Commencement 2021: “A Remarkable Year”

Good morning, everyone. I am absolutely delighted to welcome our families, faculty, students, friends and the Board of Trustees to Deerfield’s two hundred and twenty-second Commencement. The opportunity to gather for commencement is reason enough for celebration, but today is a special gift as we have the joy and honor of celebrating the Class of 2021.

The conclusion of any school year brings with it a sense of pride and accomplishment, but more so this year than perhaps ever before. I have never been more proud of a student body, a faculty, a community, and a senior class than I am today.

It’s never easy to encapsulate a year—much less a year like this one. But I have put together a snapshot for everyone—in numbers. Here we go.

  • Total number of days with students on campus: 201
  • Percentage of classroom teachers teaching in person: 100
  • Number of parent and guardian visits to campus this spring 1,300
  • Number of quarantines, including on-boarding, served by Evan Burkert: 6
  • Total number of days, including onboarding, Evan was quarantined: 43. And she is still smiling.
  • Total number of Covid tests administered as of May 25: 49,809. To get us to an even 50,000, I will be taking an additional 191 tests.
  • Total seconds of handwashing by student body over the course of the year as estimated by Covid Czar David Miller: 26, 130,000—or the equivalent of 302.4 days of continuous handwashing.
  • Number of meals delivered to dorms: Fall—30,800 Winter—15,900 Spring—5,960
  • Number of mac ’n’ cheese wraps served: 6,000
  • Meals served by food trucks: 6,300
  • Number of days given to facilities to create three new dorms, construct the Hogwarts dining pavilion, and build the outdoor ice rink: 46. (Director of Operations Jeff Galli said he could do it in 40, but we gave him a few extra days just for fun.)
  • Number of spaces on campus that do not meet the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers Standards for Covid 19 air filtration and ventilation: 0
  • Number of Ferris Wheel rentals suggested by Head of School: 1. Number approved by Mr. Finan: 0
  • Number of new dorm rooms created throughout the school: 80
  • Number of hardworking and creative Teaching Assistants and Residential Assistants hired to support our program: 10
  • You will like this one. Average Covid Grade inflation this year compared to the school year 2018-19: Deerfield does not have grade inflation.
  • Number of interscholastic games played: Fall: 0 Winter: 19 Spring: 125
  • Collective score against all opponents in matches, races, and games this year: Opponents: 161 Deerfield: 391 Sorry, I sometimes get competitive.
  • Number of undefeated teams this year: 8
  • Number of unsanctioned spike ball games before fully legalized by Commissioner Ruby Chase: Quite a few.
  • Number of APs accumulated by Emma Weech and Francis Gannon over the course of their collective eight years at Deerfield: 0
  • Number of outdoor film screenings: 5
  • Height of inflatable outdoor movie screen: 26 feet
  • Number of head injuries sustained on the sledding hill: 3. Sled safely, people.
  • Arts performances live-streamed: 57
  • Distance an aerosolized Covid particle can travel from an oboe, based on the work of Dr. Adam Schwalie and Dr. Henry Hoffman of the University of Iowa: 150 feet
  • Number of Firsts for the Visual and Performing Arts Department: at least 5: the first senior mural, the first radio play, the first Artsapalooza and Arts Extravaganza, the first outdoor-indoor cabaret.
  • High student score on the new Willy Wonka Pinball machine: 985, 600. Congratulations, BG, whoever you are.
  • Tons of sand trucked in for the volleyball court: 20
  • Number of Head of School Days this year: 4
  • Number of Head of School Days for next year: . . . under consideration.

So those are the numbers—or some of them—but numbers don’t tell us everything.

There are many ways to describe this year: challenging, unprecedented, unpredictable, arduous, unifying, extraordinary. One thing is clear: you have been tested. You have been tested in ways that I suspect will only become clear with time and perspective.

But it should be noted that you are not the first student body, the first graduating class, to encounter adversity. Your immediate predecessors, the Class of 2020, departed campus, as we all did, a year ago this past March, and in spite of our efforts and their optimism, they were unable to sit where you are sitting now to enjoy a traditional Deerfield Commencement. As terribly disappointing as that was, their hardship was made less so by their collective grit, poise, and patience. I am delighted that they will return to campus in June for another Deerfield first: a one-year reunion.

If you go back farther in time, you will see that our history is full of trial and tests. Students before you have had to face great challenges. Earlier generations encountered two World Wars. Sixty-four graduates served in the Great War, among them Tom Ashley who inspired and helped build Deerfield as a residential boarding school, drawing students from across the nation, and eventually the world. It is worth remembering, on this Memorial Day Weekend, that at one time during the Second World War, 1,700 of Deerfield’s 3,000 graduates were serving in the armed forces. The next time you walk by the Hess Center, look at the base of the flagpole there, and you will see the names of Deerfield graduates who did not return home.

Looking through the historical record, you can also see glimpses of earlier moments of trial and challenge, not unlike the one we have lived through the past eighteen months.

In the school archives I recently came across a Deerfield Town Report from 1919 entitled “Minimal Rules for Communicable Diseases.” It’s an impressive document. It was issued at the height of the great pandemic of 1918. The report begins with key definitions: of quarantine, isolation, householder, and disinfection.” The term disinfection,” the report reads, “applied to premises, as used in these rules, shall be understood to mean the cleansing, renovating and airing of the same, following the presence of cases of communicable diseases, and such additional measures as may be required by the local health authorities.” Ah . . . music to Mr. Miller’s ears.

It describes mandatory reporting requirements for no less than 34 diseases, neatly organized into three categories, common reportable diseases, less common reportable diseases, and all others. The latter group includes anthrax, cholera, leprosy, plague, and trichinosis. It lists the minimum periods of isolation for each of these. Whooping cough required a whopping thirty-five days of isolation from its onset. Children infected with diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, mumps, chicken pox, smallpox, and cerebrospinal meningitis were banned from school, and readmission was dependent upon a certificate of good health.

The town established guidelines for everyday life: rules governing funerals, the collection and handling of milk bottles, the disposal of soiled garments and the quarantine of tenements with shared entrances. No books were to pass between the library and quarantined households. There were special rules to protect children.

Unique powers were invested in the local county Board of Health. There were rules for the placarding of dwellings—warning signs posted on houses bearing the name of the disease infecting those quarantined—and strict penalties for “the defacement or obliteration” of those placards.

In letters from Mr. Boyden, we get a sense of the impact these waves of disease had on the Academy in its early years. In January of 1919, Mr. Boyden postponed the start of school for a week following winter break. According to the Greenfield Recorder, influenza had ravaged Greenfield, Turners Falls, and Millers Falls. And in October it came storming back.

In 1931, Mr. Boyden delayed the opening of school for four weeks. He then wrote to parents on September 25 and delayed school for an additional three weeks. His letter does not explicitly say why, but refers opaquely to “an infantile situation,” perhaps a reference to polio.

In 1944, as the tide was turning in the Second World War, Deerfield launched its second fundraising campaign, and its first priority was not a new gym, library, dining hall or dormitory—all of which were desperately needed—but—yes, you guessed it—an infirmary. As explained in a letter of solicitation from Bruce Barton to Deerfield families, the Academy needed quarantine space to support the school and its students through what were—it’s clear from the historical record—increasingly common epidemics. Until then, they relied for quarantine space on the one hotel in Greenfield, and all too often there simply were not enough beds.

You might be wondering where this lesson is leading. But I do have a point: History has a way putting our own strivings into relief. It scales. It gives us perspective and allows us to see our own lives in the context of those who have come before us.

Deerfield has been here before. Deerfield students have been here before. This class, the class of 2021—you have forged and fought your own way through this remarkable year. As a class and as individuals, your experience is unique and historic. And yet you also walk in the steps of those who came before, as others will walk in yours.

And you have done so with grace and, to use an old-fashioned word, a sense of duty, as well as with a sense of humor—which will always take you farther than you think possible.

As I read that town report, I found this to be striking: 100 years ago, they employed the same measures—quarantining, reporting, distancing—that we have employed this year, and that have been so successful in helping us weather this moment and return to school together. But I suspect there were qualities of character, virtue and community that were of much greater importance than the health measures on which they relied.

When I read letters from our archive, I imagined a community wrestling with something they didn’t entirely understand and with something they certainly couldn’t fully control. I can only imagine the terror that parents must have felt for their children in the presence of diseases for which there was no known cure. Like us, they wondered when equilibrium, health, safety, and security would return. They lived with and accepted uncertainty, as we have.

Yet it’s clear they rallied as a community. They supported one another. They showed resilience and strength—as you did. They relied on mutual trust, cooperation—and science, as far as that science could take them—much as we did. They approached their challenge with a combination of optimism, determination, even, I suspect, with a kind of acceptance of their own fragility and mortality.

Why doesn’t Mr. Boyden detail the reasons for the delayed opening of school in his 1931 letter? Throughout these documents, a sense of stoicism and poise emerges. While they were keenly aware of the severity of the moment, they didn’t dwell on it. It’s as if they were habituated to struggle and challenge. They had a matter of fact approach, in which they weighed the facts, made decisions, took precautions and carried on with the business at hand.

It was not too long ago when many were saying a return to school would be too hard. There were too many obstacles. It would require too many logistical and financial resources. Last spring, I confess, I often thought that myself. Some said that young people simply could not do this, that we would be asking too much of you. That is not something I ever believed.

Yes, it has been hard. And we have asked a great deal of you. But in turn, you have given a great deal and come together. I am reminded of those words that Chije recited at school meeting last week from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “ . . . that which we are, we are,/One equal temper of heroic hearts,/ made weak by time and fate, but strong in will . . . “

This process, this journey, I think, has brought us together, even as we have been forced apart. We began the year together, we stayed together, and we end the year together, strong, not simply in our numbers this morning, but strong in our sense of collective purpose. It has taught us that we can do more with one another together than we can alone. And most importantly, it has fortified our belief in you to meet hard challenges. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson: that, as a graduate of this school once said to me, the greatest accomplishments, the greatest joys, are shared ones.

I spoke with the members of this class a week ago, and talked about how fortunate they have been to have had teachers and coaches and mentors so devoted to them. As much, I suspect, as any faculty in the land, your teachers distinguished themselves—in many ways. But three come to mind at the moment: They executed a new academic schedule—so essential to our opening plans—with brilliance and intention. They demonstrated unmatched dedication to in-person learning, advising, and mentoring. And they modeled those qualities of character that young people need during times of crisis: a spirit of care and concern for others, optimism and hope, agility, resiliency, creativity, steadiness and teamwork—even as they attended to their own families and confronted the personal challenges the pandemic brought.

Deerfield staff have simply been exceptional. Many worked remotely—and in isolation—without complaint. Every single department worked tirelessly in support of students. They communicated clearly and regularly with our families and alumni, keeping them informed and engaged. They kept us fed—which was no easy feat. They ensured students and faculty had the technology and support to teach and learn. Our staff literally redesigned and remade our campus—twice: once over the summer as we moved to a singles-only residential model and rebuilt Dewey as a second Covid-specific health center—and again in winter as we welcomed day students to campus. They kept Deerfield looking like Deerfield. Led by Dr. Benson, our medical staff was unsurpassed in their commitment to student and community health, working ‘round the clock all year with colleagues on campus and in regular consultation with local and state health experts. This work continues.

Our staff and faculty, as all great teams do, rose to the challenges of the moment and inspired the best in one another. I hope you will join me in thanking them.

I want to thank the Board of Trustees for their leadership and engagement—and especially the President of the Board, Brian Simmons, whose counsel has been to me a source of strength and wisdom. Our Board of Trustees, largely out of sight but always present and engaged, has been with us every step of the way, bringing their expertise and time to everything under the Deerfield sun. We are here today, in part, because of their efforts.

I want also to remember those who were lost this year—Rudi Waschman, a member of our Board and the class of 1953 who died of Covid, not long after the new year—and those friends and family members who are not with us to celebrate this day.

I want to recognize and honor our Deerfield families—those who are here and those who were unable to travel to campus today. I know our international families have faced unusual hardships and separation. We are deeply grateful—I am deeply grateful to each of you.

The relationship between parents and the school is central to this place and has been for generations. Throughout the year, you have supported your children in every way possible. You have believed in Deerfield’s mission, and you have shown extraordinary patience, fortitude and sacrifice. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share in your children’s lives.

Class of 2021, congratulations on this day and the efforts and achievements that led to it. You have set an example for other Deerfield classes, and your place in the Deerfield story is strong and secure. Truly, you have been worthy of your heritage, and we are very proud of you.

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