Go Forth and Be Worthy...
by James C. Kapteyn ’79
Baccalaureate Address, May 23, 2004
When Juliet’s mother asks her how she feels about marriage-this is before she has fallen in love with Romeo-she says, “It is an honor that I dream not of.” I’ve always thought that was a remarkably clever response: what Juliet wants her mother to hear in her reply is, “Wow, getting married is such an honor I don’t even dare dream of it,” but what I think she really means is, “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t dream of getting married.” Well, until you all asked me, I would have said being your Baccalaureate Speaker was “an honor I dream not of.” Interpret that as you will.
Nevertheless, here I am, and here you are, and it is, indeed, a tremendous honor to stand before you.
I not only stand before you as your Baccalaureate Speaker, though; I also stand here before you as an alumnus and a teacher. And what standing here really makes me think of is back to the days when I was a student at Deerfield. Twenty-five years to the day I was sitting where you sit. In fact, I was sitting right there in that very seat.
I have no doubt that my memories of Deerfield will sound familiar to you.
When I first arrived on campus in the fall of 1976, I knew I had stumbled into the middle of a school whose history, beauty, stature and strength towered above me. I felt small and feeble. At the same time, though, I was exhilarated because I somehow sensed that even as I, a newbie from nowhere, was just a little atom in the mass of Deerfield, that same mass of Deerfield was becoming part of me. Though the challenges in front of me were daunting, the school infused me with its strength.
Back in those days, ten years before Deerfield’s return to coeducation, just about the only time we saw girls was when they arrived by the busload for dances. I remember those dances all too well; basically I would cower against the wall in an agony of bashfulness for about three hours until I finally got up the nerve to ask a girl to dance just as she was supposed to be getting back on the bus. My memories of my Deerfield days are all but devoid of romance.
I do remember loving the chicken cutlet sandwiches, however, and the shepherd’s pie. I remember the Dining Hall’s four great light fixtures that ever so slightly swayed in the cavernous air above us.
I remember Geometry class. I loved the procession of axioms and corollaries elegantly marching one after another to an impeccable proof. Given that angle ABC is bisected by line DE, prove that angle ABE is the complement of angle DBC. I could do that. I loved it. In Geometry there were no questions without answers, no loose ends, no dark mysteries. What at first might have seemed groundless and faint became absolutely rooted and fine.
I remember following our cheerleaders in songs and cheers, writing a term paper in U. S. History, playing Frisbee in front of Barton, first-waiting and second-waiting, painting banners for Choate Day, hiking to the rock, swimming in the river. I remember running the small loop. I remember memorizing Chaucer, playing backgammon and blackjack, singing and snoozing in School Meetings, directing strangers on Albany Road, meeting college reps in the Caswell.
I remember my English teachers. Mr. Durgin, who was Head of the Theatre Department, had the odd habit of somehow putting his unfiltered Camel cigarette to his lips by wrapping his arm around his head something like this. It was in this somewhat unsettling posture that he looked at me in the middle of a rehearsal for the senior play and summarily announced, “Kapteyn, you can’t act, so just pretend you can.”
I especially remember Mr. McGlynn, the dashing and astoundingly articulate gentleman whose portrait by Mr. Engelland hangs in the Faculty Lounge. I still have the essay grading rubric that he handed out to his AP English students; in it he explains the criteria he considered when grading our papers. One of the differences between an A and a B paper was, as he put it, “a certain felicity of style.” I loved that. He was one of many teachers who inspired me to push myself beyond where I had ever been. Like all my English teachers, he helped me to see that the epiphanies of understanding that occasionally illuminated my study of literature were invaluable treasures.
I remember the exhilarating exhaustion I felt after double session pre-season soccer practices. I remember reading the Scroll, reading my Economics, reading Sports Illustrated. I remember the nicknames we had for each other (like Ob Job, Sapper, and Greezy) and for our teachers (like Uncle Chuck, Park Bench, and the Titanium Cranium). I remember arriving at other schools and stepping off the bus with my teammates in jacket and tie.
All these memories stir my heart as in one way or another similar memories must stir yours, and I think of them fondly. Even before I left Deerfield I knew there were things and people that I would miss dearly, and I had a vague sense that I would never be in another place quite like it. Yet I was ready to move on. Deerfield had begun to feel a bit small, and I had begun to feel a bit restless. I was eager to sail out of the safe harbor of this valley and to challenge the waters of the world beyond.
But though I left Deerfield after graduation in 1979, Deerfield certainly didn’t leave me and, and though I can’t say I went to bed every night humming the “Deerfield Evensong,” the lessons I learned and the values I embraced in this valley in some small measure have ever since informed my decisions and shaped my longings.
Let me tell you about some of the pivotal points in my life over the past twenty-five years and then let me try to explain to you how Deerfield’s influence urged me along. I share these episodes with you not because they are interesting in and of themselves, necessarily, but because I think they’ll help me articulate what is truly great about what we all share and perhaps because they’ll help you to understand how you might think about your future as you plunge into the world beyond these hills.
After college, I followed my friends to New York City and secured a position at a leading and enormous advertising agency. My job was to evaluate the various kinds of advertising and to help determine how and where our clients should spend their advertising budgets. I found the work fairly easy and was promoted at a satisfying rate. After a little more than two years, I had become a head of a small group working on the media plans for some big accounts, namely B. F. Goodrich and Canon Copiers. My chief responsibility was to oversee the crunching of piles of numbers to determine, plan and justify their advertising spending. I was doing exactly the sort of work that I thought would befit an ambitious graduate of Deerfield Academy and Trinity College.
In truth, however, I began get to the office later and later and to spend more and more time not preparing the budget reports but reading the newspaper. When my supervisor finally called me in to give me a proverbial kick in the pants, I was ready to render my resignation.
My last day of work was fittingly anticlimactic. After a farewell lunch with some of my closest colleagues, I returned to my empty apartment and sat on the couch. My roommate, who, by the way, was a Deerfield classmate and who remains my dearest friend, was still away at class at the New York University School of Law. I was wearing a hand-me-down chalk striped suit that looked pretty good from a distance but in truth the lining was in tatters and the pockets were full of holes and the fabric was irretrievably worn.
It was a hot summer day and I was still damp with sweat from the Lexington Line subway. I sat on the couch in a swirl of hollow elation. I kicked off my highly polished tasseled loafers, took off my jacket and tossed it over a chair. I peeled off my wrinkled shirt and tie. Then, with a surge of energy, I grabbed my threadbare suit pants at the knees and literally ripped them off my body and dropped them to the floor. There I sat in my boxers and knee-high socks wondering what was next.
About a year later, I was in Australia looking for a job. I had found a room in a dirt-cheap hotel on Bondi Beach on the outskirts of Sydney. I went to a bar to inquire about work. The bartender told me I wouldn’t want to work there–it was a rough place–but told me the manager would be in later that evening. I drifted to the adjoining pool room. A local and I had a bit of a run on the tables and we won three or four games in a row. When we lost, I went to the bar for a pint of beer. As I turned from the bar, I saw that two women had started to fight. I had never seen women fight before. As a gentleman with a boarding school background my instant reaction was to jump in and stop them. They kept fighting. My glass hit me in the teeth and spilled my beer. For an instant I met their glare. Their eyes were livid, their arms cocked. Someone stronger than I yanked me out of the way.
When I went to top off my pint, the bartender said, “You shouldn’t have done that, mate.” As I looked around at the scraggly hair, dirty fingernails, and greasy jeans, I felt that I had missed some crucial social signal, some key to the meaning of the past few moments. The fight was over. I swallowed an inch of my beer and returned to the relative calm of the pool room. Soon I was back on the table and my partner was on a roll.
While I was watching him shoot, a group of men from the bar came into the pool room. They came right to me. I leaned my pool cue on a video machine but it fell over. I was slammed back against the machine. I thought how hard I must have been hit to slam back with such force. I was getting hit. There were four or five men taking shots at me. One had lifted me up in a bear hug while the others punched me. Though I could feel the knuckles connecting and though my face was snapping from side to side, somehow it didn’t hurt.
I looked out over their heads and fists. Some of the guys I had played pool with were watching. I looked back at the men beating me. I watched as one of them stepped to the front and started kicking me. He was kicking my torso with alternate feet, first one side and then the other. I tried vaguely to deflect the blows with my hands. I looked right at the man kicking me and tried to read his motive. Someone hit me in the side of the head. The blows came less frequently.
Then I found myself outside. My heart was beating loud and fast. I could see the white line of the surf on the beach off to my left. I looked at my hands. They were unmarked; no torn skin, no swelling, no blood. Most of my shirt was gone-I hadn’t heard it rip-some of it was still draped on my back. The breeze off the ocean was warm and humid and slowed my shaking.
I hadn’t gone very far when a man from the bar appeared at my side. He was scared and small with a full beard and he talked fast. “Here’s your shoe, mate,” he said. “Get the hell out of here. They’ll kill you.” Then he ran away. I held my shoe to my chest. It was still tied tightly. I didn’t remember losing it, didn’t remember walking through the crowded bar without a shoe. Then I felt the sand on the sidewalk. I felt the spilled soda and the sand and the fried food under my foot.
After a few more steps, I heard a scream behind me. I ducked–my hands hit the ground–and the two screaming men who had dived at my back hit the pavement in front of me. Somehow they had missed me. They rolled, elbow, shoulder, knee, elbow, and then I couldn’t see them. I sprinted through back alleys, from darkness to darkness, to the rickety fire escape I had seen at the back of my hotel.
I got into my room. There was a low bed and my books on the right and a window with barbed wire on it on the left. Beside the window were a stainless steel sink and my toothbrush. I turned on the only light, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. I ran the water and spat in the sink, tasting the sweet tang of blood. From the inside, my face felt lumpy. Both of my eyes were throbbing. I sat down on the bed and looked at my hands. Then I took a deep breath and looked up into the mirror above the sink. My left eye was swollen already. The white of my right eye was red. The curve of my mouth was exaggerated and bloody. My ears, both of them, were bloody. I stuck my index fingers in gingerly. There was pain there, along with crusts of blood. As I looked into the mirror, a few tears fell into my hands. And, with some surprise, I saw that I was smiling.
When I came back to the States almost a year later, I returned to Berkshire County in western Massachusetts where I had grown up. My first two jobs were in advertising, the first working for a small marketing firm that, as it turned out, couldn’t afford to keep me on the payroll, the second working as a sales manager for a resort and conference center that also fell on hard times when the owner was brought to court for embezzlement. I then turned to carpentry, a trade I had learned from several summer jobs as well as a six month stint in New Zealand. What I loved most about carpentry was framing. Framing is what you call the early stage of construction when you build the wooden skeleton of a building. It is not the slow and painstakingly detailed finish work that requires a carpenter’s greatest skill, but rather the much more athletic and speedy work of banging together the timber frames of floors and walls. I loved finding the rhythm of pounding big nails into joists and studs in rapid succession. The progress is fast and the results are obvious. At the end of a day of framing, as you drive away in a pick-up truck, you can look over your shoulder and see a chunk of the house that wasn’t there when you arrived in the morning.
Eventually my carpentry skills reached a new level. I was soon charged not only with the construction of walls, but also with their layout. That is, I was made responsible for reading the blueprints to plan and measure where to build the walls. It was my job to make sure that the pieces of lumber were put together in a way that would allow the next phase of construction. I had to plot where the doors and windows and closets would be and where the stairs would start. It was a rewarding challenge, sort of like Geometry.
One afternoon, as was his custom, our boss arrived to check our progress. I was pleased to read his satisfaction as he walked around the first floor deck affirming the accuracy and quality of our work. At one point he stopped on a bare spot and looked over our work into the air. He asked to see the blueprints. After a moment of consideration, he said, “This won’t do; that wall is in the wrong place. When you build the second floor, you won’t be able to see through the window at the top of the stairs.” I looked over his shoulder at the plans. We had built exactly as the prints dictated. What was the problem? His explanation revealed that I had made no mistake in my layout. The problem was in the plans themselves. Nonetheless, I saw my future as a builder shrink. What I realized in that moment was that my boss possessed a power of visualization that allowed him to see the building’s progress in his imagination in a way that was utterly beyond me. I realized that I might never progress beyond the literal in my building skills. Sure I could bang nails, I could bang nails with the best of them, but, when it came to building houses, I simply didn’t have the vision to foresee the shape of things to come.
Jump forward to 1992. I was studying the poetry of William Wordsworth at Lincoln College of Oxford University with a professor who was at the time the world’s foremost authority. Mrs. Kapteyn and Ingrid and I (Ilse had yet to be born) were living just at the edge of the center of the city. One night, in the middle of one of several all-nighters I pulled that summer, as I sat at my desk in the midst of curling paper and open books, I looked into the darkness over the stone city and listened to the thumping trains approaching Oxford station.
Somehow my explorations into Wordsworth had lifted me even higher than the top of our four-story flat to a place free from the ubiquitous whine and roar of the combustion engine, to a place where only the palpitating tremors of train couplings rooted me to earth. There I was, thrilling to the elevation of my spirit through the vigorous exercise of my intellect, connected timelessly to the thinkers that had graced that academic Mecca for centuries. I was transported above the city, in the dense dark of night, sifting over the familiar streets and hidden quads, absolutely exulting in the precious joys of scholarship.
And now jump ahead again, this time to the fall of 2000, under the canopy of golden leaves arcing over Albany Road. I was walking from west to east, from Field to the classroom, this time not with a sophomore’s armload of textbooks and binders, but with a teacher’s briefcase full of novels and gradebooks. And with a deliriously mirthful smile in my heart.
What brought me back? The answer lies in more than the memories I spoke of before. The answer lies in the promise of the world that I lived in but could not fully appreciate when I sat where you sit, a place that has long been singularly invested in a tradition of teaching individuals to contribute to and to honor the whole, a place where the worst of the world has no hold and where the best is cherished.
If you’re like me, I think in the years to come you will be surprised to discover where Deerfield exerted its most lasting influences.
First, nametags. Yes, nametags. When you look back to how we all begin the year with nametags at Deerfield, you’ll see that they are a vital manifestation of a commitment to community. On the one hand, when you and I wear our nametags, we simply demonstrate that we want others to know our names. On the other hand, however, by partaking in the tradition of nametags, we signify our investment in a custom that proclaims that not just our, but everybody’s, name is important. Thus this tradition establishes a principle tenet of the Deerfield ethos: my name is no more nor no less important than anybody else’s; I am important but so, too, is everyone else.
Another fundamental manifestation of this idea is our tradition of sit-down meals, and, believe it or not, you will recall sit-down meals in the years to come with a great fondness. Think of your best sit-down meals. What characterizes them is the sense that each of the ten people at the table contributes in significant ways to the good of the whole. The most obvious contributions, of course, are those of the first and second waiters. But the best tables are those where each member contributes. When we each play by the rules of good manners, when we pass instead of reach, when we ask instead of grab, when we wake and stretch ourselves to contribute to table conversation, then those meals are an absolute pleasure. I am certain you will remember them as such.
Think of Deerfield’s dress code in this light. When we get dressed for class, when we fasten our top buttons and knot our ties, or when we button our blouses and smooth our skirts, we not only demonstrate our respect for each other, we honor the education that is at the core of the Deerfield experience. By adhering to the dress code we tell each other that we care about what we do here. The dress code, as old fashioned or even as pretentious as it might sometimes feel, is nonetheless an unambiguous proclamation that what we do here deserves our respect.
I have no doubt that you will also recall the beauty of the Deerfield campus in years to come. You will find few places in the world that offer so much natural beauty, but as central to your Deerfield experience as that beauty might be, it is not exactly what I’m talking about. What you’ll remember is how much human effort we expend in the cultivation and maintenance of that beauty. What’s more, you will come to cherish the part of the Deerfield culture that fosters our active appreciation of that beauty. When we stop to thank Denny, when we pause to compliment Denise, when we toss our litter in the garbage, or better yet, when we pick up someone else’s litter, we become a participant in the beauty that distinguishes our school.
And, if you think about it, nowhere at Deerfield is our devotion to the idea that an individual’s best strengthens the whole more vibrantly apparent than in our elemental role as students. For our commitment to learning, our commitment to the best education we can possibly get, is a remarkably powerful acknowledgement that we are not yet, perhaps never will be, perfect, and that we always have more to learn.
What all these fundamental traditions have in common-what nametags, sitdown meals, the dress code, and our devotion to learning all have in common-is what I consider the greatest lesson of Deerfield Academy; that the first step to strength is humility. That is what Deerfield is all about. And that is what your experience here has taught you over and over. To sit in the Caswell Library, to walk up Albany Road, to sing the Deerfield songs in school meetings, to be immersed in the massive strength of Deerfield Academy, is to feel small just as it is to feel huge.
Finally, consider the tradition of the seal. All of us have walked into the gym through the trophy room where the portrait of Tom Ashley hangs on the east wall. And all of us have conscientiously, though perhaps not consciously, avoided stepping on that big brass Deerfield seal in the middle of the floor. Why do we go out of our way in deference to a spot in the middle of a heavily trafficked room? Because the seal symbolizes a strength that we value, and in valuing that strength in that way, we are confirming our own contribution to the very future of that strength.
That’s what “Be worthy of your heritage” means to me. The first part is imperative; we are told to be worthy. The pronoun at the end of the motto is the critical piece for me, though. We all bring our own heritages to Deerfield; we have the heritage of our family, our relatives, the heritage of our own past. But, as signified by the pronoun “your,” once we get to Deerfield we gain another heritage. The motto, in asking us to live up to Deerfield’s past, includes us in the ownership, even the responsibility, of that glory. It is our heritage we are to be worthy of. “Be worthy of your heritage” humbles us before the past and uplifts us for the future.
And that is why I came back. Because when I was a student here I learned that I could be worthy of something great. When I ripped my suit off in Manhattan, I knew I wanted a life I cared about. When I was bewildered and bruised in Bondi, I knew I was not beaten. When I was disillusioned and deflated on a construction site, I knew I would aspire to more. When I was exultant and elated in Oxford, I knew I had discovered what I loved. And when I was back on Albany Road with a smile in my heart, I knew I was charged with purpose and I knew I was at last worthy of the expectations that were planted in me when I sat where you sit.
That is why I came back. And that is how I would like to send you off. You have all accomplished tremendous things here. You have studied, sang, acted, and played. You have memorized, motivated, and managed. You have declaimed, you have calculated, you have conjugated. You have explored the unknown, determined what is difficult for you, and discovered strengths and talents you never knew you had.
And now, members of the mighty and memorable class of 2004, the first and only Deerfield Academy class of 2004 the world will ever know, the time has come for you to leave, to move on to the horizons that hearken beyond the cradling hills of Deerfield. But, whatever paths you take, whatever challenges you face, whatever dreams you chase, you will bring the best of Deerfield with you. And, as the best of Deerfield is the best of you, I know you will bring your best to the world. The world needs your best; the world needs your intelligence, your integrity, your generosity, your humor, and your passion.
Go forth graduates. Go forth with the faith that you can give your lives great meaning. Go forth with humility. Go forth and be strong. Go forth and be huge. Go forth and be worthy.