This is my Head of School blog. I use it to reflect on my own learning, my wonderings about education, and questions about how to shape our school, Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill. I also use it to share with the community things I experience at school. It affords me another way to be present with our ever-growing community of learners.
The following address was delivered to the graduating class of 2015 on May 29, 2015, at Trinity School. The Headmaster begs forgiveness for citations and embedded quotations, which in a speech are not normally footnoted and are here reproduced as delivered.
Class of 2015, today we remember your hard work, ambition, devotion. We also remember how much you have been given by many. It is fitting today for us to honor you; it is also fitting that you honor those who have made this possible, especially your parents. I believe you have something for them. [Students deliver letters and flowers to parents.]
When you are old and gray and full of years and nodding by the fire, what will you remember about this day? Not much, I’ll wager. My graduation was thirty-nine years ago, and I remember only a few things: a new glen plaid suit (my first), the processional our class chose (“Brian’s Song” from the movie by the same name), and that I sat, alphabetically, next to Hazen Dempster. It’s a fair question to ask: If this is all I carry with me, what was the point of all the pomp and circumstance?
Today we dress up to mark your time here at Trinity because we remember you. Remembering is one of the basic and distinctive human acts. A classical education might be defined as the process whereby human beings become what they are. You came to us–whether thirteen years ago or four years ago–as a human person; you leave here, I pray, formed more fully as a human person, and one of the marks of that formation is that you can remember some things you learned here about yourself and about the world: how to decode a word with consonant-vowel-consonant pattern; the love that Charlotte bore for Wilbur; Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” the Preamble to the Constitution, the opening lines of John’s Gospel, how the quadratic equation can be solved by completing the square, where and why the Periodic Table divides between metals and non-metals, and how to translate “Non nobis” (even if you didn’t take Latin). (That would be an illustrative list and not an exhaustive one, I hope.)
I expect that long after you have forgotten this graduation speech, you might remember movies that came out during your senior year. And maybe one of them will be Boyhood, the tour de force that took twelve years to film and that ends where you are now beginning, with leaving home and going off to college or wherever. Two scenes at the end of that movie are particularly poignant: One where the weeping mother faces her son’s departure for college and laments, “I just thought there would be more.” And then the final scene of the movie, in which the main character sits awkwardly beside a new girlfriend, who says, “You know how they always say, ‘Seize the moment’? Well, I think it’s the other way. The moment seizes you.” In the imagination of the filmmaker, life is a series of moments. The experiencing self is the only self there is.
If this is true, then life is constantly slipping through our fingers. Moment after moment after moment, until there are no more moments. One of your own, the renowned philosopher John Matthews, made this point powerfully on Field Day. I was walking up from the field at the end of the morning with a gaggle of kindergartners when a group of Upper School students emerged from the west stairwell out onto the sidewalk. They looked a little confused to see us all, and I tried to help them out: “We’ve just finished field day.” John’s retort: “Enjoy it while you can.”
It’s true that you are unlikely ever again, in all your life, to play Duck, Duck, Goose with a big sponge full of water on a fine Friday morning in April. But you can remember your own Field Days. And remembering them, you can make some sense of them. We make sense and meaning of our lives not as we are living them but only retrospectively, as we remember them. The remembering self, says psychologist Daniel Kahneman, turns our experience into a story. And it is by stories that our lives make sense. Think of Augustine’s famous autobiography, his Confessions, in which he spends nine of his thirteen chapters remembering his early life and interpreting its significance. And his tenth chapter is a deep reflection on memory itself, which he plumbs in search of his God. He calls memory “the stomach of the mind,” for there our experiences are digested into something that means something.
In the stomach of your own minds, if you will ruminate long and hard enough on your own experiences, you will find something besides yourself. You will find that your mind is not large enough to contain itself. You will find Truth there: your mind really connected to the minds of others, your understanding that something is as certain for you as it has been for anyone anywhere. You will find Goodness there too: the deep magic from before the dawn of time, the law of nature written on your heart that you cannot ignore or change. And there you will also find Beauty, so ancient and so new, the reason why the caged bird sings. God has put eternity into the human heart, and if you really chew on what you remember, you will know that He is there and He is not silent. I know that I speak to believers and unbelievers among you, doubters and those who doubt their doubt, some who are still surprised by the Christian story and some who are tired of hearing it. But to you all, I ask this question: Do you remember that God created you to be with him forever? This is the Good News which, when you really hear it, will seem like remembering something beautiful or delicious, which you had forgotten.
Today we dress up and make speeches because we remember you, the class of 2015. We have stories to tell about each of you. Things you have said, your ways of being in the world, funny things and serious things--all these are part of the story that we will go on telling about the class of 2015. The stomachs of our minds will be working on our memories of you for a long time.
We remember Lee Parham’s plastic bugs encased in amber-colored jello for a book report on Jurassic Park; and Leah Sykes witty Wife of Bath with a country accent. We remember Catherine Fay’s “I just have one more little question about last night’s homework assignment” and Esten Walker’s eighth grade essay about being a twin--published in the Column. We remember the unsettling play, Elephant’s Graveyard, that Anna Dengler directed for her capstone and Angela Tawfik’s iconic drawing of Tolkien with his pipe.
We remember what Cammie Behnke said to Mr. Hicks when he told her he was about to put a zero in his gradebook for the rough draft revision she never turned in: “Go look in the recycle bin in Mrs. V’s room! If you hurry, you can get it before it’s taken out to the dumpster!” And we remember how Raheem Poole blurted out to his teacher who was coming to help him with a problem, “Oh, oh, oh, don’t tell me!”
We remember Daniel Ray’s witty Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, Alexandra Hall’s dance at Grandparents Day accompanied by the Lower School String Ensemble, and Evan Kottiel’s sense of style--especially his shoes. We remember Jeanie Stouffer playing her bass guitar and singing joyfully in the worship band and Zach Schaad sitting on the sideline of his sister’s soccer game talking to his friends and holding his little brother Moses in his lap.
We will remember Brian Wright’s scavenger hunt built into the new Blake Hubbard Commons and the wonderful remembrances of Blake that he put into a book.
We remember how Tim Govert solved the infamous acid-base challenge on Dr. Sundseth’s Honors’ Chemistry test; how Ted Hampton swam like Tarzaan with his head out of the water during his first practice and went on to qualify for states.
We remember Rosamond Walker’s white and pink, beautifully harrowing poster for All Quiet on the Western Front; Victoria James’ 30 Hour Famine for World Vision; Connor Martin’s Capstone on his Irish and Lithuanian heritage; and Robert Smith rising at 5 am to run, even in the middle of cross country or track season.
We remember how Josh Bratcher helped the rest of us understand A Raisin in the Sun by talking honestly about his own story, without self-pity or accusation; how James Yarborough would ask questions he already knew the answer to so that others could learn what he had; and how Lina Habib spoke eloquently about Blake Hubbard to a group of donors gathered on the lawn of Trinity last summer.
We remember how in eighth grade Chris Wu was never quite satisfied with his filming of the destruction of the evil Lego skeleton warrior and had to keep building and destroying it back in eighth grade; how Layson Peters played the perfect hippie in her 1960’s class, with her big sunglasses, floral print, bell bottoms, and sandals; how Milan Moshay wrote, filmed, directed, and edited her own movie short for her Capstone; and how Patrick Knight built a Rube Goldberg Machine for the record books back in ninth grade.
We remember what John Matthews looked like with gray hair, tweed coat, and a pipe, as the wise grandfather in You Can’t Take It With You; what Jay Kowalski looked like going into his wind-up on the mound, as he delivered another lethal strike; and what Paul Dunlap looked like with his enormous wingspan blocking another shot on the basketball court.
We remember Anna LaDine’s big smile as she returned to campus from a successful robotics fundraising pitch at SAS. We remember why Caldwell Academy walked Bennett Goss, and how he stole his way into scoring position and then scored on a bedlam play that clinched the victory for the Lions in the bottom of the seventh.
We’ll long remember Alex Idriss demonstrating the sustainable three-wheeled cycle that he and Zach built for their Capstone; and Austin Blair’s brilliant commentary on Johnny Cash’s live album At Fulsom Prison.
And there is one more of you we remember: his smooth and graceful swing on the tennis court, his small self curled up in a nook somewhere, his mischievous look as he devised another crazy game for his friends to play. I am reluctant to speak of Blake, for this is your graduation, not his. But I do speak of him, for it is not his and I want to name that sadness. More importantly, I speak of him because he has something--yet again--to teach us.
Human memory is a mysterious and marvelous thing--a sort of bridge to God and things eternal. But human memory is also a fragile and flimsy thing, easily broken by the normal wear and tear of life and, more drastically, by the ravages of disease and death. No graduation speech, no yearbook, no senior tributes, no building named in our honor can keep people from asking, maybe not very far down the road, “Who was that guy?” The grass withers, the flowers fade, and our memories wilt. Much of what we have learned fades and is to us like the dream of a dream. And our joys fly away from us--like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we cannot remember the delicious story we just read in the Magician’s book.
Those joys--and our sorrows--belong to God. The memory of God is eternal. The Lord remembers. And what he remembers is his own mercy and love towards us. The only thing he chooses not to remember, in Christ Jesus, is our sins. And so it is that the Lord remembers Blake Hubbard; he is hid safe with Christ in God.
And so are you, says Paul, if you are in Christ. The end of a matter is better than its beginning, according to Ecclesiastes. But only God knows your end--when your life is finished, and what it means along the way. We have wonderful memories of you all, and we have some inkling of what your lives may mean. We suspect that some of the things we will remember about each of you--like Angela’s icon, Ted’s selfless toughness, Victoria’s humility, and Anna’s leadership in Student Life--are the sort of things that really mean something. But that’s God’s business.
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps on the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his works in vain.
God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain. (William Cowper)
Class of 2015, we will be sitting on the edge of our seats to see what God makes plain about you in the future. And we are glad to wait. “Judge nothing before its time,” says Paul. We may have given you lots of grades, meted out discipline, and assessed you on all sorts of measures, but the real measure of you is way above our pay-grade. We have done what we can. Now we send you off with prayers and hopes and applause, remembering your many gifts, but trusting more in the Giver of those gifts than in you who bear them. Now we send you off, remembering your noteworthy accomplishments, but celebrating more the God Who Remembers you in his mercy and love.
Those of you who were here in Middle School may remember a game called Human or Not Human. You eighth graders would put something--or someone--under a blanket and then bring others into the room. They would have to guess whether the mystery under the blanket was human or not human. Apparently you had no philosophical crises about telling the difference, once the blanket was removed. But the time is coming and may already be here, when the distinction is not so clear as we might like to think. With animal studies on one side and artificial intelligence on the other, the core of what it means to be human is in a bit of a crisis. Is Chris Wu’s robot Ernie, with his humanesque emotions human? I hope that your classical Christian education has given you some bearings on how to navigate such challenging questions. I will leave you with this as you go: Human beings, like you, are the ones that God remembers in his love and mercy. Redeemed human beings are the ones, like the thief on the cross--like all of us, fools and sinners, traitors, too big for our britches, all hat and no cattle--all of us who call on the name of Jesus, that Christ remembers when he comes into his kingdom. May you all be among that happy band.
Class of 2015, congratulations on your graduation. With God’s good help, we will not forget you. Come back often and help us remember you anew.