By Eliot Taft ’11
Commencement Address, May 29, 2011
I remember my first English class of freshman year. My teacher, Terry Driskill, began class with a discussion of The Bean Trees, a summer reading book. I remember in the heat of the classroom on the second floor of the Arms Building on that afternoon in early September, nervously listening to a few mumbled words from my peers while awaiting the end of the first day of school. It was hot; no wind blew through the open windows. Towards the end of class that day, Dr. Driskill eyed his seventh period freshman section and told us, simply, as we move forward through school, as we begin to make our own choices for the next four years at Deerfield, and as we dive into new texts, to “keep your wits.” “Keep your wits”, he said, “The most important thing you can do is keep your wits.” Dr. Driskill left the school after that year, to travel once again to new places around the globe, but his words from that afternoon years ago have never left me.
And so began a four-year journey—a journey, in a sense, which consisted of studying other journeys, watching and learning from other decisions made. As freshman year continued, we read the Odyssey, and then Macbeth, and then, for the next three years, we diverged in our courses. Some read Pride and Prejudice sophomore year, while others read Heart of Darkness. We joined together with Gatsby towards the end of junior year, and then, as seniors, we dove into a variety of options, of texts to read. Each book followed characters and the decisions they made, the wits of the authors instilled in their stories. I took a course about memory, about returning to places. I finished Deerfield, this spring, with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. As I think back to my first English class at Deerfield, I think I’m starting to realize what exactly Dr. Driskill was hinting at, about “keeping your wits.” He wanted us to read books with perception, keenness, and attitude—an awareness about the choices the characters made and an understanding of the author’s intent. An understanding that translates into the choices we make in our own lives, into how we consider and remember the places we’ve seen and been.
Toni Morrison once said, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” I read this quote at the river during my senior spring, at the end of my time at Deerfield. Members from my class, and the classes below, splashed in the moving waters, as I sat on its banks with some friends. The river water pushed onwards; it carried itself over the sleek, brown sand before it flushed into the rapids, tumbling over round and polished stones. And then, as any river does, it cut out of sight. I began to think about Toni Morrison’s quote, how water is like memory, how it is constantly moving and trying to return, to another river, to the ocean.
The thing about a river is that you can always return to it, as a piece of a landscape set in a particular place, it is easy to find over and over again. But even though a river is always there, it is also paradox, it is constantly moving as well, always changing. The water in the Deerfield flows from the mountains in Southern Vermont, from the snowmelt and springs up north. It then pulls and stops itself through a series of dams in the hill towns of Western Massachusetts before it flushes into the Pioneer Valley and hooks its aqueous body northward into the Connecticut. And we stand along its shores, watching the water push ever onwards. Deerfield students read books for English class on the river’s shore; we do homework under the sun in the springtime. Our minds bounce and tumble like the rapids, and sometimes our thoughts sit, calm and meditative like the deep pools in the middle of the river. Water, in the river, moves in different ways. The water at the main beach, where most students swim, moves in a circular motion—one big eddy. It flows upriver and down, it turns itself over and over again.
If Toni Morrison is right, if water is like memory and it is constantly trying to get back to where it was, then our own memory is itself returning to places from our past. In picturing my own memories of Deerfield, my personal returns to the faces and scenes of my class, I feel like I am stepping into the Deerfield River. It’s easy to find, always there in my mind, but each memory changes slightly as life proceeds onwards, as I, myself, change—each memory is constantly flowing like the river. Each one of us in this class has a part of every other in our minds; over the past one, two, three, or four years we’ve adopted traces of each other’s drive, passion, spontaneity, love, and creativity.
I will always remember my first English class at Deerfield—Dr. Driskill’s words of wisdom on that remote afternoon years ago. I will always remember, on Spring Day of freshman year, swimming in the river with Jonathan Tam and Justin Kwok and almost collapsing afterwards from staying in the cold water for too long. And my memories of this place, too, flow onward, away from recollections only about the River. I will remember playing Risk at two in the morning in the Field basement with Jamal Piper. I will remember cross-country skiing to the Rock with Miles Griffis. I will never forget Tatiana Soto’s proposed freestyle rap, instead of a freshman class cheer. I will never forget the craze and enthusiasm of everyone in this class. I will never forget Hunter Huebsch eating full packets of Emergen-C powder without water in the locker room before soccer games. I will take with me, to college and beyond, my memory of Ellie Parker’s junior declamation, of the accomplishments of my peers. How could I ever forget Charlotte McLaughry’s hunger strike junior spring in order to protest the Dining Hall’s reluctance to label vegan foods. I will remember Shanae Lundberg stopping shots in the rink, Laddie Trees throwing a javelin hundreds of feet in the air. And I will never, ever forget Izzy Marley’s kind, gentle stare, her smile, her carrying golf clubs in the spring between class and practice.
But my memories at Deerfield are only part of a singular consciousness. Sitting down with others in my class and discussing these past four years is like watching multiple creeks pouring into one river—listening to the stories of others spill together into one collective memory. As stories from freshman year are unburied, it is like watching the water by the beach at the River push upwards against the current, circling endlessly in the eddy by the shore. We cannot return to the past, but we can see semblances of what has been through personal accounts, memories, that hold in them a power that makes time, itself, feel circular. But time isn’t circular; it pushes onward like the Deerfield River. As we return, over and over to these memories at Deerfield, to the faces and voices and spirits of the people we’ve lived with, we must also push forward and not dwell forever on these memories. I know that as I go forward, I will remember and reincarnate the madness and spontaneity and beauty of my peers to make new, more memories later on.
Dr. Driskill told my freshman year class to “keep your wits” for the next four years and beyond, but I realize now, that people are marked by change, and it is difficult to hold a single line or a single truth to one person or to one memory. Our past, our memories, are constantly moving, constantly returning to us, but our lives, too, push onwards and are marked by change. From all the crap I’ve learned in high school, I think that I will always bear with me that it is never about saying who you are; rather, a good person is marked by understanding change, by the act of figuring out how to say who you are. As my memory of Dr. Driskill’s freshman English class returns, I see the classroom; I see his words, in a new light. “Keep your wits” isn’t supposed to be a lesson on making the right decision, but it is about teaching yourself the strength to learn from the decision, from the changes that have altered life, as you know it. And today, of all days, is a day of change, of pushing onwards. As we all go forward, as we flow into a new school like a river flowing into another, bigger river, we must remember that time never goes backward. It flows forward, and we must have the wits to adjust ourselves to the changing nature of our surroundings, our peers, and ourselves.