2010 Commencement Luncheon Remarks

May 8, 2011

From Margarita O’Byrne Curtis, Head of School

Commencement Luncheon Remarks,  May 29th, 2010

You are graduating in exciting times… the world needs you! The first decade of this century is quickly coming to a close—a decade framed by 9/11 at the outset and a global financial meltdown at its end. In these ten years—perhaps the most dispiriting period since World War II—you have journeyed from childhood into adulthood. While you have dutifully focused on school—exploring a wide range of disciplines, developing your talents, expanding your circle of mentors and friends, and pondering the meaning of a life well-lived—our country—indeed, our world—has been diminished by a series of sobering, unprecedented events.

Our sense of security, even in the safety of this serene valley, has been shaken by attacks on innocents like September 11th and the senseless tragedies at schools like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and the University of Alabama. The rising struggle of reason against extremism around the world, including the sacrifices our sons and daughters have made in Afghanistan and Iraq, are a sad reflection of calamities on the domestic front—conflicted by corporate bankruptcies, Wall Street scandals, Ponzi schemes, and the most precipitous drop in the financial markets since the Great Depression. We read with compassion about increases in poverty and unemployment, we puzzle over a record federal budget deficit, dramatic rises in healthcare costs, and a faltering social security system. Energy and water are said to be in short supply to meet the demands of a crowded, untidy world. Our unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels, and the countries that have them, have held us hostage to ‘old ways’ at incalculable costs to the environment and our national security.

(I must sound like Woody Allen, who said to a graduating class… “You are at a crossroads in life, one path leads to ruin and hardship, the other to certain defeat!”)

The truth is, the world you are about to enter is not so kind a place as Deerfield—fewer seconds in the Dining Hall or midnight feeds in the dorm, and not as tidy. But, if Deerfield has taught you a few things, first among them are the value of community, the value of joining your individual efforts in the fulfillment of shared aspirations, the value of reaching beyond your needs to address the needs of others. Vested with the ability to think critically and creatively, with perseverance and compassion, with high expectations of yourselves, and a strong communal spirit, you, the Class of 2010, are now called to lead. And I cannot imagine a more exciting time to lead than when the world is off its game, and new systems to run it properly are in high demand!

The challenges ahead, and forgive us if we call them ‘your challenges”, require the same discipline you have learned here, e.g. your ability to focus, to give time and attention to friends in need, to look beyond “the little things” that distract us, to serve others and improve the world around us. To be sure, the world has its problems, it always has, but you are up to the challenge, more prepared than your parents’ generation, more agile, more articulate, more engaged in world affairs at an earlier age than your parents and grandparents were. You have strong hearts and minds, and will use them wisely… whichever path you take from here.

As you head off to college, and beyond, don’t forget your sense of humor, nor your sense of wonder—both are essential tools in your survival kit. Don’t confuse financial success with happiness or respect—those you must earn from the people you love most…

Doing well is not always synonymous with doing good.

Along your journey, you must give serious thought to how your talents and imagination can benefit others less fortunate and how your work can have a positive impact on the world around us. A well-lived life is one of service, and you, in your time on this earth, will have endless opportunities to give back a bit of magic learned here. At Deerfield, you have learned how to observe others thoughtfully, to honor those who excel, to listen to the strengths and flaws in argument, to think through the solutions of nettlesome problems, and to celebrate the differences in belief and culture. Apply those same skills, and you’ll make the world a better place. Your search for a life of consequence, rich in purpose and meaning, is sure to succeed if you see your destination as that special place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

That quote is from writer Frederick Buechner, but one of YOU made this point eloquently earlier this month, shortly after I spoke at the Senior Alumni Dinner. You said: “A good education can give someone ability, but how a person uses that ability is most important. It is only worth something if it is applied to a worthwhile cause. The world would be a much better place if all powerful people used their power in the interest of the world… many people at Deerfield will find themselves in positions where they have to choose between helping and hurting.”

The world, like you, finds itself at an important crossroads. Choices we (you) make in the next five to ten years, to conserve energy, water, food, and health, will determine whether we have a sustainable future or one troubled at every turn. Guess what? You have places at the table. It’s your turn to lead. How lucky we are to have you and your ideas in the game. It lifts my spirit; honestly, you give me hope!

Deerfield has prepared you well for your journey. You know that there are no shortcuts—and that excellence requires rigorous effort and unshakeable commitment. You have gained the ability to discern “when you are hurting and when you are helping,” and you leave here knowing that an inspired mind amounts to nothing without love.

Today, take every opportunity to tell your friends how important they are to you. You have amassed a great fortune in friendships here, lifelong friends who care deeply for you and with whom you now share a permanent bond borne of shared experience. Tomorrow, as you leave this valley, take all the memories and values that will sustain you for a lifetime. And return often to share your achievements with us. We can sing together.

Mr. Boyden is with us in spirit today as he was a half a century ago. He liked to say… “The test of the worth of any school is, in the last analysis, the record of her alumni… it is our sincere hope that the tradition of service instilled and nurtured here … may endure always to the lasting benefit of the country and the world.”

That’s why I am very proud of you, all. Congratulations.