2010 Commencement Student Address

May 8, 2011

by Johanna Flato ’10

Commencement Address, May 30th, 2010

In fourth grade, I ran for student council. However, I forgot to write a speech, so instead I just stood up in front of the class and giggled. Don’t worry though, this time I did prepare something, so let’s hope it goes over better!

On Monday, I left my dorm for class in the Koch Center. It was seventh period, the end of the school day, which meant graduation was already drawing that much closer. But I’m the type of person who convinces herself that six days is plenty of time—practically a week. Everyday for about the past three weeks I’ve felt like I was being sucked into the relentless whirlpool of graduating, and mentally I kept fighting back, trying to ignore the vicious pull. I had only just started to realize that resisting was probably futile when Monday rolled around. Over the course of one forty-five minute period, a handful of workmen drove stakes into the ground every few yards around the perimeter of this Quad, unfurled a humongous green and white tarp, and before I could get my emotional defenses in place, the quad was shaded by the tent we stand beneath today. Given, I knew today was fast approaching, but watching that tent go up in forty-five minutes was too dramatic. I had no chance to mask what the tent meant, it just popped up.

That tent outside of the Dining Hall, that one I could accept rather matter-of-factly. It’s just a white tarp, and we’ll eat some ceremonial meals there. But this tent I’ve stood under as a freshman-verging-on-sophomore, excited that I would soon join the ranks of returners. I stood under this tent when I was about to become a junior—an upperclassmen, with more status and more privileges. Every time the class of 2010 stepped up, I felt as if we were more a part of Deerfield, that we were becoming a fixture in the community. And now, we were supposed to walk under this tent, be handed diplomas, and leave.

Beneath the chairs you are sitting on are the paths that we walked everyday to classes, instinctive shortcuts that everyone keeps taking despite the efforts of the wonderful Grounds Crew to keep the grass pristine for days like today. In the winter, these paths become well-worn furrows in the ice, but everyone continues to walk and slip on them—it’s routine. From the dorm I lived in freshman year, Harold Smith, a shortcut across this Quad could get me to classes in four minutes. From Mac, where I lived sophomore year, the same shortcut would get me there in seven. It’s a shortcut so comfortable, so regular, that it is a simple staple in my Deerfield experience.

So to have this imposing symbol of graduation constructed so quickly and casually right on top of paths I had comfortably walked on almost daily for four years—it unnerved me. I felt like Deerfield was giving me the old proverbial “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” I was coming to terms with leaving, but they didn’t need to force it by propping up a giant tent when I still had six days left.

When my dad graduated in 1973, he left and didn’t return until I came as a freshman in the fall of 2006. Then of course he got incredibly nostalgic and it all came rushing back—those paths that he had walked across, this campus, the buildings he had lived in, been taught in, seen constructed in his three years here. My mother, dad, and sister all flew up with me from Texas to get me settled in, and while my mom and I were stringing up posters and meeting my proctors, he swept my little sister off on his own personal tour of the school, pulling her one way and then another as they traversed paths he still knew, narrated by memories he hadn’t forgotten. The places my tour guide showed us were generic—he wanted to get a daughter under his arm and show her where and how they’d snuck into the Dining Hall to steal trays on which they could go sledding; to illustrate with elaborate hand motions how the Bookstore, or the Hitchcock house, had once housed four doubles composed of himself and seven friends. He was a little thrown off that Plunkett Dormitory had been leveled into a lawn in front of the Dining Hall, and proceeded to tell a story about sending a kid in a laundry cart flying down one of the dorm’s long, well-waxed hallways, straight through the new hall resident’s door. I laughed and may have teasingly rolled my eyes—typical alumni reminiscing. It was fun to imagine a chaotic, seventies version of Deerfield, but now it was my turn, and everything was current, new, and exciting.

As much as I had thought my dad so dated for living in dorms I’d never heard of, I recently realized that, in ways, I was also already somewhat dated myself. Countless times last spring, I spread my striped towel out on the yard behind John Louis dormitory, “JL Beach,” settling down to sunbathe with dorm mates. And it occurred to me, most of you never even knew the Mods—those technically temporary yet deceivingly complete math and science classrooms that predated the Koch center and less than four years ago sprawled across that same back lawn. Never thumped up those rubber-coated, plywood-railed ramps; never sat down at a desk in those very simple yet capable classrooms; never cut through the recently relocated and refurbished “Bewkes” House for hot chocolate and coffee from the Dean’s office before class. I made some of my earliest friends in one of those science classrooms, but now that freshman biology class seems like so long ago, and I can’t tell you which corner of the yard has grown over the blueprint of my old classroom. I’m turning into my father—“back freshman year, this field was stuffed with microscopes and computers,” answered by stares of “so what?”.

I also miss the Name Game, an almost-forgotten pastime now that room phones have gone extinct. Freshman year, when a senior would bellow down Albany Road, “No cell phones!!” I’d leave my little Nokia in my room the next day, terrified. Sophomore year, some students just started switching their phone to the other ear when confronted. Junior year, I never even bothered to activate the voicemail on my room phone (much to the chagrin of my mother). Senior year, the school did away with room phones altogether. With the phones went Name-Gaming—a great pastime. Stuff all your friends into one dorm room, designate someone to play, hold him or her away as you and the rest of the crew thumb through the Student Face Book in search of an appropriate target (it was still a book back then, hadn’t yet been uploaded online), punch in the extension, and then, giggling, thrust the phone to your friend’s ear. Proceed to shhhh your laughing, coughing friends into a decent silence so that you don’t miss a word as the student on the other line yes’s and no’s your friend closer to guessing who he or she is. It was always most fun if said friend had a crush on the one on the other end. It wasn’t foolproof—often, especially if you called annoyingly late at night, the phone might be slammed into the receiver as soon as a voice offered, “Want to play the ‘Name Game?’” Now, cell phone numbers are published on the DAinfo and “Name-Gaming” has become a lost art. I’m confident that soon enough you rising seniors, juniors, and sophomores will come up with an appropriate replacement entertainment. In the meantime, I’ve found that cell phones actually can be incredibly useful in the event of brainstorming a graduation speech—I was able to spontaneously type up almost a page-worth of notes using the “memo” app on my Blackberry.

So, while things have already changed here since I first came, just as the campus has been altered since the years when my father and other alums were students here, there is nothing wrong with that. A little change just means we’re joining the ranks of Deerfield’s distinguished alums. Plunkett is just the name of a field now, but I still had an incredible four years. The school is co-ed now, and we are the first class that Deerfield’s first female head-of-school has known from Convocation to Commencement, and its still been an incredible four years. Two graduating senior girls tried to tell me my sophomore year that Deerfield was going down the drain—I am so pleased to graduate today and know that they were absolutely, utterly, completely wrong.

It didn’t faze me too much to step up from being a freshman to being a sophomore; to have classes in the Mods one year and the neon blue-lit Koch Center the next, to gradually replace my room phone with a cell phone. It was just a progression—maybe I made casual comments here and there about things being “different,” but then the new way simply became a new routine. Abruptly getting rid of the daily bowls of green and white M&M’s in the Main School Building riled students up for a bit. They calmed down and forgot after a while, and maybe if it had simply been a subtle, gradual decrease in M&M amount, they would never even have noticed in the first place.

Maybe if the tent had come up one post at a time, been raised up a few feet a day, then maybe I would have been able to keep pretending that things were still following the same routine, that I could keep wearing down that same path across the quad for as long as I liked. But the tent had to come up one way or another, and the end would have been the same—we would walk under it as we did today, and graduate.

So yes, this tent made me take some detours from my usual paths for a week, and graduating will do away with routines I made, paths I followed, and a schedule I grew immensely fond of over four years. But I think that in worrying about all of the changes that tent would bring, I fixated on the wrong aspect of graduation. Yes, my comfortable routine will be disrupted, but the values of Deerfield that stood out in my experience here will remain and continue to support me. Not only my inspirational teachers and devoted coaches, but also the thoughtful staff and my diverse and enthusiastic peers, taught me to have self-confidence; to have respect for, collaborate with, and learn from everyone around me; to always work hard no matter the outcome; and above all, to love what I do, where I am, and who I am with.

I can find another routine later. The best part of graduating from Deerfield Academy, of having spent my high school years in this historic town and this beautiful valley, is that I’ll go forth with the energy of a nurturing and influential faculty, of the class of 2010, and of this entire community behind me.

So now, standing here, I’m not feeling anxious or bothered as I was when I first saw the green and white billow into this huge tent overhead. Rather, I am reassured that an entire community is here with me, to see off the class of 2010, and I feel confident and proud of us. I think I felt upset because I was looking at that tent from a distance, thinking too much about what it symbolized. Now, gathered underneath it with friends, family, teachers, and peers, I remember that a tent’s purpose is actually to prepare us for the possibility of rain or oppressive sunshine, not to scare me. Similarly, Deerfield is sending us off, each having developed a personal relationship with this place, and each with a different experience behind us. It has prepared us for rain, and if you are prepared for rain, it’s usually sunny. So here’s to it being sunny when we step out from under this unique, majestic, and path-altering tent.