017. Off you go. We are all here for you, for whenever you return, changed and yet the same.