Convocation 2021: “Make Molecules”

Good afternoon and welcome Deerfield.

Thank you, Mr. Flaska, Ms. Hemphill, and Hugo for your remarks and participation today. I want to congratulate those students who received prizes today, and I want to thank all of you for an absolutely incredible start of the school. I especially want to thank again our Proctors, our student leaders, and our seniors, the Class of 2022, for your engagement and work with new and younger students over these last few days as we have sought to recapture the spirit of Deerfield and reaffirm its most important values.

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to our Deerfield faculty and staff who worked tirelessly over the summer to prepare us for the coming school year. Their collegiality, creativity, and dedication continue to inspire—especially given the challenges our community has faced over the past 18 months. Together, they have embodied our most important virtues: perseverance and resiliency through hardship, the highest levels personal responsibility and professionalism, great teamwork and collective purpose, kindness and care of others. As we begin school, I think it is important to remember that this school—your school—is the work of many hands and hearts, a great intergenerational accomplishment whose strength has been built over a great many decades. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before and support us now—trustees, alumni, parents. Their collective efforts have been instrumental in bring us to this moment.

As you probably know, Mr. Boyden was headmaster of Deerfield for sixty-six years. He and Mrs. Boyden, his lifelong partner in building Deerfield, believed in the unique and irreducible power of secondary education—not as a means to an end or mere preparation for college, but as itself something precious and defining. They believed, like this faculty and the generations of faculty that have come before, that these years are, at their best, years of wonder and formation where the contours of your character and judgment are formed, and where the sustaining habits of curiosity, creativity, and joyful inquiry come to life. As you begin your Deerfield career—or begin the end of your Deerfield career—it is worth remembering what this time in your life means and the opportunities it holds for you.

Convocation marks the formal beginning of the school year, particularly the academic year. It is also an opportunity for you to hear from a distinguished member of our community, and in a moment I will introduce to you Mrs. Taylor, this year’s holder of the Greer Chair, the highest honor we bestow on a member of the Deerfield faculty.

As I thought about my introduction today of Mrs. Taylor, I was reminded of a phrase from our Assistant Head for Academic Affairs. Dr. Hills likes to speak of what he calls “a practitioner’s mindset.” As he was heading off to Chemistry class one day last spring, following a meeting, he said to small group of us: “We are off to make molecules.”

I am not entirely certain what that means. But it sounds exciting. It sounds interesting. I want to go make molecules.

So, I want to reflect for a few moment on what it means to “make molecules,” since it offers a wonderful metaphor for our work together as teachers and students.

To bring the mindset of a practitioner to your work as a student is to think in a disciplined way, to practice a discipline—in the way you practice a musical instrument or a sport. It means approximating in your work as a students the actual things that scholars, historians, social scientists, writers, poets, translators, biologists, chemists, designers do in the world and as part of their professional and creative lives—thinking, analyzing, interpreting, making, and creating. This is different from simply learning a subject matter, though make no mistake, your classes will be rich in interesting and fascinating content. But in some ways this content, however necessary and important, is insufficient. Imagine, for example, if soccer practice were a series of classroom lectures and reading in strategy—with no games, no actual play, no competition, no actual soccer balls.

This, I believe, is the magic, the excitement of your years at Deerfield, whether it is one year, or four, or somewhere in between. Your time here has the promise of transforming how you learn and how you think about learning in ways that will excite, engage, and empower. Your won’t just study history—memorize facts and dates, though, again, you will do that as well—you will be asked to look at history as a historian might, as an ongoing debate over evidence, interpretation and emphasis—a dynamic process or revision and reconsideration. You will learn to see philosophy, ethics, and intellectual history as a contest of ideas offering competing models for judgement, decision-making, and an ethical life fully-lived—and explore complex questions of social, racial, and economic justice, the very questions gripping this nation and the world today. Your will learn to understand the power of social science, science, and mathematics as a tool for modeling, predicting, and understanding the world. There will be lots of reading, and you will be asked to read with the sensitivity and discernment of scholars, literary critics, and practicing writers, and also to write with a sense of craft, audience, and in a range of genres. Your will learn to write like a writer, and approach the written word with the eye of an editor—appreciatively, critically, constructively. Even as you study grammar, you will be asked to practice French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese as first language speakers, and, when our Global service trips resume—soon, we hope—test your own proficiency and skill in communication in countries where those are the languages of everyday communication and discourse. You will develop the scholar’s, the scientist’s understanding of how knowledge is created, tested, revised—and as you do, you will be initiated into what has been called the “great conversation” of learning, research, and scholarship.

You will make things, as scholars and artists and scientists make things. Think, again, of the molecules that Dr. Hills’ chemistry class makes. Your teachers understand their disciplines from the inside as practitioners: they are expert at creating authentic learning experiences that approximate the kind of work that scholars, scientists, and professionals actually do: legal briefs, policy memos and simulations, essays of historical interpretation based on primary source material; research into questions where answers are elusive and the source materials complex and contradictory; poems, memoir, and critical and interpretive essays of the kind you would find in magazines and journals; interviews and oral histories; scientific experiments; the creation and assembly of electric vehicles and semi-autonomous decision-making robots; original architectural design; dances, exhibitions, performances of all kinds. I could go on and I know your teachers could add to this list. These are the kinds of things that thinkers, professionals, and scholars actually do in the world.

And they will equip you, we hope, with the mindsets and competencies to tackle the biggest questions and challenges we face as a country and world. Think of all that has happened over the last two years: a global pandemic, a changing climate whose impact has been felt throughout the world over the last months and impacted many of you and your home towns, in the American South, the Mid-Atlantic and the West; dramatic social, political, and economic change, here in the US and globally; deep and complicated questions about our democratic institutions, our media, and public discourse and our ongoing quest for justice. This journey into the practice of scholars, scientists, and professionals, so essential to your future and to that of the public, will continue in college—and throughout your life—but it begins here.

Even something as simple as “classroom discussion” reflects our commitment to giving you a toolkit to thrive and contribute to the public good. We value class discussions not simply for their own sake, even though at their best they’re exciting and fun. Deep and attentive listening, active openness of mind, the ability to ask questions and engage generously and respectfully with those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement; we value these skills and qualities of mind because they will allow you to collaborate, to work in effective teams, and to problem-solve.

If our task as teachers is to provide you with challenges that embody the kind of thinking and acting expected in life, yours is to develop those mindsets that allow you to reach for disciplined mastery—the mastery of the scholar, scientist, and, of course, athlete and artist.

Because disciplined mastery happens not only in the classroom but on the athletic field, in the concert hall, and in art studios. What you do there as artists and athletes is powerfully real and authentic because it is not far removed from the kinds of competitions, performances, and exhibitions in which professional athletes and artists engage. As I watched Anna dance so beautifully on Friday evening, I could have been in Lincoln Center. That is what the arts and athletics at Deerfield allow: They allow us to reach for professional excellence.

As a teacher and advisor Mrs. Taylor embodies the ideal of a teacher-artist. Mrs. Taylor brings to her teaching and patient mentoring of students the sensibility of a coach and a lived understanding of her craft as an artist and linguist. As her students have attested, Mrs. Taylor connects learning to the real world, providing feedback that is generous, timely, supportive, and informed by her experience as a practicing artist. In the words of her students, she “motivates,” “encourages,” “challenges,” “stimulates,” “supports;” she models “kindness,” cheerfulness,” “enthusiasm;” she radiates “energy,” patience,” and belief in her students.

She sees and appreciates each of her students. “She never just talks to me to make sure I am doing well in her class,” one student writes. “She also makes sure I am doing well in my other classes and assures me that I can go to her if I am ever having trouble with anything—and she’s not even my advisor!”

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Mrs. Taylor has taught both Spanish and art at Deerfield. Since 2011, she has been teaching in the Visual and Performing Arts Department, leading courses at all levels in the Studio Arts program. Mrs. Taylor is the Coordinator of Educational Programs for the von Auersperg Gallery. She oversees the Visual Arts co-curricular. And she created and led an art immersion trip to London for Deerfield students. And, not least, she is the mother of two Deerfield graduates: Sophie, Class of 2013 and Maia, Class of 2016.

Please offer your warmest welcome Mrs. Taylor, Deerfield’s 2020 – 2021 Greer Chair.