2012 Commencement Student Address

June 21, 2012

“Our Past Inhabits our Present”

by Hadley Newton ’12
May 27, 2012

There is an acronym, which has recently become popular among high school students: YOLO. Y-O-L-O. You only live once. Rappers Drake and Tyga included the phrase in their song, “The Motto,” and students at Deerfield have been using the term ever since. Urban Dictionary clarifies that this phrase has an interesting connotation. It is to be used in situations when one acts outside the normal routine, when one takes a risk, because “playing it safe is the most popular way to fail.” But, with frequent use and overexposure, the meaning of this acronym has eroded. YOLO has come to be an empty excuse, muttered by those shrugging responsibility. For example, one might say, “I haven’t started writing my Commencement speech and graduation is in two days. Whatever, YOLO.”

            I personally dislike this phrase. To me, it sounds like a tech-age, empty regurgitation of “Carpe Diem”, seize the day. It’s not that I disapprove of living in the moment or valuing the present, it is that this term implies that the past does not matter, that it is irrelevant, and that we do not care about our future. We may only live once, but this does not entitle us to shirk the past and evade the future. 

            Such a saying is a contradiction to our campus as well. We live in the midst of a historic village. Every time I walk down Main Street, I cannot help but think of the past, of the generations of people who have lived in these saltbox houses. These people do not only live once. They are revived each time a student walks past and thinks of an older time, of a different incarnation of Deerfield. We wander the same halls as the ghosts of the past. I mean this quite literally, ask Dani Pulgini about the Poc ghost, if you don’t believe me.

            We live among the phantoms of recent history as well. Every building, every corner, every path is endowed with personal memories. Take for example, the field beneath this tent. Making my way up to the stage, I saw myself walking across the grass to class, stopping to talk to Mr. Lyons on his bicycle. I remembered sitting on my blue bedspread, listening to KFC performers, hugging my knees against the cold evening air. Beneath one of the trees, I saw myself sitting with my art class, fumbling with paint brushes, hastily scribbling outlines of the Memorial Building, while Mr. D rambled on about some Greer date he had with Bobb-e or his children Spike and Ike.

            Sometimes, it is difficult to sort through these memories, to distinguish the order of their occurrence or their context. But, nevertheless, these images are as real and alive to me as my current reality, standing on this stage. It is easy to become overwhelmed, crushed by an onslaught of countless half-forgotten recollections, weighed down by the sheer mass of memories collected over our stay in the Pocumtuck Valley. Mr. Palmer, my English teacher, recently asked me, “If you could relive one moment of your Deerfield career, what would it be?” That is to say, if I had choose one memory to carry with me, to account for my entire experience, what would I choose?

            I first thought of all of the scheduled events, of Disco, Semi, Prom, Hoe Down, and Greer dances. It is for these events that we take photos, that we all dress up, stand before a camera and hold stiff smiles. The photographer then uploads the pictures onto Facebook. During study hall, we find ourselves clicking on the little blue compass at the bottom of our computer screen, opening up “the social network” and looking through these photos, these constructed memories. When we take a photograph, we make a choice to consciously remember. The photo now exists as a separate object. The smiling girls and boys in the frame are not in fact us, but an outline of our past, a reminder of an old experience. But, I find these posed photos are somewhat void of significance. Why did we take these photos? Because, well, it was Prom and we wanted everyone to know that we attended and what we wore. The act of creating a record of the event becomes more important than the event itself. So, while my Facebook profile indicates that I did indeed attend school dances, it says little about those quieter moments, those times which were not created and planned, but rather fleeting and spontaneous.

            I immediately thought of one evening in the spring of last year. It had rained all day, which made students restless. They shuffled from class to class, heads down, moving like herds of penguins, sheathed in plastic, Technicolor raincoats. No one seemed to look at each other. It was as if the rain had somehow made our feet exponentially more interesting. Even teachers sulked a little, saddened by the impending weekend of gloom. May was not supposed to be this way. It was on this day that routine, which is an inevitable part of any high school student’s experience, became too rigid, too constricting.

            Forgoing the usual unspoken 9:00-11:00 PM Friday required event, Greer Night, a few friends and I decided to take a walk. We dressed in thin sweatshirts and shorts, unwillingly to acknowledge the cold wind or occasional raindrops. At first, we spoke quickly and energetically, discussing everything from gossip to the benefits of eating kale.          

            Soon our conversation waned, and we walked in silence, listening to our flip-flops slap against the pavement. Walking behind the Koch center, we looked out at the Small Loop. The sidewalk before us dissolved into a rocky path, cutting through the fields beyond. It was here that I ran with my field hockey team on cold, fall days, inhaling the sharp air, wishing that I were more athletic. It was here that I walked with English class, gathering up the sights and smells of the farm, writing poems in my spiral. It was here that I stood with Ms. Fan, as she brayed at the sheep, opening her mouth and letting out deep, guttural sounds that I never thought such a small woman could emit.

            We walked onto the track and circled several times, as if unsure where we wanted to go, where we wanted to be. We drifted to the center of the turf, sitting down on the megalithic, frosty white DA insignia. The turf was soaking wet, but we didn’t care. Picking rubber bits out of the plastic, crackling turf, we watched the fog roll in around us. Soon the Koch center disappeared, lost folds of mist and cloud. The walls of white collected around us, stopping high in the sky, leaving an oculus of sorts. Through it, we could see the stars, glittering in the heavy, damp air. It was in this moment, strangely, that I felt most connected to Deerfield. The buildings were gone and we were left alone with each other, with the land, with the sky.  We forgot our French tests, our projects, our upcoming games. In the fog, shadows lurked. I thought I could see the outlines of figures, appearing and then gone. Those invisible ghosts of the past whom I felt on Main Street, materialized here, floating among us, inhabiting our present. I don’t know how long we sat there, but soon a car rolled by, its headlights breaking up the layers of cloud cover, and we got up, moved on, returned to our jokes and chatter. As Virginia Woolf wrote in Mrs. Dalloway, “But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over—the moment.”

            That scene cannot be inserted onto my Timeline page on Facebook. Unlike pictures of Prom or indeed days like Graduation, Mark Zuckerberg cannot place this event on my newsfeed. I didn’t update my status, or take a picture, or post on a friend’s wall. This moment cannot be watermarked with a small gray time and date, spelled out in Lucinde Grande font. No, this moment lives outside of the chronological flow of the world. If I could relive one moment in my Deerfield career, it would be this one. And the truth is, I do relive it again and again, each time I think of my time here. Because, it is in this moment, that my own existence at Deerfield seemed to intersect with some larger presence. I was allowed to peer into the past, to see the phantoms of days gone by and the shadow of the future.

            Today, we, the Class of 2012, leave Deerfield, parting ways with teachers, friends, and the campus itself. But, Deerfield does not leave us. I know that when I look into the sky, rain or shine, day or night, I will remember that evening on the track. Lurking in the fog, the ghosts of the past were actualized and internalized. We carry lifetimes of memories with us. I will remember sitting with my friends in the dining hall for hours, taking study breaks in the basement of the library, and the joy of jelly-filled cookies after lunch. Those things will never leave me. Our past inhabits our present. We do not only live once.