Commencement Address 2019
Welcome students, parents, grandparents, and friends of Ridgeview Classical School.
In September of the previous year, I welcomed our parents and students with high hopes. In a speech that I delivered at that time, I spoke the following words:
We will begin in September with Sophocles’ Antigone in the very first week, and we will be reading Blaise Pascal On Human Happiness at the end of the month. The faculty and students will deliver colloquia, there will be concerts, art shows, and recitations of poetry. The year will go fast. One moment we will be beginning school, settling into a familiar pattern, at once fascinating and hectic, and before long October will have arrived. Our First Responders will descend on our little parking lot and children will descend on them to learn about what they do and give thanks for their doing it. October will bring Homecoming, Halloween, Trick-or-Treat Street, and then the time will change, and by November we will be at the Turkey Shoot eating chili and competing for prizes. We will hopefully breeze past the political high drama of Election Day, celebrate Veterans Day and enjoy Mr. Binder’s fall play before we retire for our Thanksgiving celebrations. When we return at the beginning of December, the Madrigal tour will begin, students will dine and dance at Winter Ball, the winter concerts will amaze, and the parents will read Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty before we all go our own way for the Christmas Break. When we return in January, we will meet back in Estes for the Post-Solstice Solace and find our students ice skating, sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, and eating a big Nordic meal in the lodge, and Student Council climbing frozen waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park. February will bring not only the Father-Daughter Dance, but…the Ambassador’s yurt trip at the top of Cameron Pass. March will bring more concerts, another break, and the fiery, chaotic joy that is Valborg as we welcome spring. April will see us laughing and enjoying one another’s company as we raise funds at the Hoplite Hoedown, laugh heartily as we sit amazed at our students participating in the spring musical, and watch mystified as these once small children dance and mingle like adults at prom. May brings us the Follies where we laugh at our idiosyncrasies, hand out awards, hear senior theses defended, and weep over graduation signaling the end of another year. Throughout it all, our students will paint, sing, dance, spar, and compete in everything from mock trial to robotics to mathematics and science bowl. They will excel in all of this because that is what our Hoplites do, but they will also grow in terms of not only their knowledge and self-confidence, but in their sense of self and their sense of character.
We managed most of this. We did not have the snow I expected for our Post-Solstice Solace, and the ice at Hidden Falls was no good for climbing. Valborg was longer than most of us expected, but hopefully better too. We went the opposite way up Montgomery Pass and the yurts were smaller, but the snow was deeper. In most respects, the Back-to-School speech may be regarded as a fairly accurate prediction.
With that said, there was much that I did not, and could not have, anticipated. In thinking of it in retrospect, I reflected on Robert Burns’ Ode to a Mouse when in the final two stanzas he wrote:
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
For those who are unfamiliar, this is the poem that gives us the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men.” Burns points out the oft futility of those plans, and in the final lines, the mercifulness of the mouse’s only having to suffer the present, whereas man constantly fears and guesses at the future. I could not have guessed how hard this year would be for me personally or for our community more generally. Nor, could I have guessed, in lieu of the suffering involved, how much it would offer in the way of instruction. I came by the following reflections as a result of three events.
First, the death of Juliana Hess-Ortigao. In actuality, her death was in fact a sort of final act. What stands worthy of remembrance is her life. I doubt that I shall ever see again such a brave soul. Her spirits never flagged. She was determined to be at school until very near the end of her life. I have never seen such courage or perseverance in a student, and when she could no longer be at school, I saw more bravery and loyalty from Mrs. Roebuck and Mrs. Stephens than I could have imagined. They went so far beyond what is expected of a teacher that I nearly weep to think of it. After Juliana passed, I saw still more courage from her mother and father. The way that they supported Juliana in life and the way that they have encouraged a remembrance of her in death should teach us all something about courage and character.
Second, a friend lost her mother and what she said about the conversations of others has stuck with me. She said, in effect, “They have no sense of how trivial their complaints and petty dramas are.” I thought it a bit jaded and emotional in the moment, but then the third event occurred. I lost my sister earlier this May and I found a sympathy with that sentiment that I did not expect.
It may seem as though these events have no bearing on what should be said in a commencement address, but though death has in a way shaped these sentiments, I think that they have great bearing on the lives I speak to improve. As I reflected on all of these tragic developments, my mind wandered back to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, which is the travel narrative of Fermor’s walking tour across Europe in 1933 at the age of eighteen. A BBC correspondent would later describe Fermor as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” but at the time, Fermor opened his book in writing that,
At Orșova, there was the Danube again. It was nearly a mile broad now, but immediately west it swirled and boiled through the narrow mountain defile of the Kazan — the Cauldron — which is only one hundred and sixty-two yards across. Since I had turned my back on it at Budapest, the insatiable river had gorged itself with the Sava, the Drava, the Tisza, the Maros, and the Morava and a score of lesser known tributaries. A little way downstream from Orșova, in the middle of the river, the small island of Ada Kaleh divided the current.
For whatever reason, in the wrenching heartache my mind focused in on Ada Kaleh, this small island in the middle of the river. I wondered whether it had ever been intended as a village. Fermor described it as, “Plumed with poplars and mulberries, the line of wooden roofs was suddenly broken by a shallow dome and a minaret.” I would later learn that the British referred to an island in a river as an ain or eyot, and the eyot became for me a sort of metaphor about the way our lives too often develop.
We settle between a mountain and a river because it seems to offer a measure of security and a beautiful backdrop, and we begin working and soon forgetting why we have chosen this setting. We forget the beauty and become fixated on a quick succession of next things. Such is the usual ambitiousness of youth. We worry over our degrees and the prestigiousness of the institutions that will convey them. We worry over our careers and the incomes they will earn us. We worry over our romantic interests and the material things we will come to accumulate and to covet. In this way, we cease to notice the changing topography and the rising waters. As we subside into cliché and the lifestyle of a functionary, we awake too late to notice that we are now the lone inhabitants of this eyot—this island in the river. In our ambition and the intensity of our focus, we have become separated and isolated from the things and people that might have made for a richer and more actualized life. Thoreau attested, I think, to the quality of such lives at the moment of realization when he wrote that these individuals lead “desperate lives.” “What is called resignation,” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “is confirmed desperation.” Still, 231 years earlier, the poet John Donne had written in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions that,
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
We are each less without the former; without the passed. I knew this in the passing of Juliana, I knew on it behalf of my friend, and I knew it most definitely in the passing of my sister. In tragedy, I came to understand the connectedness of each of us to the other, and I came to think about what advice I could offer so as to avoid others becoming stranded upon this eyot, this ain, this island.
I came upon four attitudes, dispositions of character, modes of living—call them what you will, ways of being, that might lessen the chances that the waters creep in upon you. The first of these was good cheer. Of all the things that I am sure, first among them is that the world has no love for a whiner or a person bereft of grace. If we were to constrain ourselves to the biblical teachings, the Bible states in Genesis, Job, Isaiah, Daniel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts the importance of good cheer and it connects cheer indisputably to hope. The individual who is ‘of good cheer’ is not simply a sublime optimist, but someone with the belief that what comes next is not necessarily worse than what came before. When half the country’s commencement addresses consist of frankly manipulative political statements that begin with the premise that the world is in worse shape than it’s ever been and that you are its only hope, how could good cheer possibly be in direr need? You do not have to believe in the word of the Bible or the word of Christ to believe that there is wisdom in this: the world needs hope. Act like you have some in it. The world will love you more for it and you will find yourself in better company as one of the hopeful than as one of the litany of commiserators.
Second, the world has never been more in need of people of attention. Of the most famous commencement addresses, David Foster Wallace’s This is Water, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, trounces even John F. Kennedy’s supposedly superior address at American University in 1963. In Wallace’s speech, he mentions ‘attention’ six different times, usually in the context of ‘paying attention’. So, what does it mean to pay attention? What is it that Wallace is urging us to? He wants us to pay attention—give attention to others so that we can choose to deliberately lead our lives in a particular way. ‘Attention’, ‘awareness’, and ‘discipline’—these are the concepts at the heart of Wallace’s address. Can we control ourselves enough to lead a deliberate and purposeful life, or are we mere automata set on a course by our parents, teachers, marketing mavens, and others who might benefit or profit from our doing well in a conventional, albeit predictable and banal way? This is the thing about everyone who was ever special—they did not do what everyone else did; but the gamble is, for everyone who did what they did, perhaps a hundred flopped. Do you have the courage to risk it? If not, you stand an almost zero percent chance of being exceptional. What the Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen wrote is true, in every life, there is a great drama playing out. If you are curious about your world, look at the person next to you and ask yourself whether you’ve examined them with anything like the care of an author or an artist conducting a character study. Do you see their actuality or their potentiality? Do you see anything like their humanity? Do you see the hardships they have overcome or the evils they’ve refused? Do you observe with anything like real interest or do you notice them at all? Are they more than an amusement, an obstruction, or an annoyance? How seriously we take others gives a strong indication of the moral consideration we give ourselves. Wallace was right: ‘pay’ attention.
Third, do not neglect manners and etiquette. Henry James mocked them by saying that, “There are bad manners everywhere but an aristocracy is bad manners organized,” but they nevertheless matter a great deal. The contemporary French philosopher André Comte-Sponville described manners as the beginnings of morality. They were the beginnings because they were what we did before we knew why we did it. The Earl of Shaftesbury, who occupies a place behind the desk in my office, claimed that, “Politeness may be defined a dexterous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.” It is that last part that is most important and that is most easily forgotten: by behaving well, we serve as an inducement for others to behave better as well. We grow as a result of these practices, and as a result, they are not mere affectation. To combine the last point and the present one, notice people and treat them with consideration…even when they do not deserve it. In doing so, you may improve them, but you will most certainly improve yourselves.
Finally, if ever there were an age for courage, this is it. Not because our age demands greater courage, but because it is more easily forgotten. Never has cowardice been so commonplace and so easily forgivable. In Baldesar Castiglione’s First Book of the Courtier, he writes that,
For men demonstrate their courage far more often in little things than in great. Very often in the face of appalling danger but where there are numerous witnesses one will find those who, though ready to drop dead with fear, driven on by shame or the presence of others, will press forward with their eyes closed, and do their duty; and only God knows how. But in things of trifling importance, when they believe they can avoid danger without its being noticed, they are only too willing to play for safety.
I am certain that this is true: what we become accustomed to doing in easy moments when the stakes are minimal, we carry over into those when they are high. We do not, as the former SEAL and Rhodes Scholar Eric Greitens put it, suddenly discover courage in the moment we need it. We have it because we have, as Aristotle described it, become habituated to practicing it. Practice courage in trifling matters and you will have it, not “God knows how” as Castiglione described it, in the more momentous events, but because you have habituated yourselves to it.
You have all come through an intellectual gauntlet. If we have done our work rightly, you have been supported and challenged. More to the point, you will not have all experienced the same journey. Though it has its commonalities, it is also highly individuated. It is my sincerest hope that you will go forward with good cheer, attention, compassion, consideration, and courage, and engage with the world with all the talent and earnestness that you can, and that you become a boon to yourselves and your fellows along the way.
Please congratulate the Class of 2019.