Commencement 2020: “Each Generation Must Do Its Part”

Welcome, Deerfield families and friends. Faculty, staff, and students. Alumni and trustees. I extend a warm welcome to Hannah Pittard, Class of 1997, today’s Commencement speaker. As a longtime English teacher, I am excited to have a novelist and writer like Hannah join us today and share her thoughts with the class of 2020.

We owe a debt of gratitude to our colleagues in the Student Life Office, Information Technology Services, the Academic Dean’s Office, Alumni Relations, Communications, and the Dean of the Faculty’s Office. They have performed a host of logistical and technical feats to create Deerfield’s first-ever virtual commencement. Thank you. I thank our faculty—for teaching with such creativity and resiliency and dedication—for the care they have exhibited to our students—and to one another—through these unexpected, uncertain and disorienting months. And I thank our families and our parents for your support, your trust and, most of all, for sharing the lives of your children with us.

Above all, I welcome and congratulate the remarkable, and Great, Class of 2020.

I knew that our journeys would be linked, with the 2019-2020 academic year being my first as Head of School at Deerfield and your last. It has led us here to this wonderful and in many ways improbable moment, Deerfield’s 221st Commencement, which, as you know, is as much a beginning as it is an end.

A year ago, I wrote a letter to you, the Class of 2020—my first official letter as Head of School—to share my excitement and offer some thoughts about the year ahead and your role as Deerfield seniors, knowing that other students would look to you as examples for how to live and learn here.

I asked you to connect with our new students and help them make Deerfield home. I also asked you to be true to your best self, and model that best self for younger students. I told you that, and I’m quoting myself here, “the shape and tone of this year will in many ways depend on you—on your leadership, judgement, and engagement.” That, of course, was the final draft of the letter I wrote. An earlier, and perhaps more honest, version read, “Dear Class of 2020—I write to you with great urgency. I’m new, and I am in desperate need of your help and support. I can’t do this without you. Please don’t let me down.”

Every Head of School knows in his of her heart that the success of any given year—its very fate—hinges on the leadership and character of its seniors, that the real power in any school community rests not with the faculty but with its students—and its seniors—most of all, who every day across thousands of decisions and interactions create with one another the texture of our lives together here on campus. Every head of School begins the year, thinking, praying: Please. Don’t let us down.

You have not. We ask a lot of you in ordinary times—let alone times like these. And even before we were overtaken by this virus, you were historic. You were the first class to hold a pride prom. You were the first to name a young woman Captain Deerfield. You led the way in securing a memorable and historic Choate Day. You sang your way to a Head of School day, imagining, à la John Lennon, no classes.

You have, as Brian Simmons, our Board President, wrote to our Trustees this spring, “shown grit, patience, flexibility and character” beyond your years. You have inspired and led in all ways. You started out strong. You finished stronger—and over the course of the year you drew strength from one another as great classes are wont to do. You bore disappointment, your exile from campus, the loss of a senior spring and what for many was your final season of athletic competition with grace and cheerfulness and resiliency. When Deerfield shifted online, you did so effortlessly, embracing this new mode of learning with energy, curiosity and a sense of adventure. You stayed close and connected to one another. You saw a greater good—the need to prioritize community health—the health of your teachers, coaches, staff members, schoolmates, classmates, friends and families. You have been first in so many ways.

As a class, you will mark another first next June when you will return to campus for Deerfield’s first-ever—and I hope, last ever— one-year Reunion. Between now and then, even as you move forward in your lives, I hope you will will think about ways to bring the spirit that has given your class such strength, depth and distinctiveness to the greater world—to use your Deerfield education to contribute to the lives of those around you, to your communities, and to the great changes taking place here in the United States and abroad. You have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to be at the center of those changes.

In a certain way, you have been blessed with two senior years in one: one from September to March and a second from March to this very moment—demarcated, of course, by the COVID-19 pandemic and underscored by the ongoing struggle for equity and justice; for stronger and more democratic and inclusive institutions; and for a more humane, more caring and more loving society.

Congressman John Lewis, the great civil rights leader, who passed away in July, said “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

“Each generation must do its part”—perhaps yours more than most. And that inspires me with hope and confidence for our future—and for Deerfield. I could not be more proud of you.

We look forward to seeing you in June 2021. Congratulations and Godspeed.

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